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banner Thursday, 14 September, 2000, 14:05 GMT 15:05 UK
Charles Kennedy: 'At ease with his party'
Charles Kennedy
By BBC News Online's Ben Davies

It's been a gruelling few days for Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy. He's launched his party's election pre-manifesto, published a book and conducted countless interviews.

And now Mr Kennedy faces his second party conference since he took over the leadership of the Liberal Democrats from Paddy Ashdown in August 1999.

Sitting in his smoke-filled Commons office signing a mountain of correspondence, he seems tired but fairly relaxed - despite the fact that Liberal Democrat conferences are notoriously unpredictable.

"I think that it will be a pretty united conference. I think that the party is at ease with itself and is fairly at ease with me as leader," he says.

I sometimes think that Big Brother is not unlike aspects of a general election

You've got three party leaders, which one do you want to throw out first?

Charles Kennedy
"I think that there's a lot to look back on and celebrate in the course of this calendar year but also I am very determined that the conference looks out and looks forward."

He wants this year's party conference to be more than a talking shop, turning its mind to potential voters and thinking ahead to the next election.

"[We need] to look forward to the next election and beyond the next election to start thinking what we can bring to British politics: if we are able to enhance our stature further at the time of the next election - that's the mindset that we come from."

Liberals 'unlikely' to win

Mr Kennedy is probably the only party leader in history to concede he will not win the next election - not usually a wise move, but all part of his tell-it-how-it-is philosophy.

"The party is still building and this is another building election. At the next election one of our ambitions would obviously be to win more votes nationally because that's very important for a subsequent election.

"This is an approach that takes us not just up to the next polling day, but well beyond into the next parliament because there could well be potential opportunities for us there, particularly if we are perceived to have had a good election in the process," he says.

But it shouldn't be assumed that the 40-year-old Scot lacks ambition for his party or for himself.

Kennedy: ambition to rule?

"I am ambitious to see the Liberal Democrats in government whether that would be on their own or whether that would be part of a coalition - if you'd had voting reform who knows. But I think that it's an attainable target - it's happened already in Scotland there's no reason why it can't happen at Westminster.

"But equally we have to win more seats at the next election to have a more pivotal input in the next House of Commons and again that's a realistic target to set ourselves."

On his own ambition he is equivocal, but he does concede that his success as leader equates with the success of the party itself.

"I am ambitious for the cause more in some ways than I am for myself but this whole thing is about the credibility of the Liberal Democrats," he says.

But in order to get more seats he has to win more votes and some observers have detected a conflict between proposals to increase taxes on the well-off in order to pay for improved public services and the party's need to attract the Tory vote in some Conservative marginals.

A lot of decent, moderate Conservatives know that honest taxation is about trying to provide decent care of the elderly, better pensions, better investment in local schools and local hospitals

Charles Kennedy

The 1997 election was the third party's best in decades. The Lib Dems won 46 seats in the UK parliament and added a further seat at the Romsey by-election earlier this year.

Romsey was exactly the type of Tory seat that the Liberal Democrats need to win, but is Mr Kennedy not putting off moderate Conservatives with his threat of higher taxation?

"A lot of decent, moderate Conservatives know that honest taxation is about trying to provide decent care of the elderly, better pensions, better investment in local schools and local hospitals.

"You can't get that with a continuing Dutch auction between Labour and the Conservatives, who are just obsessed with a steady reduction of income tax - you can't get something for nothing."

He dismisses any suggestion that Lib Dem tax plans have any relation to "old Labour" policies or that they have put his party to the left of New Labour.

"Old Labour and that more old-fashioned tax and spend approach was characterised by irresponsible levying of taxation and inappropriate spending of that money.

"We are not saying that. We are being quite specific: it's the pensioners, the health service, the environment, it's education.

Lib Dems 'more progressive' than Labour

"I do think that we are more socially progressive and we are more ambitious than Labour - that puts us ahead of them, not to the left or right."

Mr Kennedy is scathing about William Hague's leadership of the Tories, accusing him of presiding over a party with no room for the moderate voices of former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine or former chancellor Ken Clarke.

He also has plenty of criticisms of the Labour government - some of which is bound to stem from the government's failure so far to deliver on its promise of a referendum on voting reform.

Kennedy still committed to PR

The Liberal Democrats have long favoured proportional representation over the current first-past-the-post system used to elect the UK parliament. Though the debate has gone quiet of late, the party remains as strongly committed to reform.

"Labour have got their own internal debate under way and we must wait for the outcome of that but they know our position, they know my position both publicly and privately.

"What I've not done is spend time intervening from the sidelines in their debate any more than I would want the Labour Party to intervene from the sidelines in whatever debate we might have."

If he is privately frustrated over the delay in delivering the referendum, he is publicly so at the lack of leadership from Labour on the issue of the euro - particularly the apparent growing scepticism of Chancellor Gordon Brown.

The Liberal Democrat leader asserts that almost all the tests set out by Mr Brown could now be met, with the high level of the pound being the main obstacle.

He says that an informed debate is needed as most members of the public lack information, but without a lead from the government he thinks that is unlikely to happen.

Big Brother
Big Brother like politics, Kennedy says
"It seems to me that a great mistake is being made here because you have to engage people not just for the duration of the referendum campaign but you need to persuade them over a much longer period.

"If you look at the opinion polls, I find them very interesting on the euro issue because whatever the headline findings two statistics, two factors always recur.

Public need 'more information' on the euro

"One is that people don't feel they have enough information - they want more.

"The second is that even of those that are against British entry into the euro, when they are asked the next question 'Do you think that Britain will end up inside the euro in another five or 10 years time?' a significant percentage of those people say 'Yes I think we will'".

But Mr Kennedy remains an optimist about the ultimate outcome: Britain will choose to join the single currency.

His concern about lack of political leadership extends to record lows in the number of voters turning out for elections, most recently for the European parliament.

Mr Kennedy is genuinely worried that voters seem to connect less and less with mainstream politics preferring single issues such as the environment.

He attributes this lack of interest in part to politicians not saying what they mean and not delivering what they say.

"The central problem is that there's a lack of idealism about politics. That is because too often politicians are not seen to say what they think or to stick to their pledges and that's why I want us to be very specific in the pledges that we make and in sticking to our guns."

He has contrasted the lack of appetite for voting at elections with the number of people voting on the popular TV show Big Brother - a programme which Mr Kennedy only watched a couple of times.

"I sometimes think that Big Brother is not unlike aspects of a general election. You've got three party leaders now - which one do you want to throw out first? But if only we could command the same audience participation levels we'd all be a lot happier."

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See also:

06 Sep 00 | UK Politics
Lib Dems focus attack on poverty
06 Sep 00 | UK Politics
Kennedy slams anti-euro campaign
06 Sep 00 | UK Politics
Kennedy pledges progressive policies
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