We are the real opposition, says Kennedy

Leader vows to capitalise on Brent triumph by insisting broadcasters give his party more air time
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Indy Politics

Charles Kennedy's ambition to style the Liberal Democrats as the "effective opposition" is threatening to provoke a row with the BBC.

There have already been several contacts with the BBC and other television and radio broadcasters in which the Liberal Democrats have urged programme editors to "treat the party seriously" and put their representatives on air to answer the Government.

At present, many shows rely on the Tories alone to put the opposition point of view - and can be expected to continue that policy.

The move follows the Liberal Democrat victory at the Brent East by-election, in which 29-year-old Sarah Teather won the seat by more than 1,100 votes and overturned a 13,047 Labour majority. Now Mr Kennedy is determined to raise the profile of his party by demanding more air time.

Ahead of the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton, the party leadership appears focused on trying to capitalise on the by-election success with as much publicity as possible.

Even the conference agenda had to be shuffled around to ensure that Mr Kennedy's leader's speech on Thursday would not be overshadowed by coverage of the Hutton inquiry into the death of the government scientist Dr David Kelly.

But, aside from taking on the mantle of the "effective party of opposition", the Liberal Democrats insist the Brent East result - in which they leapfrogged the Conservatives to take a Labour seat - will not affect party strategy for the next general election.

While pointing out that the result proved that there were no "no-go areas" for the Liberal Democrats, the key target seats, most of them currently held by the Tories, will remain the same. There will be no conscious effort to change tack to challenge Labour, the party said.

Although the Liberal Democrats have attacked Tony Blair from the left over Iraq and other issues, Mr Kennedy has been trying to avoid a position that appeals only to those voters, living mainly in the inner cities, who condemn the Labour government for not being far enough to the left.

The biggest political idea on offer at the Liberal Democrat conference, in Brighton, opening tomorrow, is the abolitionof nine government ministries, including the Department of Trade and Industry. The idea of a huge transfer of power from central government out to the regions and to local councils is intended to appeal to natural Conservatives with their traditional horror of strong central government.

Labour has claimed that the Brent East result was skewed by attitudes in the constituency towards the war on Iraq. The Liberal Democrats say that Iraq may have been one factor, and there may have been a shift in their direction by Brent Muslims, who traditionally vote Labour. But that is not the whole story, they claim.

Lord Razzall, the Liberal Democrat treasurer, attributes the victory to "a consistent pattern of people believing that services were neglected and nobody does anything about it" - an accusation levelled equally at Labour-controlled Brent council and the Government.

The Liberal Democrats, who now have 54 MPs - Ms Teather becoming the youngest member of the Commons - also believe the result indicates public disaffection with the Tories, whose share of the vote fell by 2 per cent compared with the result in the 2001 general election.

Lord Razzall said: "This was obviously a bad result for the Government. What was not so obvious is what an appalling result it was for the Tories. This is a seat that, when they were in government, they came within 1,500 votes of winning. If the Tories are saying this is not the sort of seat where people are likely to vote for them, it's not clear where the seats are that they think they can gain to win a general election."

Now the Liberal Democrats want what they consider "a sea-change" to be reflected in the way the media covers political stories.

The conference circuit

The place to be: It's time to don the sandals (with socks) and head for the beach as the Liberal Democrats kick off the conference season in Brighton. For the second year, the Liberal Democrat faithful have shunned the kiss-me-quick delights of the more traditional seaside resorts for the urban chic of "London-on-Sea", perhaps hoping that a little of the magic that keeps the place full of celebrities will rub off on them. After Brent, surely anything's possible?

Easily spotted: Liberal Democrats are not oftenaccused of being fashion victims. Indeed, the only labels they wear are sticky badges protesting at the ill-treatment of voles. In fairness, they've done much to shed the woolly jumper image but their cuddliness still shines through. As we head for an Indian summer, brace yourselves for leader Charles Kennedy's off-white, "man from Del Monte" suit.

On the agenda: Liberal Democrats have remarked that victory in the Brent East by-election meant Charles Kennedy "could get away with reading out the phone directory" in his conference speech on Thursday. Other offerings include a debate on global issues (Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, etc), the higher education debate (more criticism of top-up fees) and ideas on business, such as replacing the DTI with a consumer affairs department.

From the floor: The leadership has dismissed this week's offering from the party's youth wing: "Towards a Democratic Head of State". Thus the laudable sentiment that "no person should be born into a position of authority over others" is to be excluded from official party policy.

On the fringe: The Gender Balance Task Force will be advising budding female candidates on what not to wear on the campaign trail. For the cash-strapped, there is advice on getting money for campaigning over the internet. And Steve Richards of The Independent on Sunday will be chairing the meeting entitled "Are the Liberal Democrats to the left of New Labour?" - or the "Is the Pope Catholic?" debate, as it is becoming known.

Party scene: Bloomberg is hosting its annual function at the Grand Hotel. Mr Kennedy will be charging the glasses of a select few in his pal Lord Razzall's suite as the week begins. There is also talk of an invitation-only do with the South-East England Development Agency.

Be seen with: Sarah Teather. The 29-year-old who overturned a 13,000 Labour majority to take Brent East and serve Labour its first by-election defeat in 15 years must be on everyone's guest list. All right, Labour MPs have dubbed her "two-years Teather" - but right now she's the Lib Dem ticket to success by association.

Make your excuses: Not sure what the "Glee Club" is or does - but it sounds awful. The same applies to the Lib Dem Revue: Hans, Blix and Bumps-a-daisy.

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