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Last Updated: Monday, 19 September 2005, 19:35 GMT 20:35 UK
Lib Dem members query 'failure'

By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website in Blackpool

Charles Kennedy always knew he was going to get flak from his parliamentary party in the wake of the Liberal Democrats' election performance.

On the second day of this conference, however, he came face to face with ordinary party members clearly dismayed over their failure to do better and, most importantly, wanting to know where they go next.

Charles Kennedy
Charles Kennedy told delegates he was "thick skinned"

One delegate, speaking during a question and answer session, complained bitterly that he had been forced to "waste time" defending Mr Kennedy on the doorstep during the campaign.

Another wanted to know who to blame for the party's failure to get its policies across, with the media a traditional target.

But he also managed, deliberately or otherwise, to recall Mr Kennedy's own inability to explain his tax plans on the first day of the campaign.

This is not what Mr Kennedy wants to focus on.

He wants this conference to celebrate the advances the party did make and then turn its attention to "maturing" further for the next poll.

To that end, he has seen any number of debates, both on the conference floor and on the fringe, about where the Lib Dems should position themselves on the left-right spectrum, or somewhere else, and what attitude they should take towards reform of the public sector and tax-and-spend.

'Mature discussion'

It would be easy for all this talk to be portrayed as division and lack of direction.

And Mr Kennedy acknowledged this during the session, declaring the key was to have a mature discussion without descending into backbiting, division and personality.

But he also recognised there was the danger of this open debate being seen as a sign of policy weakness, or the result of lack of firm leadership.

And, while he is happy to allow and even encourage the policy debate - and he is canny enough to know it will happen in any case - he understandably wants to kill off the leadership issue.

Mr Kennedy is walking a difficult line here and on a number of the big issues which are seeing the loudest debates between the left and right wings of the party, he has yet to commit himself

He did his best during the conference session by insisting that, when compared to the other two big party leaders, he had been considered a "net asset".

It was no coincidence that the attacks from the other parties and sections of the media had coincided with the general election, he added.

But he had a thick skin, and they were not going to stop him, he insisted, coming over all Rambo.

And this after a slightly irascible party chief, Lord Razzall had earlier told the press that, thanks to the rules, there was no way the party could now remove Mr Kennedy before the next election.

It may well be the case that, having been re-elected unopposed in June, it is technically extremely difficult for anyone to stage a leadership coup.

In any case there is no real sign all this "debate" is leading towards a move against him.

'Big issues'

But Mr Kennedy is walking a difficult line here and on a number of the big issues which are seeing the loudest debates between the left and right wings of the party, he has yet to commit himself.

For example, many believe he will sniff the wind and finally agree to the abandonment of the 50p top tax rate policy.

Sir Menzies Campbell

He signalled a possible shift during his conference session, declaring the tax review should not abandon the principle that the wealthiest should pay more.

But, he added, it should also consider those voters who might believe they will be in that tax bracket by the time of the next election.

It is an example of where the right believe they are making the running on policy.

Senior figures like Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are also taking the exposure the conference offers them to set out positions on the NHS and taxation.

The really big question is whether, by the end of this conference, delegates will be any clearer about the settled direction of the Liberal Democrat Party.

And, perhaps, whether it is a direction in which Mr Kennedy is prepared to lead them.

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