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banner Friday, 21 September, 2001, 14:41 GMT 15:41 UK
Kennedy must seize chance
Jo Phillips
By Jo Phillips, former head of media for the Lib Dems

Rumours that the party conferences would be cancelled have been quashed, but we're told there will be some changes to scheduled programmes.

Jo Phillips
Writer and broadcaster Jo Phillips was head of media in Paddy Ashdown's office when he was Liberal Democrat leader
Does that mean that less time will be given to motions on animal welfare and rather more to " whipping " those terrorist "folks" as President Bush so quaintly describes the overture to the potentially awful global conflict he seems to crave?

Good. For so long we've been told that people are alienated and disenfranchised from politics when perhaps the truth is that while life ticks along relatively smoothly, we actually don't need them.

As soon as a crisis looms, that changes; politics and politicians become more relevant. Until of course they revert to posturing and point scoring.

Cynics might say that it would suit both Labour and the Conservatives to either cancel or shorten their conferences and thus avoid exposing the internecine strife within.

Guaranteed profile-raiser

But for the Liberal Democrats, who kick off the season, conference is a guarantee of raising their profile and that is something they desperately need right now.


To be leader of the third party means battling for every column inch, every second of television and radio coverage

Apart from any other reason, it is right and proper that people debate the momentous implications of America's desire for retaliation in a mature and sensible fashion and the Lib Dems have the chance to prove they can do just that.

In the bitter heat of the Tory leadership contest, Francis Maude warned his own party that they would be relegated to third place, overtaken by the Liberal Democrats.

That isn't just the equivalent of an open goal; that's the other lot walking off the pitch. So why hasn't Charles Kennedy at least taken a shot at goal?

To be leader of the third party means battling for every column inch, every second of television and radio coverage. It means churning out press releases, comments and statements that'll rarely see the light of day.

It means being accused of being an obsessive one man band if you're too proactive and available to the media, or being accused of indolence if you take a back seat. Damned if you do and damned if you don't.

An opportunity to be seized

But above all it means exploiting every single opportunity and opportunities like this don't come along very often.


There will always be the pre-conference nonsense stories about sex, drugs and animal welfare that makes the Lib Dems out to be a fringe party of middle-aged hippies who knit their own yoghurt

Charles Kennedy and his party had a good election.

They proved they have appeal to voters in rural, metropolitan and suburban areas and they have found a resonance in their opposition to the government's policies on a range of issues from foot-and-mouth, student loans, asylum seekers and private sector involvement in public services.

What they need to do is to build on that confidence and offer policies that are a credible alternative to what else is on offer. And that means the serious grown up stuff like the economy, health, education and foreign affairs.

Of course, there will always be the pre-conference nonsense stories about sex, drugs and animal welfare that makes the Lib Dems out to be a fringe party of middle-aged hippies who knit their own yoghurt.

I can't believe that was what appealed in Winchester, Guildford and Carshalton.

There would be a sweet irony if the Lib Dems were to actually fulfil the prophecies of Francis Maude and become the real opposition.

This is the perfect chance - they have to seize it with both hands, and they must do it publicly at conference.

Even against the appalling backdrop of the still smouldering rubble of the World Trade Centre, by setting the tone of a mature debate they can prove they were right to go ahead with conference.

See also:

21 Sep 01 | Liberal Democrats
The shadow over party conferences
21 Sep 01 | Liberal Democrats
Struggling for the spotlight
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