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EDITIONS
Wednesday, 18 September, 2002, 11:44 GMT 12:44 UK
Why the long faces?
BBC News Online political correspondent Nick Assinder assesses Liberal Democrat fortunes ahead of the party's annual conference.

As the Liberal Democrat faithful gather in Brighton for their conference they have every reason to feel pleased with themselves.

Last year they notched up their best ever election victory, increasing their number of MPs by six to 52, attracting a very respectable 18% of the vote.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy
Kennedy is seen as the most trusted leader
They did pretty well in the following local elections and, in Charles Kennedy, have the most trusted leader of all the parties.

While the big two have seen voters responding to them with increasing disillusion and cynicism, the Lib Dems are widely seen as refreshingly straight.

Mr Kennedy, in particular, is often praised for his honest, straightforward style which won him many new admirers during his punishing general election schedule.

And the party clearly hopes that, after the next election, it could either hold the balance of power in a hung parliament or, at least, have vastly increased power.

Selling point

So, with all this to keep them smiling, why do so many Lib Dems look like they have found a penny but lost a bob?

The fact that the other parties - most notably Labour - keep blatantly nicking their most attractive ideas doesn't help.

Just as the Lib Dems see the voters being attracted to their unique selling point the carpet is whipped out from under them.

The most obvious was the party's long-standing commitment to raising income tax by 1p to pour into the education system.

Chancellor Gordon Brown has comprehensively out bid them on that front.

So, in an attempt to snatch back some ground, Mr Kennedy will announce a new policy of ring-fencing National Insurance contributions for use only for the public services.

It is a form of hypothecation of taxes once sneered at but now gaining ground with the mainstream parties.

Free-thinking

The conference will also see the obligatory liberal - in all senses of the word - debate.

Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman Simon Hughes
Hughes faces tricky debate on pornography
Previous years have seen controversial rows over policy on drugs and gay marriages.

This year the tradition will be maintained with a debate on liberalisation of pornography laws which Home Affairs spokesman and former leadership contender Simon Hughes will have to preside over.

This is the sort of thing that the other parties would avoid like the plague and ensure never saw the light of day at their conferences.

The Liberal Democrats revel in these debates as the clearest possible reinforcement of their free-thinking, convention-challenging traditions.

There will also undoubtedly be times when the leadership is defeated at the conference.

But, if past record is anything to go by, Mr Kennedy will consider and even accept alternative policies.

Far from being embarrassed by these things, the Lib Dems genuinely view them as positive.

Clubbable style

None of them, then, explain why there is a sense of foreboding in some sections of the party.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown
Action man Ashdown
The answer comes down to one thing - Charles Kennedy or, more precisely, Charles Kennedy's enemies.

It's not that the party do not support his leadership. After all, the MPs have just unanimously re-elected him.

Neither is it that they believe him an electoral liability. All the polls suggest quite the opposite.

And it is not that his colleagues and grassroots are overly worried by his laid-back, clubbable style, a million miles away from his action man predecessor Paddy Ashdown.

What worries and angers many in the ranks is that he is the subject of persistent sniping about his leadership and lifestyle.

Those attacks started to appear before the conference and will undoubtedly continue throughout the week.

Own ranks

The blame will be laid partly at the door of the other parties' spin merchants and partly on the media's mat.

But, far worse, many suspect a campaign to undermine Mr Kennedy's leadership from within his own party ranks.

There are continuing claims that Mr Kennedy is too low profile and relies too much on his frontbenchers.

His detractors claim he should be making more of the dissatisfaction with the government, particularly at a time when the Tories have yet to stage a revival.

They want him to live up to his pledge to make the party the real opposition.

His supporters dismiss this all as sour grapes and troublemaking. But they are clearly angry that much of it comes from within.

His keynote conference speech will be an opportunity to kill off that sniping once and for all - or risk worse.


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