Mr Kennedy is taking his party back to the future - to New Labour's 1997 campaign

The party has hit upon a synthesis of policies that will attract interest from disaffected Labour and Conservative voters
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The Independent Online

Bob Dylan once sang that a former girlfriend was "so easy to look at and so hard to define". The Liberal Democrats are unlikely subjects for a Dylan song but they are becoming easier to look at and harder to define. Policies are presented glossily. Slogans are proclaimed boldly. Yet their leaders declare that they are neither on the right nor the left.

Bob Dylan once sang that a former girlfriend was "so easy to look at and so hard to define". The Liberal Democrats are unlikely subjects for a Dylan song but they are becoming easier to look at and harder to define. Policies are presented glossily. Slogans are proclaimed boldly. Yet their leaders declare that they are neither on the right nor the left.

Quite emphatically they are also no longer Tony Blair's unofficial allies. Instead their policies are based around the principles of "fairness" and "trust". The two words pepper their pre-election manifesto, with a radical assertiveness that disguises the conveniently vague imprecision of the terms. No party would claim their policies were unfair and worthy of mistrust.

The party's favourite themes have familiar echoes. In the run-up to the 1997 election the essence of New Labour's appeal was often described in a 10-second soundbite: "We have changed. You can trust us." Now it is the Liberal Democrats who make "trust" their pre-eminent value. Similarly New Labour proclaimed that it was the party of fairness.

Tony Blair declared in 1994: "The dividing line is no longer between high and low taxes, but between fair and unfair taxes." Listen to Charles Kennedy and others explain their approach to taxation. They insist that they want nothing to do with higher taxes, but with fairer taxes. I almost expected Mr Kennedy to state that he looked forward to a new Britain, a young Britain, a country re-born.

More broadly Mr Blair abolished the terms "left" and "right" soon after he became leader. He placed himself on the " radical centre", a term that managed to sound simultaneously crusading and reassuring. Now Mr Kennedy strides on to the same terrain. Do not talk to him about the political left or right. He will have nothing to do with such terms. Yes he is radical, but not in a way that cannot be rooted firmly on the political spectrum.

So the Liberal Democrats are going back to the future, to the politics that might have been after New Labour's landslide in 1997. This is not mere conjecture on my part. I have spoken to several senior Liberal Democrats who confirm they are deliberately attempting to re-create the early spirit and broad appeal of New Labour. They believe the vast coalition that propelled Mr Blair into power is still more or less in place. All that has changed is that Mr Blair is no longer in a position to lead it.

There are obvious benefits in this strategy. In my view Mr Kennedy would be committing political suicide to declare openly that his party is to the left of the Prime Minister. He needs the support of disaffected Tory voters and that is not an obvious way of attracting them.

The wider situation is more complicated than that. Most members of the Government and its advisers are also to the left of Mr Blair. It does not get politicians very far to measure their radical credentials against those of the Prime Minister. More obviously, it makes sense for the Liberal Democrats to maximise support rather than acknowledge its limits in advance of an election.

But there are risks for the Liberal Democrats as well. Before the 1997 election, Labour presented a cautiously incremental programme. Mr Blair was the type of leader who could make a bowl of lentils seem like a gourmet three-course meal. Before 1997, radicals on the centre-left came away from meetings with him convinced that his programme was not only a gourmet feast, but innovative and original in its conception.

But when Mr Blair addressed business leaders or Middle England voters he reassured them that new Labour was prudent and Calvinistic enough to cook a bowl of lentils and leave it at that. Bill Clinton deployed the same skills. He could make a cautious approach to public borrowing seem like a radical vision and reassuringly conservative.

Mr Kennedy is not in their league of evangelical oratory. As he demonstrated at his conference yesterday afternoon in a question and answer session with The Independent's editor, Simon Kelner, he is more at ease as a relaxed political conversationalist. This is appealing to many voters, but he needs more than a bowl of lentils to excite their appetites.

In 1997, Labour postponed nearly all the difficult arguments, offering referendums on some controversial policies, woolly words on others and some similar policies to the Conservative government. In contrast, Mr Kennedy has some precise and eye-catching proposals. It really is quite a feast, a new top rate of tax, a local income tax to replace the council tax, the abolition of top-up fees, higher pensions, the abolition of the Department of Trade and Industry and moving the Treasury to Liverpool. That is for starters.

Inevitably there are doubts over whether their spending plans add up. For example they are based partly on the assumption that the entire budget of the DTI would be available for other policies. I doubt if that would be the case. The practicalities of moving the Treasury to Liverpool are not fully explored, although this is probably the only policy Mr Blair would agree with. Imagine a liberated Mr Blair at a cabinet meeting: "Sorry guys, Gordon can't be with us. He's stuck in a traffic jam on his way down from Liverpool". On this at least Mr Blair might be more radical and suggest that the Treasury be relocated to Mars.

Mr Kennedy must ensure that his good bloke image does not become a good bloke without a detailed grasp on policy. When he was questioned about various proposed tax increases in a BBC interview yesterday afternoon he replied at one point: "All these matters we will have to look into." In a pre-election conference there should be no matters relating to tax that need further investigation.

There is one other risk with the Liberal Democrats' pre-election strategy. If a party denies that it is on the left or right there is plenty of space for ideological debate. Healthy discussion can soon become a more serious split. The more market-orientated proposals outlined in The Orange Book, compiled by some MPs and other Liberal Democrats, are the main talking point behind the scenes in Bournemouth. Questions whirl around it. Are the authors on to something? Is the book a reactionary red herring? More practically a senior Liberal Democrat told me that Mr Kennedy should not have allowed this internal debate to erupt a few months before an election. Still, debates are bound to erupt if a party steers an ambiguous course. Look at the tensions at the top of new Labour.

But the Liberal Democrats have no choice in the matter. They have progressive instincts and yet need to win seats from vulnerable Conservative MPs. The party has hit upon its own third way, a synthesis of policies that will attract a lot of interest from disaffected Labour and Conservative voters. Whether the interest turns into support at the ballot box is the question that makes the forthcoming election much harder to predict than the previous two.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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