Charles Kennedy's speech yesterday was spirited attempt to answer his critics and to give his party some new momentum of policy ideas. Implicitly accepting that the party had been too content in the last parliament to keep its head below the parapet and hope that dissatisfaction with the two main parties would bring it votes, Mr Kennedy now declares that it must be bold in its thinking and ready to plan long-term. Sounding nice is no longer enough, he argued. From now on, the Liberal Democrats have to present themselves as a party that wants power and knows what it wants to do if it gets it. With that in mind, he announced two reviews, one to take a broad look at policy, the other to look at tax policy, as well as number of internal reviews into the party's structure and communications.
The new tax commission suggests that, on that score at least, the Liberal Democrat leadership has learned some practical lessons from the last election, and that those lessons may push it to the right rather than the left of the government. That will not be welcome news to all, but in hard pragmatic terms it makes sense. The promise of taxing high earners and the imposition of a local income tax led it down a path of argument over figures which confused the public and frightened even moderate-income council-tax payers. If the party is to offer a fairer tax system, which it should, it needs to be rather better thought out and presented than at the last election. "We do not need and we should not seek," said Mr Kennedy in a clear rebuke to those calling for more redistributive policies, "a punitive taxation system. High taxes are not a moral good in themselves."
It is when it comes to Charles Kennedy's personal leadership that the jury remains out. If the party had lost the Cheadle by-election last week, Kennedy would almost certainly have faced a challenge from within. As it is, victory has saved him for the short term. But for the longer term he must prove that he actually means something by the words "bold", "challenging" and "reforming", which he so enthusiastically bandied about in his speech.
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