Politics: Name-dropping no match for sophistication and passion

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The Independent Online
THE LIBERAL Democrats have always been aware of their grass roots. That's why they give each of the 90,000 members a vote in every matter - and why the members, in turn, feel so strongly about the party.

At the final, big leadership hustings at Pudsey Civic Hall, West Yorkshire, on Saturday night this was summed up by one activist, Penny Ewans. "The reason why I support David is because he is the only one of the five who does not start every sentence with `I', but with `the party' and `we'," she said.

The David she was referring to is David Rendel, who holds the distinction of being the most anonymous of the five leadership candidates. He is a man of such bland countenance that he was once cruelly compared to a "sip of warm water". But he has the kind of reassuring good manners and decency that appeals to the members of the Liberal Democrat Councillors' Association at the hustings.

In his speech, Mr Rendel held forth on the importance of local government and the party's commitment to the principle "small is beautiful". This really did touch the councillors, although it is unlikely to woo the nation.

Another activist, Chris Harding, 55, said: "I have not made my choice yet. But David Rendel seems like a sophisticated chap who cares about the grass roots. He gave a very moving speech."

This was all bad news for Charles Kennedy, the leadership front-runner and probably the best known of the five, alongside his main rival, Simon Hughes. The other candidates are Jackie Ballard and Malcolm Bruce.

In Westminster, Mr Kennedy's succession to Paddy Ashdown is treated as a given. But on Saturday, speaking to the 200 delegates in the bare civic hall, he appeared aware he needed to impress - and decided to drop a few names. He started several sentences: "Whenever I talk to Tony Blair and William Hague..." Mr Kennedy also said: "My position has not changed one iota on Lib-Lab co-operation, but I do think it is important to work together on constitutional issues."

The audience liked the jokes, if not the message. These, after all, are the pavement pounders of local government who hate Labour more than most Tories. Nothing is quite so vicious as a Liberal Democrat councillor canvassing against his Labour opponent, which is why, for many Mr Ashdown "cosying up to Blair" has been seen as the worst sort of appeasement.

And this is why they adore Mr Hughes so much, the gaunt veteran of countless battles against Labour in Bermondsey. While Mr Kennedy was all burly good humour, Mr Hughes stood up to speak with a tense passion. "Our strength as a party has been that we are a campaigning party and we should never forget it," he said.

And he was prepared to unveil an economic philosophy that could never be uttered by Tony Blair or Gordon Brown. "If I have anything to do with it, we may actually rediscover the word `Keynesianism' as a principle," Mr Hughes said. In other words, tax and spend.

The delegates lapped it up. This is the kind of impractical policy they have been denied for 11 years by Mr Ashdown's reign. A delegate, Ian Guest, 46, said: "Simon Hughes reminds me of the reason why I became an activist in the first place."

Another, John Robinson, said: "Activists like to go with their instincts and that is why they support Simon and David. It is what their heart tells them rather than their head."

Julia Hanlon, 38, a new party member, said: "The majority of armchair activists will probably vote for Charles Kennedy because he is the most well known. But it is much different when you come to the hustings - you realise that it is people like David Rendel who are the hub of the party."