Mr Kennedy must speakout loudly in support of his own liberal values

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The Independent Online

This should be a wonderful time for the Liberal Democrats. In the year that has passed since their new leader inherited his fine legacy from Paddy Ashdown, they have had a great victory in the previously safe Tory seat of Romsey, combined with their largest ever share of the vote in local elections. The interminable honeymoon that the Labour Party enjoyed with the electorate has ended and the Tory revival seems permanently stalled.

This should be a wonderful time for the Liberal Democrats. In the year that has passed since their new leader inherited his fine legacy from Paddy Ashdown, they have had a great victory in the previously safe Tory seat of Romsey, combined with their largest ever share of the vote in local elections. The interminable honeymoon that the Labour Party enjoyed with the electorate has ended and the Tory revival seems permanently stalled.

With his amiable manner, Charles Kennedy should be a natural-born winner in our televisual age. Yet it cannot be denied that in comparison with his predecessor, Mr Kennedy has failed to make a strong impression in his new role. In fact, public opinion surveys show that the person in the street thinks Sir Paddy is still leading the Liberal Democrats.

The fault, then, is not personality; nor even the undeniable tendency of the media to ignore initiatives and speeches given by the third party. Mr Kennedy has failed in another, more difficult dimension: he has yet to give a convincing rationale for the very existence of his party. Individual initiatives have been solidly grounded in the Liberal traditions of individual freedom and social responsibility. His criticisms of both Labour and Tory language and policy regarding asylum-seekers have been heartfelt and apposite. And he was right to point out that Gordon Brown's generous public-spending review implicitly endorsed the criticisms that Mr Kennedy's party had been making of parsimony in spending on such major public services as education and health.

Yet for all this one struggles to hear the accents of passion and to discern the breadth of vision that a political leader must articulate if he is to reach out to an electorate mostly occupied with private concerns. After all, it is the liberal values that he himself stands for that went down so well in Romsey: Mr Kennedy need not hold back in his advocacy of them.

One might say that a new leader should be given time to play himself in, but with a general election likely in the next year Mr Kennedy must raise his scoring rate fast. At the moment, he will be hard-pressed to retain the 46 seats the Lib Dems won in 1997. The electoral realities are inexorable: there are few, if any, marginals to be won from Labour; so future gains depend on the Tories doing even worse than last time, which is unlikely. Even to retain all the seats they now hold will be an uphill struggle, particularly in the West Country, where there has been something of a Tory revival.

Mr Kennedy's strategy must be radical: in Westminster code, he needs to abandon "constructive opposition" and return to "equidistance". Sir Paddy's cosying-up to New Labour has yielded all the dividends that are going to come for the time being: the constitutional committee on which the Lib Dems sit has little left to do, and it is obvious that Mr Blair will not be delivering the recommendations of the Jenkins Commission on electoral reform.

With the two main parties squabbling over who has squatters' rights to the centre-right (so painfully demonstrated in Mr Blair's leaked memo), Mr Kennedy need not be inhibited about spreading himself over the vacant ground of British politics. There are many people who share his generous vision of the liberal values of social compassion and personal freedom; he need only speak out more consistently, and less inhibitedly, in support of them.

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