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Thursday, December 11, 2003
Thoughts on Charles Kennedy

Paul Richards picks up on the Guardian's little musing on what fate meets Charles Kennedy. The Liberal Democrat leader has in the last four years faced Tory leaders taken seriously only by a minority. But with Tony Blair and Michael Howard now representing their respective parties, he is suddenly very junior to both of his rivals. This creates a problem for a leader who, to put it kindly, has not done much for his party.

I've pondered Charles Kennedy's leadership strategy - if that's quite the word - on and off for a while. And I think the best label for it is 'elitist populism'. This is a strategy of week after week and month after month making the most vulgar, shameless appeals to the media elite, to the liberals and lefties who currently dominate what remains of our establishment when you take out the government. Think of Any Questions audiences, of the Independent letters page or the Guardian opinion section. Charles Kennedy speaks for them. If they are angry that the US executive and legislature won't sign up to Kyoto, so is he. If they want to see more pressure put on Israel to be nicer to Arafat and his suicide bomber-training chums, so does he. The best single barometer of what Charlie Kennedy thinks and does is probably the BBC's Question Time. If the Question Time audience applauds a point, it's probably already halfway into the Lib Dem manifesto. Kennedy's shameless, continuous appeal is to this section of British society and to their opinions on the UK and the world. That's why being far kinder to asylum seekers bogus and otherwise is so high on the Lib Dem priorities. That's why the UN matters so much to the party. That's why Kennedy has spent week after week after week at Prime Ministers' Questions pleading the case of the Guantanamo captives.

To someone who believes the BBC gives an objective perspective, this world of enlightened liberal opinion - where Israel and the US can do no right, where prison doesn't protect the public, where the Daily Mail is worse than Ian Huntley, where pensioners die in hospitals simply because taxes are too low and where wiping out terrorists only encourages them - will also seem to be a very significant chunk of British society. Just as important, it has unkind things to say about the Tories and New Labour. What more could Charles Kennedy hope for? By claiming these voters as his own, little Charlie can lead his party to its greatest victories in decades!

The trouble for him is that enlightened liberal opinion is not very widespread in common sense Middle England. Certainly his positions play exceedingly well when presented to a BBC audience, but when playtested at election time elitist populism will turn out to be about as popular as a Tottenham scarf at Highbury.

Now of course I exaggerate more than a little. I don't really think that Charles Kennedy decides all his party's policies in this way, or that it is a conscious strategy. Many of these ideals he surely believes in quite fervently. But I would contend that it is about the best way to interpret and predict the Lib Dem approach to grabbing the news and responding to issues on the agenda. The party is not going for the British people as a whole - it is trying to win the argument on the liberal media and bring along whoever it can as a result.

It's debatable whether Kennedy actually had anywhere else to go. The right and centre seem to be pretty cornered off as it is, so the only alternative to the pinko-liberal left was the outright socialist left, the pursuit of whose constituents would lose the Lib Dems an enormous number of their traditional voters. So why not add to the Lib Dem core vote by winning over a few Guardian readers? But it's not much of a plan for victory, and ambitious Liberal Democrats are right to wonder if anyone who would adopt it is fit to be leading them now that two of the leading figures of modern politics are running the other two parties.

It's important to stress just how much Liberal Democrat election success is dependent on Tory doldrums. Since the party was created in its modern form in 1988, its performance at General Elections has been remarkably static. In 1992 they won 19% of the vote, in 1997 it was 18% and in 2001 they got 19% again. From 1992 to 2001 there was Black Wednesday, two Labour landslides, plummeting turnout, the euro, you name it. But all these events had minimal effect on the Lib Dem share of the vote, or at least cancelled each other out. What turned the party from a rump of twenty MPs in '92 to not far off three times as many in 2001 was the state of the Conservative Party. For as long as the Tories remain in their worst state in a hundred years, the Liberal Democrats matter. But a Tory recovery shows every sign of destroying them for a generation.

This is the threat Michael Howard poses to the Lib Dems. Dare they stick with little Charlie Kennedy?

Partly owing to a lack of any obvious alternative - even Simon Hughes has now moved out of frontbench politics - and partly because of proximity to another General Election, now expected in less than eighteen months time, it seems likely they will. These difficulties would be ignored if Kennedy appeared a huge impediment, but he is ineffectual rather than terrible.

But just as likely has to be the proposition that the next election will be a time of considerable gains for Michael Howard's Conservatives, with the Lib Dems falling right back as a result. That means that with Labour celebrating a historic third term and the Conservatives at their strongest in well over a decade, the Liberal Democrats could be the greatest losers of 2005/2006. Unless they can pull off some pretty spectacular 'decapitations' of senior Tories, it would be very difficult for them put a brave face on any such result. At that moment, then, a replacement of the man who is by far their most public face would seem both prudent and deserved.

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