False promise or a new dawn: can the Lib Dems win power?

So does the British electorate agree with Charles Kennedy that his party poses a threat to Labour at the next election? We asked 18 members of the public for their opinion

Professor Bernard Crick, 74, Political theorist

Voted Labour in 2001

It's extremely unlikely in the first-past-the-post system that they would be able to form a majority government.

I think their best hope is still that Labour won't be able to form a majority without them, and might have to agree to some form of proportional representation.

In the psychological sense, they are certainly as ready as Labour was in 1997, when they had only two ministers in their team who had previous experience in government. Inexperience isn't a massive handicap, because of how supportive the Civil Service is to ministers.

It's possible that they can come out ahead of the Conservatives.

Alan Bleasdale, 58, Writer and producer

Voted Labour in 2001

The Labour Government is not fit for government, and nor are the Conservatives. Both are dreadfully incompetent and dangerous; I'd go so far as to say they're vile. They make me weep with anger.

There were very few people who were more enthusiastic about the arrival of Labour in 1997, but I'd be wildly enthusiastic to see the end of it now, so long as the Conservatives don't get in. The other two parties are so incredible that the Liberals become more credible by the day. I think the events of the world in the next six to nine months may bring about the fall of the Government, whatever the Liberals do.

Their opposition to the war might be enough to impress people who aren't always strongly involved in politics. They strike a chord of decency.

Liz Kershaw, 45, Disc jockey

Voted Lib Dem in 2001

I have always voted for the Liberal Democrats and I'm pleased to see that they are no longer linked to what people used to describe as a wasted vote.

I think it is really hard to say when a party is ready for government. Before any party becomes the government, they are all a bunch of amateurs and it is a case of learning on the job.

I see the party as very intelligent and politically intellectual, as well as being very articulate. They have never had the chance to show their skills in government because they have not been given the opportunity. I think there is a lot of talent in the Liberal Democrat party, and I also know some of them personally.

Sue Prain, 39, Sales representative

Voted Labour in 2001

I really do like Charles Kennedy, so I would say: Yes, I do see them as a party of government.

They seem to have a much higher profile today than they used to. I know more about their policies and they are more coherent than the Conservatives.

One problem with Michael Howard is that he has shot himself in the foot with Bush, and if Bush wins the next election in the US we will be sidelined. I think that Tony Blair has run his course and it's time for him to go.

I am seriously considering voting for the Liberal Democrats this time. They would make a fantastic opposition party. Michael Howard and the Conservatives just aren't strong enough to hold the Labour Party to task. We need a viable alternative.

Simon Woolley, 41, Director, Operation Black Vote

Vote not disclosed

For black people, the Liberal Democrats are a clear alternative to traditional Labour. But many people still get the feeling that the Liberal Democrats don't do enough within black communities. There is great potential within the black community for the Liberal Democrats. But they don't use the black talent within their ranks. If the Lib Dems get it right, particularly with regard to greater representation of black politicians - theyhave one black MP now and may have none at the general election - they have the potential to win the hearts and minds of Britain's black communities. Where the Lib Dems really fail is in the big cities. The irony is that many black people have been looking for an alternative to Labour.

Lauren Booth, 37, Journalist and broadcaster

Voted Green in 2001

I'd be more tempted to vote for them than for Labour at the moment. Their green policies show great initiative and bravery - taking on 4x4 drivers with money - and Kennedy was very clever by taking the anti-war line from the start. We need some brave initiatives that people can believe in, though whether or not he'd be that brave in government is doubtful. They're certainly the party with the strongest soundbites.

Thanks to New Labour, the political landscape has changed. Never has a party promised so little to so many, and yet appeared to appeal to everyone. The political letdown from 1997 carries on and makes anything possible.

Second and third-time voters are so sick of the system that they might surprise everyone by making a leap in the dark

Claire Rayner, 73, Agony aunt

Voted Labour in 2001

I sincerely hope they are ready for government after the Labour Party left me standing and galloped off to the right. They show concern for ordinary people, like pensioners, while none of the other parties do despite saying they do. I feel let down by Labour in spite of having voted for the party all my life. But I do not think I left Labour. Labour left me. Many of the policies of the Liberal Democrats are what I would regard as policies of "original Labour". I would love them to become the main opposition and I do not see any reason why they should not leapfrog the Tories. This is where they can really hone their weapons. They have been out in the cold too long.

Richard Grayson, 35, Politics lecturer

Voted Lib Dem in 2001

The Liberal Democrats have a lot of experience in local government and in Scotland and Wales to draw on. In addition to that, some of their spokesmen, for example Sir Menzies Campbell and Vince Cable, already look and sound like ministers.

The Tories are so out of tune with the times they really look like they are stuck where they are. It is possible that the Lib Dems could get more votes than the Tories but fewer seats at the next election because of the way the electoral system works. When they were a serious party of government the Tories used to win in places like Leicester and Birmingham but now they can't make any progress in those areas at all.

Kathy Lette, 40, Author

Voted Labour in 2001

Until they are in the hot seat, it's hard to tell whether they are wearing pinstripe underpants or not. Charles Kennedy has been making some very sober comments lately.

I think they are absolutely capable of being the main opposition party.

