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Sunday, September 19, 1999 Published at 16:48 GMT 17:48 UK

UK Politics

Will Charlie be their darling?

Kennedy: different from Labour

By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder

Charles Kennedy has launched the Liberal Democrats' annual conference with a pledge to map out the policy differences between his party and New Labour.

The BBC's Carolyn Quinn: "Charles Kennedy remains the focus of attention"
As he arrived in Harrogate for his first rally as party leader, he said his aim was to put the Lib Dems on election footing and to "emphasise what we stand for - what we are about."

He would not be "wasting time talking about other people," he promised. Fat chance.

Probably the single biggest issue facing the Lib Dems at the moment is their relationship with the Labour Party and where it goes from here.

Mr Kennedy was previously highly sceptical about the informal alliance, which sees members of his frontbench sitting on a special cabinet committee with members of the government.

During the leadership contest - sparked by Paddy Ashdown's surprise announcement to stand down after 11 years - he warmed ever so slightly to the deal.

And there is no doubt that his attitude towards it will be the defining element of his leadership.

Members cautious

He may not want to talk about the alliance, but his party members most certainly do - and their view is overwhelmingly cautious.

At a closed session on the first day of the conference, Mr Kennedy was left in no doubt that Liberal Democrats do not want the relationship with Labour to deepen any further.

The BBC's John Kampfner: "The Liberal Democrats remain sceptical about tax cuts"
Most are happy for it to continue discussing constitutional issues like the promised freedom of information bill and their forlorn hopes for PR for general elections. But that is as far as they want it to go.

Mr Kennedy - a canny political operator - has caught the mood of his party and is echoing members' views when he declares that he wants to concentrate on developing his party's own agenda and emphasising its individuality.

And, of course, he realises the inherent dangers of being too closely allied to Labour in the run up to the next general election.

If the Lib Dems are viewed simply as another arm of Labour then there is little incentive for people to vote for them.

But that leaves Mr Kennedy with his second major problem - exactly where in the political spectrum does he position his party?

Not left

He is adamant that the Lib Dems will not be to the left of Labour - that would alienate the disgruntled Tory voters who gave the party much of its support in recent polls.

But going to the right of Labour - no easy task in itself - would risk infuriating traditional Lib Dem supporters who see themselves as radicals.

So Mr Kennedy is uttering phrases such as "not left but progressive". Part of that programme is to demand that Chancellor Gordon Brown spends his election war chest on boosting public services rather than offering tax cuts.

Another element is to emphasise the Lib Dems strong pro-European, pro-single currency stance.

But Mr Kennedy will have to flesh out his personal platform a good deal more than that over the next few days to leave his party members with a clear idea of exactly where he stands and where he is leading them.

Falling apart

He will also be dearly hoping that the rally will go better than his opening press conference where the omens were not good.

As he fielded questions from the press the display behind him started falling apart bit by bit.

To the huge embarrassment of officials, the party logo - a stylised bird of freedom - started shedding its feathers.

It was the sort of cock up all politicians dread because they know the clip will be shown time and again and the pundits will use it to illustrate all sorts of theories about the party coming apart or falling to pieces.

His press chief made a brave stab at laughing it off, declaring it was the left wing which had fallen off, but it was the last thing Mr Kennedy wanted at his inaugural press conference.

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