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Last Updated: Friday, 19 September, 2003, 07:38 GMT 08:38 UK
Time right for Lib Dem surge?

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

There is something reassuringly predictable about Liberal Democrat conferences.

Firstly, there is the annual struggle for the party to find its USP (unique selling point).

You might think the simple fact that they NOT the Tory party or New Labour would be enough nowadays.

With the government suffering from growing voter disillusion - now increasingly turning to antipathy - and the Tories doggy paddling like mad to keep their heads above water, that might be enough.

And it is certainly the case that, thanks to some careful positioning, Charles Kennedy should be able to prize voters away from both the main parties at the next election - an event all political eyes are now firmly fixed on.

He and his jubilant party workers did just that with the highly impressive Brent East by-election victory last week.

But any political party worthy of the name needs something unique and, particularly for the Lib Dems, burglar-proof, to mark it out.

It used to be ideology, until that became a dirty word.

The Lib Dems still have some of that - their liberalism.

Cabinet cuts

But more than that, it still needs some clear, definitive policies to give it that unique edge.

Plans to abolish queen
Its old pledge to slap a penny on tax to fund public spending was stolen by Chancellor Gordon Brown, so that has gone.

But there are a couple of new initiatives to be debated at conference which should prove popular.

Top of the list is the suggestion that a Lib Dem government would take an axe to central government.

It would slash Whitehall bureaucracy, scrap eight ministries and drastically reduce the size of the cabinet.

If that's not a vote winner then nothing is.

Youth wing

The conference will also renew its attacks on the way Britain was led into war on Iraq and debate the increasingly troublesome fallout from the conflict.

So, a couple of eye catchers to offer up for the election manifesto.

Then there is the reassuring sight of the leader having to deal with the sort of motions that will see his party attracting headlines about "loonies" and "extremists".

In the past it has been legalising cannabis, prostitution and the like.

Lib Dems will look to election
This year it is abolition of the monarchy.

The party's youth wing will lead a debate demanding a referendum on the future of the royals and the creation of an elected head of state.

Members of the royal family would be stripped of all their privileges, but could stand alongside others in the elections.

So, its Arnie for President, then.

Just maybe

Charles Kennedy will not openly ridicule such ideas, preferring to offer the positive spin that it is good at least one party can debate controversial motions.

But he will not be there for the debate or the vote.

Next, there is the familiar debate over the party's on-off relationship with New Labour.

This time it is well and truly off. The Lib Dems got little to nothing out of the previous unofficial deal except the tag of "Labour lite."

In truth it has been dead since Mr Kennedy was elected leader. This year he will simply bury the body.

And finally there will be the familiar rallying cry for the troops to get ready for the long-awaited breakthrough.

It will undoubtedly come from Mr Kennedy in his keynote speech and, once again, it will work with his troops.

After all, who knows. Just maybe, this time...

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