Kennedy tells his members they have to 'grow up' to take on Tories

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Indy Politics

Charles Kennedy will tell the Liberal Democrats this weekend that they must "grow up" if they are to realise their long-term aim of supplanting the Tories as the main opposition to Labour.

Charles Kennedy will tell the Liberal Democrats this weekend that they must "grow up" if they are to realise their long-term aim of supplanting the Tories as the main opposition to Labour.

In an interview with The Independent, Mr Kennedy said everyone in the Liberal Democrats , including himself, had to "raise our game" and show the self-discipline and unity which in the past has eluded the party.

He will tell the Liberal Democrats' spring conference in Manchester, which begins today, that the party is already the "effective opposition". He will say that the party needs a full, no-holds-barred debate on its future; but once that debate is over it will need to unite firmly behind its decisions.

The Liberal Democrat leader insisted that his party is already growing up, but admitted: "I think it needs to go further. I think we are walking; now we need to try to run. I am not asking people to be dull conformists. I am not a control freak. But we do need competence, professionalism and coherence in our message.

"By all means, we can have self-analysis but that must not lead to self-indulgence. If we are inviting the media and public to look at us with a greater degree of scrutiny than they have in the past, then we have got to raise our game. I have got to do it as much as anyone else. I have been an occasional offender in days gone past."

The Liberal Democrats defied the pundits by winning more seats in last year's election and Mr Kennedy believes the party has undergone "a big cultural change". At its conferences in the past, party leaders on the platform would come under attack from activists for not being radical enough. Now, he said, the leaders were just as likely to come under fire from people on the conference floor who held power in local councils, or on the Scottish and Welsh executives, for not thinking through the practical impact of its decisions.

This weekend, the party will consider a document on public services drawn up by a committee under the MEP Chris Huhne. Mr Kennedy, who commissioned it, described it as ''absolutely top drawer'' but it has already triggered a fierce internal debate in the party.

Some of the options – such as decentralisation to regional assemblies in England – go with the grain of party thinking. But others, such as bringing in more private management to run public services, could mark a big shift away from the almost "old Labour" image the party has acquired since Mr Kennedy succeeded Paddy Ashdown.

Mr Kennedy is saying that once decisions are taken – at the main party conference in the autumn – "we have all got to row in the same direction".

Cannily, he is declaring very little of his own hand, pointing out that to do so would prejudice the openness of a debate he clearly relishes.

His "gut instincts" were on the centre-left, he said. "But that doesn't mean I'm not receptive to fresh thinking." Delivery was the key. After, all he says, the Lib Dem councils in Liverpool and Sheffield had been highly imaginative "in harnessing the private sector in partnership with the public sector".

He said: "I am a product of a comprehensive education system. I don't have private medical insurance. I use the National Health Service. I travel by public transport when I can. I would have thought that the sentiment of the party is that you have to maintain public services on the principle of fair and transparent taxation.

"What you do beyond that is another issue. Do you hypothecate tax for health? Do you introduce charges for certain things in hospital treatment in the NHS? I want to hear what the Liberal Democrats genuinely think about that."

The party's pledge to raise income tax by 1p in the pound, which it has made since the 1992 election, looks certain to be dropped. But it is not yet clear what will replace it, and Mr Kennedy is waiting to see what the Government does first.

Given that he doesn't rule out – "but I'm not claiming it yet" – that the Liberal Democrats could yet overtake the Tories, did he want a repositioning of the party to the right, to make inroads into the Tory vote? "No. I have always been against a structural approach to politics – one set of policies appealing to former Tory voters and another at disaffected Labour supporters."

His party's opposition to tuition fees and support for free personal care for the elderly, which had carried the day in the Scottish coalition, appealed "to a lot of people who may have been traditional Labour voters but equally to a lot of traditional Tory voters."

On the euro, the strongly pro-single currency Mr Kennedy would have liked Tony Blair to have given a much stronger lead than he has so far. "I think he wants to do it instinctively in an ideal world. I would say it has gone from 40-60 against to 60-40 in favour. That is still quite a balanced jury," he said.

What about Mr Blair's apparent support for the US over Iraq? Well, Mr Blair had certainly not been a "poodle" of Washington. He had exerted a "benign" influence on the US in the country's interests. But equally "you must not see the Iraq situation as phase two of Afghanistan. After 11 September, all the talk was that we would not walk away from Afghanistan and repeat the mistake the world made in the past. If we suddenly divert ourselves in the direction of Baghdad, there is a danger of doing exactly that."

Mr Kennedy said: "If it is proven that Saddam Hussein has amassed weapons of mass destruction and there is a willingness to use them, then you cannot rule out having to take action against Iraq.

"That is a quite different category from the war on international terrorism. You have to keep that distinction very very clear. Otherwise, there would be a big danger that [the international coalition] would fracture."

How serious did he regard the Government's recent travails, such as the implosion at Stephen Byers's department?

On one level, he said, it was a "Westminster village" story. Many people hadn't heard of the main protagonists, Mr Byers included, he added mischievously. But "on a more subliminal level, it is corrosive for the Government – a set of people who are self-obsessed rather than obsessed with what they are there to do in the first place – trying to improve public services. It is also damaging for politics per se; we all end up getting tarred with the same brush." What was truly "bizarre" was that a government preoccupied with "command and control" had recently shown precious little of either, and that "all its worst wounds are self-inflicted".

Mr Kennedy has called for Mr Byers to resign, the first time he has demanded the head of a Labour minister. Did the party's sharper opposition to the Government mean that, if one day in the future the Tory party moved back to the centre, perhaps after a euro referendum, he could envisage a return to saying the Liberal Democrats could form a coalition with either main party?

The self-confessed left-of-centre Mr Kennedy pauses. But not for long. "I honestly don't see it happening. I suspect the day when it happened it would probably not be my problem. It would be the next leader but one by that point."