Alan Leaman: What is the point of Mr Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats?

'How does an opposition party campaign when one of its objectives is the Government's re-election?'
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The Independent Online

So far, so good, should be the verdict on Charles Kennedy's first year as Liberal Democrat leader. In terms of the opinion polls, Kennedy is now achieving positive ratings from the electorate and compares well with William Hague. The more the public sees of him, the more likely Kennedy is to pull votes toward his party. The problem is that Kennedy is not seen enough.

So far, so good, should be the verdict on Charles Kennedy's first year as Liberal Democrat leader. In terms of the opinion polls, Kennedy is now achieving positive ratings from the electorate and compares well with William Hague. The more the public sees of him, the more likely Kennedy is to pull votes toward his party. The problem is that Kennedy is not seen enough.

Then there are the elections. Kennedy already has a sensational by-election victory - Romsey - under his belt. At the equivalent stage of his leadership, in 1988, Paddy Ashdown was still battling it out with David Owen's breakaway SDP and the Green Party. His party spent far too long arguing about its name; it didn't even have a logo, and, as Paddy's forthcoming diaries will graphically show, members of the parliamentary party were heading off in all directions in pretty much full-scale permanent panic, Corporal Jones-style.

So far, so good, then. Kennedy has survived his first year, always likely to be the toughest for the leader of the third party, in pretty good shape. He has a distinct appeal as a genial sort of politician, the sort of guy you could invite into your home and still expect to have a good time. And his party has provided some effective input into Parliament - particularly in the House of Lords, where the Lib Dems hold the balance of power.

But Kennedy knows, of course, that he inherited a buoyant party, in contrast to, say, the chaos of 1988. Ashdown's passing of the baton to him last year was seamless. He knows, as well, that he is taking time to establish himself in the Commons and in the country. He has much more to do to create a national profile; half of the electorate still says that it has no opinion about him. Put bluntly, Charles Kennedy isn't on television enough and he isn't making news.

This autumn will provide many more challenges for him. He has a book coming out, which, one must hope, will tell us much more than we know now about his policy thinking. He needs to impress his party and the public alike at his party's conference in September, which will probably be the last before the election. And he has precious little time left before that election campaign to push his way into the league of parliamentary big-hitters and to acquire the harder edge and sureness of touch that voters want from their leaders.

Moving up from MP to party leader is rather like the change from county cricket to playing in the Test match. The pace of the game is different; the opposition is tougher; strategies have to be sound; errors are far more significant and exposed to public view. Inevitably it takes time to adjust. Time is not on Kennedy's side.

But more than anything, Kennedy surely realises that he now needs to start explaining his purpose. That's what third parties need above all: a clear identity and a positive purpose.

He began, somewhat tentatively, at a Centre for Reform lecture in July. While he was "disappointed" with Labour, he added that he was "angry" with the Conservatives. And he used the occasion to speak at some length about the importance of Europe and voting reform.

Many have argued that Kennedy is pursuing a different agenda from Ashdown's. His speech confirmed that, while there had been many changes in style and tone, the fundamentals remained the same. When Kennedy speaks with passion, as on the asylum issue, it is because he is appalled by the attitudes of today's Conservatives. When he talks about Labour, he adopts the tones of a potential, though diffident, partner. When he is engaged, it is because he senses the advantages of co-operative politics.

But continuity, though necessary, will not be enough for the next campaign. The 2001 general election will not be a simple replay of May 1997, when, let's face it, the electorate would have done almost anything to remove the Conservatives, and when many Labour and Liberal Democrat voters "lent" their vote to each other's party to defeat a sitting Tory MP.

This time, real, substantive arguments are going to be needed to stimulate tactical voting and mark out a clear Liberal Democrat agenda.

History is not on his side. Kennedy will be the first leader of the Liberal Democrats (or their predecessors) to fight a general election against an incumbent Labour government since David Steel in 1979, Jeremy Thorpe in 1970 and Jo Grimond in 1966. In all those elections, the Liberals saw their share of the vote decline. More than that, Kennedy is the first leader of the third party to face a Labour government that is likely to achieve two full terms. The Labour Party is a very different creature from that of the 1960s and 1970s. None of his predecessors had to face anything quite like that.

The size of Kennedy's task is magnified by the possibility that there could be two referendums in the next parliament on topics central to the Liberal Democrats' purpose: the euro and voting reform. For many Liberal Democrats - and for Tony Blair, too, if he is being honest - those causes are the core of a still-wider project: the realignment of the centre left into a cohesive force. This prize is an enormously valuable one - should Kennedy and Blair choose to pursue it. It will require tough negotiation in private and, crucially, forceful advocacy in public, from both of them.

So, Kennedy's task is different from any that has gone before. How does an opposition party campaign in a general election when one of its objectives is the re-election of the Government? Can he convince a sceptical public that a healthy contingent of Lib Dems can add real value to another four Labour years, particularly if New Labour has lost its early momentum and much of its reforming zeal? Can he paint a picture of just how much better Tony Blair's government would have been - and in what ways - if it had enjoyed Liberal Democrat participation?

A decade ago, Paddy Ashdown fought as only he could to establish the Liberal Democrats as a serious political party, one that could be a partner in power. In the next few months, we will learn how Charles Kennedy intends to use that platform. It is an intriguing moment.

The writer is a former adviser to Paddy Ashdown and was a Liberal Democrat candidate at the last general election

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