Leading article: It is time for Mr Kennedy to state what he stands for

Share

It is understandable that Charles Kennedy should insist that the accent at this week's Liberal Democrats' party conference will be on celebration, following what he described as the best general election performance in more than 80 years. But no amount of optimistic gloss can conceal that tough decisions lie ahead.

This has been said many times before of the Liberal Democrats. But the critics are right to point out that the gains on 5 May fell short of expectations and that the split between the party's economic liberals and tax-and-spend left-wingers has finally to be addressed. It is also no good drifting on under a gradualist philosophy, simply hoping that government will drop into Liberal Democrat laps as voters get progressively sicker of the other two parties.

Such an outcome looks increasingly implausible. Labour is likely to trade in Tony Blair for Gordon Brown at some point during this Parliament, while it is possible the Tories might finally ask Ken Clarke to lead them out of their electoral wilderness. The combined effect will be to put the Liberal Democrats under intense pressure to clarify their position in the political spectrum.

With all this potential movement on the left and right of the field, Mr Kennedy's troops cannot afford to sit still if they are to avoid being squeezed by much larger, reinvigorated, hostile forces. Mr Kennedy fought the last election clearly on the left, wisely aiming to capitalise on public opposition to the Iraq war and on a feeling that Mr Blair had pushed Labour to the right. That may have made sense at the time, but there is a danger now that it has restricted his room for manoeuvre.

The hope must be that this week's Blackpool conference will see the start of some genuinely fresh thinking on the party's future. There are signs that this may happen, especially during the debates on the Royal Mail and the health service, where talk of privatisation and choice - almost taboo themes at Liberal Democrat conferences - are expected to be heard.

But on the downside, Mr Kennedy's instinctive reaction to the reformist Young Turks in his ranks seems often to be to slap them down. His recent dismissal of the ideas floated by the so-called Orange Book caucus was a depressing instance of this.

Now is the time to show that Liberal Democrats are less knee-jerk in demanding Big Government solutions to every ill. Mr Kennedy has some talented lieutenants and he should encourage them to produce mould-breaking policies. The Liberal Democrats also cannot afford to rule out going into a government with the Tories, especially one led by, say, Clarke or David Cameron.

Many voters are fond of Mr Kennedy, seeing him as quirkier, less polished and more straightforward than most front-rank politicians. Until now he has been an asset to his party until his strengths outweighed his weaknesses. But it is vital he demonstrates that he still has the heart for a fight and the skills to meet the challenges ahead in a turbulent political landscape. He has to be much more coherent about the direction he wants his party to take. He has to say what the Liberal Democrats stands for, rather than what they oppose.

The alternative would be to "just trundle along the same tram lines", as Nick Clegg - one of the brightest new MPs on any side of the House - put it in his interview in today's Independent.

Mr Kennedy must seize the moment. He must use this conference to underline that he is a leader with the vision and strategy to take his party to new heights. Otherwise, this week might be remembered as the moment when the Liberal Democrats were too busy celebrating to notice they had passed their peak. And that would be a shame both for the party and the nation.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Asset Manager

£70000 - £75000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Katie Robinson +44 (...

IT Support Analyst (2nd Line Support) - City, London

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare: Ashdown Group: IT Support Ana...

KS1 Teacher

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: KS1 Teaching Specialist Leic...

Y3 Teacher - Loughborough

£90 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Leicester: Are you a Key Stage 2 specia...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

In Sickness and in Health: It’s been lonely in bed without my sleep soulmate

Rebecca Armstrong
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor