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BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: LIBERAL DEMOCRAT LEADER CHARLES KENNEDY, MAY 27TH, 2001

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

DAVID FROST: Now in our special series of leaders' interviews this morning I'm joined by Charles Kennedy, we've been talking about him, of the Liberal Democrats it's unnecessary to add. Everyone has been very complimentary about you today, Michael White, Neil Kinnock?

CHARLES KENNEDY: I'm getting a bit worried, I mean am I, does this mean I have to start buying the Guardian and voting Labour or something like that, I'm not quite sure. I'm enjoying this campaign and it's a good opportunity for us to get out and about, spread our message and I think the thing that's coming through is that we're being consistent, we're being straight with people, you can agree or disagree with the package we're putting in front of people, that's up to the voters in the privacy of the, the polling booth on the day itself. But what people can't criticise us for is that the numbers don't add up, I mean the BBC economics correspondent said yes, they'll tax here, they'll spend there, now it's up to people whether they want to go down that route and that's fair enough, I'm happy with that.

DAVID FROST: Well now given what you've said about the Tories an unmitigated disaster if they were, if Hague was Prime Minister and you said in the Alice Thomson interview that you know of course that we, meaning the Liberal Democrats, can't win. That obviously means that you want Labour and Tony Blair to win this election?

CHARLES KENNEDY: No it doesn't mean that, I'm being a realist, it's much easier in life just to tell the truth it strikes me, than to

DAVID FROST: But you do want Tony Blair to win the election?

CHARLES KENNEDY: No I, I want the, the, what I'm working for flat out in this campaign is as many Liberal Democrat votes as we can get and as many Liberal Democrat seats in the next election and in the next Parliament at this election. And the reason for that, apart from the obvious self-interested reason, is that in the next Parliament I want to be in a position to argue much more strongly than has been possible up until now for the people being given a referendum on fair votes and the more votes we get behind us the stronger the moral ground I have for arguing for that. But the second thing is and this is where some of this loose talk about tactical voting and all this stuff is missing the mark, I want everybody to vote Lib Dem if they agree with our priorities and what I would say to people who might be tempted to vote Labour, do you just want another big majority Labour government with a lot of people who won't actually put to the forefront getting rid of student tuition fees or having long-term free care for the elderl we will

DAVID FROST: But Charles

CHARLES KENNEDY: That will have a much more resonant appeal than anything that you'll get from a bankrupt and burnt-out Conservative opposition.

DAVID FROST: But I mean you always have, I'm being frank and honest and direct and the fact of the matter is that you need tactical voting in order to win seats and, and I mean you saw the papers here the, the number of seats where it's all going on, Labour and Liberal Democratic activists in South Dorset, Kingston and Surbiton, in Wimbledon, in Lewes where, where people are putting a Labour poster in the, in the window for the elections and Liberal Democrat poster there as well, backing Norman Baker in the general election and Labour in the local elections, buckets of these places.

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I, I mean

DAVID FROST: and then today's?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I mean

DAVID FROST: It is definitely going on¿

CHARLES KENNEDY: Oh it's going on.

DAVID FROST: And you don't want to stop it, do you?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well frankly it's not my business to either condone it or condemn it because people will do what they want to do at a local level. This, if you like, is do it yourself for proportional representation, you know if I want Frost but I know I can't get Frost but I can get something that is better than the other alternative can I use my vote accordingly, that's what people are saying. And if ever there was a case, a moral case for saying whatever your politics, Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, whatever constituency you happen to live in you want your vote to have an equal value to somebody down the road in a different constituency with a different set of political circumstances. This has to be it.

DAVID FROST: And in terms of, in terms of how well you're going to do, you were quoted yesterday as saying that 30 or 40, that would be a big achievement compared to the perception of 18 months ago?

CHARLES KENNEDY: It would.

DAVID FROST: If we come back with the same number we will have defied the laws of political gravity, if we can improve and the potential is there, that would be absolutely amazing result, so, so you, you're covering yourself that 30 or 40 would be, would be okay but you actually hope and think you would do better than last time, better than 47?

CHARLES KENNEDY: I think that as the campaign has developed I think the potential now is clearly there, certainly for more votes nationally, a bigger percentage here of the vote than we got last time. Whether that translates into seats or not, I mean you get better odds walking into a casino quite frankly, than you do under first past the post politics. You can win more votes and not see that translated into seats, you can see your share of the national vote slide a little, which is what happened at the last election, and see the number of seats double. I mean it really is a lottery this business and that's why we need to change the system. But that's why we have concentrated in this campaign saying, what can we do in specific areas? And both policy areas but also in areas of the country there are so many seats I've been visiting where we just missed out by a few hundred votes, a few thousand votes last time. One per cent move to us we win them, one per cent move in the other direction, in certain seats, we might lose some.

DAVID FROST: That's why, we were just talking about, that's where you need the tactical voting?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well no we need positive voting for us and the issue I would put in front of Labour, people that have habitually voted Labour at the last election is, if you're a bit disenchanted, you're a bit disappointed, you were told things could only get better and in some ways they have, I mean we've been quite open and I get criticised when I say, yeah I think the government's done quite a good job on that particular area, whatever it might be, I think that's the sensible approach to politics.

DAVID FROST: Well how, how many marks out of ten would you give Labour as a government and how many marks out of ten would you give William Hague and the Tories as an opposition?

CHARLES KENNEDY: And does this mean you're going to start giving me marks out of ten as a third rejoinder.

DAVID FROST: Only behind your back.

CHARLES KENNEDY: Yeah only behind my back, well that's, you can't get more honest than that, can't get more honest than that. I think that on the constitutional reform agenda, although we would have gone further, there is quite a revolution now that's taking place, a sensible revolution and Labour deserve credit for having enacted that, devolution, a degree of proportionality in voting systems for London, for Europe, for the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and so on, that's good. I think that a more positive engagement with Europe, not good enough but nonetheless better than what went before and certainly better than what William Hague's alternative would be. But a terrible poverty of ambition, you know the Labour Party used to be known in days gone by, Old Labour, as the party that was ambitious to tackle poverty. New Labour seems to have a poverty of ambition when it comes to social justice issues in this country.

DAVID FROST: Well some¿

CHARLES KENNEDY: Particularly the quality of the public services.

DAVID FROST: Somebody said¿

CHARLES KENNEDY: Precious little or nothing about the environmental agenda which we're putting centre stage.

DAVID FROST: Someone said Charles Kennedy is, is Labour's conscience because on a lot of issues you appear more progressive, taxation, civil liberties¿

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I hope so.

DAVID FROST: Public spending, asylum, trial by jury, freedom of information, tuition fees, all of those more progressive or more left wing, whichever, whichever interchangeable word you use?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I prefer progressive.

DAVID FROST: I know you do, but that's why I thought I'd mention left-wing as well?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well that's alright, I think it's always worth looking back to history¿

DAVID FROST: Tell me one issue on which you're to the right of Labour?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I, if I don't like the term left I don't necessarily, by definition, like the term right. But where I think we've got more of a gut instinct as a party is in the liberalisation of the economy and I don't think that if you scratch the Labour Party they are still that degree interfering, they are still that degree controlling, they're still that degree interventionist. Far too much bureaucracy in this country trammelled through by the government of the day, the Labour government, that's through the professionals in the Health Service, in education, the police, it's also true though of the burdens that are put on industry and we would want to have and we've in fact published this part of the manifesto proposals, a long list of regulations that we would in fact get rid of. So our analysis is a government should do more in some areas, the environment and social policy being pre-eminent amongst them. It should be doing less in some of these areas, letting business get on with the business of business and it should certainly be going about its business, government's business differently.

DAVID FROST: Europe, Tony Blair seemed confident that he could win a referendum on Europe this week and surprisingly William Hague agreed and indeed you felt sorry for him when he agreed, you said, is Labour satisfactorily coming off the fence, do you think there will be a referendum on Europe as you would hope in the first 12 to 15 months?

CHARLES KENNEDY: I think it's pretty inescapable there will have to be a referendum on Europe in the next, let's say the first couple of years of the next Parliament, whether it's 12 months, 18 months remains to be seen. This boil has got to be lanced one way or the other. Now when that happens I think the hollowness of William Hague's Conservative position which is different, obviously, from Ken Clarke or Michael Heseltine or Chris Patten and others, will be exposed for the sham that it is because if he's now saying, you know we've got 12 days left to save the pound, well no I think we've probably got 12 days left to save the country from the William Hague Conservative government.

DAVID FROST: I think we've only got 11 now?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Is it 11? Well we get more anxious as every hour goes by, but you know James Bond films tend to have a happy ending invariably but I'm not sure this will be a happy ending for the Conservatives because this is not a referendum on Europe. The only thing you can say about voting for the Conservatives at this election, and I don't think they're going to have a happy outcome, I don't think they think they're going to have a happy outcome, is that that's the one way to guarantee that you the viewer, you the voter don't get a say on Europe, if it's a referendum at all this election's a referendum on the quality of our public services, on pensions, on schools, on hospitals, on the number of police, on decent transport. These are the things that people are raising with me every day of the week as I travel round the country, they're not foaming at the mouth about the Euro, that's a decision for another day.

DAVID FROST: What happens if there is this landslide that the polls are projecting and if the Tories were to end up with fewer seats?

CHARLES KENNEDY: A very unhealthy outcome for the country and for the House of Commons, I've seen this last House of Commons as I say it when Mrs Thatcher was carrying all before her and too big a majority is as Francis Pimm one of our Foreign Secretaries at the time, he lost his head over it¿

DAVID FROST: He did.

CHARLES KENNEDY: But too big a majority is not good for the Commons, by definition that's not good for Parliament, it's not good for the country, and that's why I think that increasingly the country in the run-up to the closing stages of this campaign is going to be ??? itself, if it looks almost inevitable that Labour are going to win this election we do need, the country needs an intelligent opposition with integrity about it.

DAVID FROST: Well do you think¿Do you think there's a possibility of a realignment that the, that the left-wing of the Tories will join up with you and, and you will be the joint opposition to Labour?

CHARLES KENNEDY: No I don't think that will happen actually, but I do think what can happen is that if we emerge with an enhanced position in the next Parliament we know that the Conservatives are likely to go into meltdown either before polling day or certainly the day after it and they're going to turn in on themselves and have a great debate about everything from Europe to the leadership to a thousand and one other things. They're going to be off the field of combat, now we can't have a position in the next Parliament where the government can basically do what it likes because there's no effective scrutinising opposition and that's where we must come into play. So my approach is very much not just with a view to the finishing tape, it's almost as important what happens the day after and the weeks and months that follow the finishing tape and that's why I want people to vote positively for us on the kind of agenda that we're putting forward.

DAVID FROST: And what about Charles the stories yesterday and the day before that your own seat and your own majority of 4,000-plus at Rossky in Inverness is in jeopardy, that Kennedy could lose his seat, you could have a triumph all over the country but if you lost your seat that would be a disaster?

CHARLES KENNEDY: It would be rather disappointing, in personal terms to say the least, understatement of the century for me, or at least of this century anyway. I've never taken as anything other than a marginal constituency, I don't think in the kind of area that I am born and bred in, come from have represented for nearly 20 years now in Parliament that complacency has been a part of my approach to say the least and in that kind of community you don't win elections in four weeks of a campaign, you win elections over four years of a Parliament and therefore without taking it for granted, I was there yesterday campaigning and canvassing and doing all the things that the local candidate does and that's the good thing about it, it keeps you on your, it keeps your feet on the ground, you're just the local candidate, forget all this party leadership nonsense, no head in the clouds for you my boy and that's as it should be. I'm optimistic that I shall get a fifth term from the voters there but I'm not taking it for granted.

