Richard Grayson: The Liberal Democrats still face a long journey

For the party to make further progress, people desperately need a simple idea to sum it up
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The Independent Online

Charles Kennedy completes the third of the party reshuffles this weekend, reformulating his Shadow Cabinet. He is shuffling a Liberal pack which is bigger than at any point since 1923. Only four years ago, at the 2001 election, most pundits expected the Liberal Democrats to lose MPs compared to the Ashdown-led breakthrough in 1997. They didn't, and for the second successive election, Charles Kennedy has led the party to an increase in both overall votes and parliamentary seats. Much of that is a personal triumph for Mr Kennedy. It is also a success.

Charles Kennedy completes the third of the party reshuffles this weekend, reformulating his Shadow Cabinet. He is shuffling a Liberal pack which is bigger than at any point since 1923. Only four years ago, at the 2001 election, most pundits expected the Liberal Democrats to lose MPs compared to the Ashdown-led breakthrough in 1997. They didn't, and for the second successive election, Charles Kennedy has led the party to an increase in both overall votes and parliamentary seats. Much of that is a personal triumph for Mr Kennedy. It is also a success.

But is it the success people hoped for? The celebrations of some Liberal Democrat activists were tinged with disappointment. Just a few months ago, there was talk of a Conservative meltdown. The Liberal Democrat "decapitation strategy" threatened even Michael Howard. Such expectations may have been unrealistic, but it was part of an overall narrative about the Liberal Democrat path to government which depended not only on Liberal Democrat progress, but also Conservative decline.

That was not the story in the immediate aftermath of 5 May. Although there were Liberal Democrat gains from the Conservatives, there were also losses. In many seats, expected progress was not made as the core Conservative vote appeared to be shored up. Instead of inflicting mortal blows to the Conservatives, the general pattern on 5 May was of Liberal Democrats eating into the Labour vote in most constituencies.

This leaves the party with an obvious strategic question. Should the party focus on winning further seats from Labour, rather than the Conservatives, as the Labour Party becomes increasingly discredited?

I believe that is a false choice. The way in which the Liberal Democrats have won seats from both parties has been by building coalitions around policies which address voters' practical concerns. Scrapping university tuition fees, funded by a more redistributive tax system, has appealed to both disillusioned Labour voters who want a fairer society and former Conservatives who worry about paying tuition fees for their children.

That is a potent mix and the party should be wary of claims that appeals to Labour and Conservative voters alike are mutually exclusive. More Labour seats can be won by being the most progressive party in politics, but that will not happen if the party ignores those Conservatives whose votes have often been crucial in winning Labour seats.

However, coalitions can appear fuzzy on vision. Addressing that issue is important for the Liberal Democrats. Three years ago, the party published a paper entitled It's About Freedom which set out its basic values. At the core was freedom of the individual, secured within thriving communities, with an enabling state providing access to high-quality public services. A sustainable approach to the environment was also central.

Yet an overall vision was sometimes lacking in the Liberal Democrat campaign in 2005. A marked exception was Charles Kennedy's speech in Cambridge when people saw the more passionate side of his politics. We need more of that. For the party to make further progress, people desperately need a simple idea to sum it up. In theoretical terms, I mean ideology. In marketing terms, I'm talking about branding. That must go beyond issues of political process, tackled by the slogan "The Real Alternative", or even policy. It should speak more about values.

In putting forward a vision, Charles Kennedy would be addressing part of his own personal challenge. He scores incredibly well on the issues of trust and understanding the problems faced by voters. However, he scores less well on being seen as an alternative prime minister with a vision for the country. If the Liberal Democrats are to make progress into government, that is a significant personal hurdle he has to jump.

Already, Mr Kennedy has started to tackle perceived problems with the party's policy-making process. If he can do that, he will appear to be a strong leader in the traditional sense. However, that initiative is mainly about political process, and process seldom inspires voters. Far more important is an overall sense of direction and vision.

Thatcher had that in 1979, as did Blair in 1997. Both had few detailed policies, but they presented voters with a vision of what their governments would be like. This is a challenge for the Liberal Democrats, and a personal challenge for Kennedy's leadership. Individual freedom, thriving communities and a sustainable environment are all powerful starting points.

The writer is a former director of policy for the Liberal Democrats

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