The Tories are prehistoric. Unless they flop into some shore and evolve, they are just going to become obsolete. I think they are going the way of little toes and appendixes, getting smaller and smaller because we just don't need them.

The Liberal Democrats are looking far more robust than the Tories now.

Peter Aljoe, 26, Student

Has not voted before

I don't think that the Liberal Democrats are a real alternative to the Labour Party at the moment because they haven't got enough power. But I don't think that will always be the case.

Their profile has increased. I still don't think that they have got anything to offer me, though.

I haven't voted before and I don't think that I could vote in the next election because politicians seem to be happy to let this country go to rack and ruin no matter what party they are from.

I wouldn't say that the Liberal Democrats would be a particularly good major opposition party either. They have come quite a long way but as a nation we are still split into Labour and Tory.

Ruth Lea, 57, Director of the Centre for Policy Studies

Voted Conservative in 2001

I wouldn't say the Liberal Democrats are ready for government. Some of their policies are very sensible and you listen to Vince Cable and Menzies Campbell and think they are capable. But if you look at their front bench they do not look like a government in waiting. There is still some internal contradiction in the party. There is a contradiction between old-style liberalism and freeing up markets. There's a lot of life left in the Tories. The Lib Dems have a long way to go before they supplant them. They still have a very, very solid base. Thirty per cent of the vote is a pretty good base of support.

Peter Kellner, 57, Chairman, YouGov

Voted Labour in 2001

No, the Lib Dems are not ready for power and it's greatly to their credit that they are not. The historical role of the Lib Dems has been to think fresh thoughts, challenge established views and think outside the box. The moment they decide to put on the straitjacket of a party seriously preparing for government they will have to abandon that important function. The question of whether they will replace the Tories is one of politics, not psephology. If the Tories lose seats at the next election it might be that the Conservatives would be so tremendously damaged that they start to fall apart.

You could see a dynamic where one wing of the Tory party makes common cause with the Liberal Democrats.

Professor Anthony King, 69, Academic

Vote not disclosed

I have no idea whether they are ready for power. But the history of the British electoral system makes it plain that a third party like the Liberal Democrats can break through only if one of the two major parties split.

Labour became a major party because the Liberals split. The Liberal/SDP Alliance failed to become a major party because Labour didn't fall apart.

Votes in the British system go to the part which might form a Government and, for the foreseeable future, that is the Tories or Labour.

It's possible if the Conservatives go mad after the next election they could give an opportunity to the Lib Dems, but their future is not in their own hands.

Philip Leith, Stockbroker

Voted Conservative in 2001

The Liberal Democrats are certainly not a party of power. They try to be everything at once and have wonderful ideas that are not practically feasible.

I don't like their proposal of local income taxes, and Charles Kennedy's only clear direction seems to be his will to come into power. I can't imagine that their opposition to the war in Iraq will influence voters much in the next elections because, now that British troops are already in Iraq, the question will be how to stabilise the country.

I hope the Liberal Democrats will not replace the Tories as main opposition party, but that will depend on whether the Conservatives will be able to convince the voters of their policies.

Joanne Mgbeke, 23, Sales assistant

Voted Labour in 2001

I think Charles Kennedy is right to claim that the Liberal Democrats are ready to form the next government.

They are the most viable alternative to the other two major parties. Tony Blair has failed us and unless the Labour Party elects a new leader, I won't vote for them again.

I don't like the Tories either, so I am not sure if I will go and vote at all in the next elections, but if I do vote, it will be for the Liberal Democrats.

I would give them a one in three chance to be the next party in power and if they don't quite make it, then at least they have very good prospects to replace the Tories as the major opposition party.

Richard Gray, 78, Retired decorator

Voted Lib Dem in 2001

I don't think that they would have much chance in the next general election - maybe the one after that. The way they are going they are becoming a much more important party. I always vote for them because they would be more generous with pensions than Labour if they got in.

Tony Blair has charisma but I don't like his policies. The only thing I worry about voting Lib Dem is whether Charles Kennedy would be a strong enough leader in power.

He is OK but does he really have the strength where it counts? You have to be able to take the knocks as the main opposition. I would be happy to seethem take over from the Conservatives in that role if they don't win the next election.

Nick Pearce, 36, Director, Institute of Public Policy Research

Voted Labour in 2001

The Lib Dems have done a lot to make the numbers stack up and their fiscal policy is a lot tighter than it was, but they are still a party which in areas like higher education has not faced up to the fact that students need to pay more. They still have a lot of the sort of policies you have in opposition.

They can't supplant the Tories because the electoral arithmetic still puts them a long way behind the Conservatives.

However, if Michael Howard moves to the right to protect his flank from UKIP he will create space on the centre right for the Lib Dems to occupy.

Naomi Dodd, 18, Personal assistant

Vote not disclosed

I don't think any of the political parties do enough to engage young voters like myself, but I would say the Liberal Democrats are the most out of touch. I could not picture them as the next government. I think the fault lies with Charles Kennedy - he just doesn't have the same charisma as Tony Blair. I don't know much about him [Kennedy], his background, or what his character is really like. Maybe that's why he doesn't really strike me as someone who has the skills to lead this country.

The Lib Dems seem to be doing a lot to attract the older voters. If they want to be in government, or even make a good opposition party, they need to invest more time in reaching out to the younger voters.

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