DAVID FROST: You do feel really deep down that Tony Blair has let you down over a referendum on the fair vote, don't you? I mean I've got quotes that you made me to over the period, it's in the manifesto, it's a clear pledge, we want them to stick to it because if they don't I don't see much basis for further meaningful cooperation and so on.

CHARLES KENNEDY: Yep.

DAVID FROST: You must feel gently diddled?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well if there was diddling I think that probably preceded me because the commitments that were entered into were primarily with Paddy Ashdown and also with Roy Jenkins who was commissioned to produce this report and then nothing happened. And in fact Roy and his co-members of this commission wrote a rather powerful letter to the Times just a few days ago saying that they hoped this would be the last election ever fought under this system. So I think that their sense of feeling let down is probably more pronounced than mine because I wasn't really part of that action. But I'm glad nonetheless that the issue remains in touch, there will be a review but as I keep saying to the Liberal Democrats, never mind to the government, I think if anybody's going to be let down in the long-term by the way, it's going to be Tony Blair and the Labour Party because the day will come, mark my words, when this system will turn on them with a vengeance as it turned on the Tories with a vengeance last time around. But if the Liberal Democrats have got to bear in mind that we're stuck with a system we've got and therefore we've got to win under the existing system, there's no point in my sitting around waiting for Godot, you know, in the hope that something might turn up and that's why this campaign, I've not been focusing on relations with other parties¿

DAVID FROST: No but you are still¿

CHARLES KENNEDY: Changing the voting system, I want to win under the issues of the day.

DAVID FROST: Yeah but you're still, you've still got a joint committee theoretically, or won't that, won't that suffice, will that survive the election?

CHARLES KENNEDY: I don't know to be honest, I don't know and it's not high on the list of my priorities whether it does or whether it doesn't. The evidence seems to be that we do far better if we plough our own furrow and get on with things and that's more my instinct anyway. It's only met a couple of times in the 18 months since I've been leader, I'm not dazzled by the lights of Downing Street, you know that doesn't turn me on, that's not what I'm in politics for. I'm in politics to get things done and I'm quite happy to sit down with politicians and other parties and get concrete achievements in place if they're there to achieve, but I'm not going through the motions just for the sake of soap opera.

DAVID FROST: And what about the editorial that we quoted earlier on, the Telegraph not, not we know a Liberal Democrat paper¿

CHARLES KENNEDY: Not yet, but we travel hopefully¿

DAVID FROST: It's all a matter of time these things¿wholly owned Labour subsidiary?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Well I think you'd be hard-pushed to make that charge stick, both in the course of this campaign and over the course of my leadership of the party so far. I think if anything people would probably say that there's a degree of distance, healthy democratic distance that's opened up, based on our principle distinctions with Labour. We think that they've been playing good cop, bad cop on Europe as we saw with Brown and Blair this week, we're not happy with an environmental approach and we certainly take issue with their commitment to the public services. Those are good issues on which to vote Liberal Democrat, you don't need Tony Blair with another massive majority to deliver that.

DAVID FROST: We'll just go to Darren for the news headlines.

BREAK FOR NEWS

DAVID FROST: Thanks Darren, well that's it, you're still pressing for a leader's debate aren't you?

CHARLES KENNEDY: Oh absolutely, I mean we're reading column inch after column inch about how cynical, how sceptical, how people aren't going to turn out and vote. You know let's get a leader's debate in this election, there's still time, there's still time, I would relish one, I really would, you're looking at the one opposition party leader that's enjoying this campaign.

DAVID FROST: Charles thank you very much indeed, all we've got time for alas, as they often say. Next week before the election we'll have the Conservative Leader William Hague joining us then, top of the morning, good morning.

End

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