Time for the Liberal Democrats to come out of the shadows

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The Liberal Democrats gather for their spring conference in Harrogate this weekend in the knowledge that they are, as so often, playing catch-up. With a general election looming, Labour and the Tories are going at each other with hammer and tongs. But the third party in British politics has been finding it difficult to make its voice heard and is slipping in the polls.

The Liberal Democrats gather for their spring conference in Harrogate this weekend in the knowledge that they are, as so often, playing catch-up. With a general election looming, Labour and the Tories are going at each other with hammer and tongs. But the third party in British politics has been finding it difficult to make its voice heard and is slipping in the polls.

On Monday, the Liberal Democrats outlined their economic manifesto, but there was little coverage in the media. It was drowned out by the row over the Home Secretary's draconian house arrest powers. Later in the week, we had the "war" over Margaret Dixon's shoulder and the state of the NHS. This quickly became a slanging match between the Government and the Conservatives, with the Liberal Democrats - once again - conspicuous by their absence.

The Liberal Democrats can expect no favours from either the Government or the Tories when it comes to publicity. Alan Milburn, Labour's election strategist, believes that the best way to galvanise support for his party is to raise the spectre of the return of a Tory government. The hope is that disaffected Labour voters, who might have been toying with the idea of supporting the Liberal Democrats, will remember where their loyalties lie and return to the Labour fold. If Mr Milburn is right, it suits the Government to play up the Tory threat and see the Liberal Democrats starved of news coverage.

The Conservatives have even more reason to fear the Liberal Democrats. Scores of Tory seats are under threat from the Liberal Democrats, including those of the shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, and the shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin. It would suit both Tony Blair and Michael Howard well if the forthcoming general election came to be seen as a two-horse race. That is why it is important for the Liberal Democrats - and also for anyone who wants a broader political debate - that Charles Kennedy's speech to the conference today gives his party a substantial fillip.

Of course, some would argue that it is actually in the Liberal Democrats' best interests to keep a low profile between now and polling day. By avoiding petty politicking, they can keep their integrity and gather protest votes from the Tories and Labour when the time comes. There is something in this. But they must not make the mistake of slipping off the radar altogether. The Liberal Democrats must strike a balance between being reasonable and being ignored.

The good news is that when the Prime Minister finally announces the date of the general election, the major broadcasters will be forced to give more coverage to the Liberal Democrats. Their party's profile will rise, and so too should their poll ratings. Another bonus is the fact that they have some genuinely popular policies, such as abolishing council tax and tuition fees, that clearly distinguish them from the other parties. And their principled opposition to Mr Blair's adventurism in Iraq has won them widespread respect. The Liberal Democrats have a potentially strong appeal. Now is the time for them to start exploiting it.

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