Drowned out in an increasingly nasty debate

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The Independent Online

The Liberal Democrats yesterday unveiled the biggest advertising campaign in the history of the party. It presented 10 pledges, most of which - free personal care for the elderly, scrapping ID cards, a cleaner transport policy - would no doubt strike a chord with many voters. But the campaign has made little impact. And this is not an isolated miscalculation by Charles Kennedy's party. The Liberal Democrats have fallen off the political radar in recent weeks as Labour and the Tories have traded blows and the pre-election campaign has felt dispiritingly like a traditional two-horse race.

The Liberal Democrats yesterday unveiled the biggest advertising campaign in the history of the party. It presented 10 pledges, most of which - free personal care for the elderly, scrapping ID cards, a cleaner transport policy - would no doubt strike a chord with many voters. But the campaign has made little impact. And this is not an isolated miscalculation by Charles Kennedy's party. The Liberal Democrats have fallen off the political radar in recent weeks as Labour and the Tories have traded blows and the pre-election campaign has felt dispiritingly like a traditional two-horse race.

It is true that the Liberal Democrats, as the third party of British politics, face problems getting equal coverage in the media. This is particularly the case on the television news. And it is true that, when the election is officially announced, the Liberal Democrats will get more airtime as the conventions of general election coverage kick in. As a result, they will probably rise in the polls.

But the party's low profile cannot be solely blamed on the media. Mr Kennedy has admitted that it is a deliberate tactic. He claims that his party has avoided the mud slinging of Labour and the Tories in recent weeks because it puts voters off. This is true up to a point. Voters do indeed claim to dislike the immoderate tone of the debate between the two main parties, and Mr Kennedy's reasonable demeanour is an asset. But this is no use if he is not seen. The Liberal Democrats have got the balance wrong of late.

The tone of the debate has been pretty nasty in recent weeks, with the Tories stirring up hatred against Gypsies, immigrants and other minorities. A strong, liberal voice is needed more than ever. Labour, clearly, is not going to provide it. The Liberal Democrats should be exploiting the illiberalism of their rivals, perhaps even by conducting the same type of guerrilla media tactics as the Tories.

Instead, the voices of liberalism are being drowned out and, as a result, the Liberal Democrats are losing ground on both Labour and the Tories with poll ratings hovering around 20 per cent. Unless things are swiftly put right, Mr Kennedy risks squandering his excellent work of the past two years.

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