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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 September 2005, 12:26 GMT 13:26 UK
The chairman vs leader question
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website, in Blackpool

Chinese leader Mao Zedong
Mao: A leading chairman
No one ever suggested Chairman Mao was a pussycat incapable of leading the Chinese Communist Party or casting an entire country in his own image.

And Iain Duncan Smith may have been elected leader of the Conservative Party, but few will argue he had his MPs trembling at his very shadow.

So, Charles Kennedy - Chairman Mao or the quiet man?

That may not be quite what his Liberal Democrat critics mean when they suggest he is more a chairman than a leader, of course.

They are probably thinking more along the lines that Mr Kennedy appears to have started a process of policy debate within his party then risen above it and refused to lead his troops in any specific direction.

But wasn't it Chairman Mao who once said: "Let a thousand flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend."

Strong leader

Mind you, he also declared that power came through the barrel of a gun, a philosophy Mr Kennedy may find less attractive (although, witnessing the behaviour of some of his colleagues, perhaps not).

And do the Liberal Democrats really want to return to the sort of leadership once offered by ex-SBS man and trained killer Paddy Ashdown?

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy
Could we be seeing the beginning of the Kennedy cult of the personality?

Now there was a strong leader who had the ability to literally tear the limbs off his detractors.

Many in his party loved it while others found it all a bit too much for their stomachs - after all, wasn't this supposed to be the party of organic lentil munching, hand thrown yoghurt slurping, hedgehog protectors?

And there was widespread anger at Mr Ashdown's habit of attempting to stitch up deals with Tony Blair with or without his party's overt approval or even knowledge.

'Hidden plot'

Mr Kennedy, accepting the suggestion he has adopted a "collegiate" approach to his leadership, regularly delivers thinly-disguised little pot shots at that period of Lib Dem history.

"I don't think that the people feel with me that there is some great hidden plot about the future of the party.

"When I came in as leader six years ago, one of the things the party liked, and I think helped the party, was that a more consensual style in bringing people together was much needed at that point," he has said.

And the truth is, with the exception of the inevitable group of opponents who had wanted a different leader, that is what the Lib Dems wanted at the time.

Similarly, however, it is probably also true - and Mr Kennedy has acknowledged this - that his chairmanship style now needs to give way to a more traditional leadership approach.

Lingering fears

The party's election gains were enough to raise hopes that it may really be on the road to that longed-for breakthrough.

But they were not quite enough to dispel lingering fears that the third force may just as easily slip back into its former position.

Iain Duncan Smith
Duncan Smith: An ex-leader

So there is a feeling amongst many delegates here in Blackpool that, as Mr Kennedy has himself declared, he needs to "up his game".

There is a danger here that that could start to sound a bit like Iain Duncan Smith's "quiet man turning up the volume".

Then again, could we be seeing the beginning of the Kennedy cult of the personality.

Chairman Kennedy's little orange book, anyone?

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