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banner Friday, 21 September, 2001, 14:27 GMT 15:27 UK
Struggling for the spotlight
Charles Kennedy celebrates after the general election
Kennedy has ditched his "Chatshow Charlie" image
By BBC News Online's Ollie Stone-Lee

They say they were the real winners of the general election, but the Liberal Democrats face a hard slog to capture the media spotlight when it eventually swings back from the horrors in New York.

The election fight gave the party its best result since the 1920s and saw a short-term boost in its media coverage - with a more familiar trend reappearing once the votes were counted.

A search of the news archive for the UK's national and regional newspapers shows Tony Blair tops the coverage for party leaders between the end of the election and last Monday - he was mentioned in 11,880 articles.

Iain Duncan Smith, admittedly buoyed by the interest in the Conservative leadership contest, lies second, mentioned in 3,911 articles, while Charles Kennedy lags behind with just 657 listings.

A strikingly similar breakdown emerges too for the three months before the election - Mr Kennedy was easily behind William Hague.

Coverage conundrum

Although that extra coverage did little for Mr Hague, it is a disparity that poses a problem for the Lib Dems.

Next week's Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth would have provided their first real post-election platform. Now it will be overshadowed by events beyond the party's control.

Iain Duncan Smith
Lib Dems say Duncan Smith's election is their chance
That is not a new phenomenon for the Lib Dems - they found their 1991 conference eclipsed by the fall-out from Boris Yeltsin's storming of the Russian Parliament, while at the following year's event Black Wednesday dominated the media coverage.

In the years before the country next goes to the polls, securing coverage must be a key part of the Lib Dem strategy if the party really is to achieve its ambition of replacing the Tories as the official opposition.

Making that point, Times columnist Tim Hames recently suggested Charles Kennedy himself needed to grab more publicity to grasp the opportunity produced by Mr Duncan Smith's election as Conservative leader.

Publicity drive

"Mr Kennedy should be shameless," he wrote. "He must push himself forward for any and every media outlet possible, be it Ready, Steady, Cook or Eastenders, even Bob The Builder."

In fact, Daisy Sampson, Mr Kennedy's outgoing spin doctor, has been credited with a shift from his pre-leadership "Chatshow Charlie" image and advertising consultant Barry Delaney says it would be a mistake to go back.

Instead, Mr Delaney argued the Lib Dem leader needed to appear more statesman-like.

Eschew gimics

Gimics will not work, argued the man who used to run Labour's advertising campaigns, pointing to the Hague baseball cap, Kinnock "the movie" and the Blair guitar.

"They were all tempted by showbusiness and it almost always leads to derision," Mr Delaney told BBC News Online.

Most voters just did not want the "man next door" as their country's leader, he said, they wanted someone far brighter than themselves.

While the patrician attitude of figures like Harold MacMillan could not now be repeated, Mr Delaney accused modern politicians of "losing their nerve" in trying to work a similar trick today.

"Nobody has found a way of looking both modern and admirable," he said.

The advertising expert suggested American President John Kennedy was seen as someone who could have achieved both and, while making no comparisons, says his near namesake Charles "might just pull it off - but not if he goes on gameshows".

Culture change

The leaders' image alone, however, cannot complete the task.

Mr Delaney said: "They must be really excited by the election of Iain Duncan Smith and think this really could be it - we could become the second party.

David Walter, Lib Dem communications director
Walter says a simple message is a vote winner
"But because it's events beyond their control that have put them in this sort of happy position, it is very difficult for them to capitalise on it without seeming cynical."

He warned too that the more the Lib Dems became seen as a potential party of power, the more voters would scrutinise their policies rather than just voting for them "to feel virtuous".

"They have to appear a little less wishy-washy and a bit more tough - it is a sort of culture change," he added.

Lib Dem officials would argue practical policies offering a "real chance for real change" that were vital to their election success.

In a preview for the conference directory, the party's communications director, David Walter, says: "We did well because we had a simple message about the issues most relevant to voters, and because we stuck to that message."

Friendly tone

Making the campaign "friendly, efficient and accessible" won them applause from the media and from the public too, he says.

"The more uptight, over-protected and over-spun the other leaders became, the stronger Charles Kennedy looked."

Despite that confidence in straight-talking, the success of the Lib Dem efforts to woo the media in coming months will determine whether their hopes to overtake the Tories prove to be spin or substance.

See also:

20 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Lib-Lab committee disbanded
18 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Lib Dems move to forge new role
17 Aug 01 | UK Politics
Lib Dems welcome 'wipe out' threat
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