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16 August 1999

No more coasting, Charlie

Jackie Ashley - Westminster

By Jackie Ashley

How typical of the Lib Dems to announce their new leader in the middle of August. It sums up what’s both lovable and laughable about them. No sense of PR. Can you imagine new Labour’s strategists doing anything they want people to take notice of (as opposed to slipping out things they want to hide) when all of Westminster and the media circus which accompanies it have decamped to Tuscany or Provence? No, the Lib Dems carry on their affairs in their own sweet, innocent, amateurish way, which is partly why we love them.

No control freaks, few spin-doctors, just a collection of ordinary guys – and a few gals – who really care about things like rubbish collection and hedges. That’s what they’re all about, isn’t it?

And now, apparently, they have a tough, dynamic and leftish new leader, whose acceptance speech was peppered with phrases about social justice, the dispossessed, the disenfranchised. Charles Kennedy may have the looks of a young Willie Whitelaw and the demeanour of Roy Jenkins, but he speaks just like an old-fashioned social democrat Labourite (Roy Hattersley, perhaps?) giving young Blair a good wigging.

This is the right place for the Liberal Democrats to be. The country is yearning for a more conscience-stricken alternative to new Labour. Simply being like Labour but not actually Labour is a quick route to oblivion, as the Independent Labour Party discovered once and the Scottish Lib Dems are finding out today.

Just one problem, Charles: throughout the campaign itself, it wasn’t you who was making the running about social justice and compassion. It was Simon Hughes.

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As clear favourite from the start, we expected Kennedy to be the heavyweight contender, the guy who was really good at television and brilliantly well connected to the political pundits. Hughes was the lank-haired earnest one, the sort of person who turned up for sandwiches at Christian Union student meetings. Yet Kennedy seemed to be at a loss when it was time to quit the gags and talk serious politics. Hughes spoke with the certainty of one who knows his own mind. He impressed the pundits and, clearly, he impressed the activists, too, though not enough to swing the leadership. He lost the vote. But he won the campaign, and must have given Kennedy a sleepless night or two.

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The suspicion voiced by the Lib Dem losers about Kennedy was not just sour grapes. He said the right words. He spoke up for the people who need speaking up for. But does he mean it? Was Tony Blair seething with rage in Tuscany when he heard Kennedy’s attack on new Labour heartlessness? Or did he chuckle before he lifted the phone to congratulate Red Charlie on shrewdly buttering up his party? Kennedy, after all, is one of Lord Jenkins’s two most prominent proteges. The other is Tony Blair himself. As one of the founders of the SDP recently confessed, new Labour is exactly the sort of party the Gang of Four were trying to fashion. There are differences on constitutional reform and devolution of power, but one could see Kennedy sitting happily in a Blair cabinet. In style and instinct, they are both insiders, men of goodwill, pragmatists not idealists, men of the world. Hughes is not a man of this world – well, certainly not of the Westminster world. Which is why he was so impressive in the leadership campaign.

Not that I wish to knock Kennedy. He is an attractive personality; just the sort of man you’d love to have at your dinner party, with his jokes, good humour and yarns. And he doesn’t make the rest of us feel inadequate by running 20 miles before breakfast, as his predecessor did. It’s just that he doesn’t yet strike one as a natural leader, a man with a mission. Yet, confronted by a prime minister who is ruthless and strategic, there’s a desperate need for a firm sense of purpose.

Kennedy is right to believe that the best chance for the Lib Dems is to become the refuge for the growing number of people losing patience with new Labour. Hospital waiting lists? Still can’t get an appointment. Class sizes? The five to sevens may be in smaller classes, but wait till they turn eight. Traffic? Jams today and jams tomorrow. There is a constituency out there, prepared to listen to more radical solutions to these problems, with all the tax implications they involve, and the Lib Dems should be mopping it up. The relative successes of Hughes and the other left candidates such as David Rendel and Jackie Ballard (despite her ridiculous claim to be the new Gladstone) have left even Labour MPs slightly chastened.

Then there’s what I’d call the green consumer movement: concern about GM foods, the countryside, the environment. On all these, Labour is going nowhere, if not against public opinion. What a chance for the Lib Dems.

So where’s Charles Kennedy been on these issues? How angry has he sounded? Not a lot. How urgent and thirsty for change? Not very. If an opposition leader needs anything these days, it is constant and eye-catching energy and terrier-like enthusiasm. But until a last-minute scare, when Hughes appeared to be closing the gap, Kennedy did little to belie his reputation for coasting. True, we then had a few pops at Labour from him: they believe in the nanny state, we believe in less nannying; less interfering, more local decision-making; more liberty, in short, for the individual.

And it was just enough. It got him through. I like Charles Kennedy. In fact, it is almost impossible not to like him. But I hope he got the fright of his life in this leadership campaign. I hope he meant what he said when he won it. And I hope he surprises us all. Because frankly, if he doesn’t, the Lib Dems will carry on never – quite – making the headlines.

Steve Richards is on holiday