Leading article: A party that must decide what it stands for

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The Independent Online

There is an element of personal animosity behind this. Some senior party figures have never been satisfied with Mr Kennedy's leadership and appear to be stirring things up. But, despite this, the Liberal Democrat leader would be well advised to come out with an unambiguous statement setting out his position.

The party itself ought to begin a robust internal debate, much as the Tories are at the moment. The present Liberal Democrat policy review simply does not go far enough. It is no secret that there is tension between the party's economically liberal modernisers and its tax-and-spend left-wingers. The Liberal Democrats need to resolve these contradictions and define clearly what they stand for.

The Liberal Democrats cannot continue being all things to all voters. As their Treasury spokesman, Vincent Cable, appears to have recognised, it is inconsistent to be in favour of both high taxation and a smaller role for the state. And the tactic of appealing to disgruntled Tory voters in some parts of the country and angry Labour supporters in others is not sustainable in the long term, as the last election demonstrated. The Liberal Democrats' "decapitation" strategy, targeting the Tory shadow cabinet, was a failure. Progress was made in a number of Labour seats, but some of these are likely to revert to Labour when Tony Blair leaves the political scene.

There is also a sense in which the last election marked the high water mark of Charles Kennedy's "gradualist" strategy. The Iraq war had made Labour unpopular. The Tories were flatlining in the opinion polls. This was the Liberal Democrats' chance to make a great leap forward. But they failed to do so. The party now faces the prospect of fighting the next election against a new Labour leader, free from Tony Blair's Iraq baggage. What is more, they could be up against a rejuvenated Conservative Party, also under a new leader. There is a real danger that the Liberal Democrats will be squeezed between the two, undoing at a stroke the gains of recent elections.

This is a critical time for the Liberal Democrats. The worst thing the party and its leader could do now is avoid debate and pretend that it is business as usual.

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