Marie Woolf: Kennedy - Can he live up to the high expectations?


Charles Kennedy declared that his party would be "addressing people's hopes not playing on people's fears" as he launched his party's election campaign.

Charles Kennedy declared that his party would be "addressing people's hopes not playing on people's fears" as he launched his party's election campaign.

Mr Kennedy said the Liberal Democrats would not be drawn into negative campaigning and he expressed optimism about the party's election prospects. "I think British politics is at a potentially pivotal turning point and I think the Liberal Democrats are absolutely central to that equation," he said.

The political climate could not be better for Mr Kennedy this time. He has high trust ratings and enters the campaign about seven points higher in the polls than in 2001 when he led his party to its best election result since Lloyd George. Since then, his party has delivered two stunning by-election wins at Labour's expense, and welcomed the defection of a Labour MP. With such high expectations, Mr Kennedy has a lot to prove. His task is to convert a sense of disaffection with Tony Blair, and deep unease among Labour voters about his backing for President Bush over Iraq, into a positive vote for the party.

Mr Kennedy will, in every sense, be the front man for the election campaign. Travelling by plane, train and battle bus he will visit every region of Britain with stops at dozens of key targets around the country.

He will deliver his party's message of "fairness" and its policy themes: the abolition of council tax, free personal care for the elderly, the abolition of tuition fees and a call to withdraw British troops from Iraq as soon as feasible.

Mr Kennedy is altogether a more confident figure than four years ago. He is battle-hardened with one election under his belt. He is also a trusted figure with the public and says he is in high spirits - partly because of the imminent arrival of his first child in the middle of the campaign.

But, as the party becomes more as a threat to the other two, Mr Kennedy will face ever closer scrutiny.

The Liberal Democrats have a well thought-out programme on tax, foreign affairs and pensions. But on the issues of health and education, the party still has work to do before it can look like a "real alternative" to the Government.

At its daily 7.30am press conferences, it will not be enough for Charles Kennedy to rely on his plan for diagnostics and paying for "feeding and washing" of elderly people as a blueprint for sorting out the health service. It is still not entirely clear how the party that wants to abolish NHS targets, will reduce hospital waiting lists.

Yet there are some in the party who believe the campaign will be as much about values as policies - mirroring the Kerry-Bush battle in the US.

They see Mr Kennedy's emphasis on anti-authoritarian liberalism and "fairness" as a philosophy that will appeal to voters fed up with Labour and wary of the Tories.

Mr Kennedy has acknowledged the expectation in the country is for the party to do well. The question is how well?The danger is that, although the Liberal Democrats may see a huge increase in their share of the vote, it may not translate into parliamentary gains.

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