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Last Updated: Monday, 9 January 2006, 07:47 GMT
Where now for the Lib Dems?
Analysis
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

Sir Menzies Campbell and Simon Hughes
Sir Menzies Campbell and Simon Hughes are influential party figures

Few doubt that one of the major factors in Charles Kennedy's political assassination was the escalating debate over the Liberal Democrats' future direction.

It is even suggested that members of one or other of the different camps were directly responsible for whipping up the crisis which led to Mr Kennedy's resignation.

The issue was undoubtedly brought to a head by the election of David Cameron as Tory leader, with an agenda aimed squarely at whipping the electoral rug from under the Lib Dems.

But the tensions between the two wings of the party have been there since the merger of the Liberals and the old SDP and have sharpened with the election of a new breed of Lib Dem MPs.

So, now Mr Kennedy has gone, the party faces a pretty fundamental choice.

Most seem to agree that the last thing the party needs is to proceed in any direction that would take them off the centre ground where they can attract votes from both Labour and the Tories
Nick Assinder

It boils down, crudely, to one of left and right, between so-called social liberals and economic liberals, even traditionalists and modernisers.

On the left, traditional wing are the social liberals who tend to be those, often old Liberals, who emphasise issues like civil liberties and state-run public services, and who place less emphasis on the market.

They are often characterised as the "tax and spend" wing of the party, which wants to drive it to the left of Labour.

Current party president and likely leadership contender Simon Hughes is seen as the leader of that wing, but has warned against putting simplistic left/right labels on people.

The other, modernising group comprises those often young, new intake MPs who have gathered around the Orange Book - a series of essays suggesting a more right wing direction for the party.

David Cameron
Dealing with a resurgent Tory party under David Cameron will be crucial

The book was co-edited by David Laws, the former City high flier who is the party's work and pensions spokesman, and includes suggestions on greater private involvement in the NHS, less power for the EU and a distinctly more liberal approach to the economy.

Most seem to agree that the last thing the party needs is to proceed in any direction that would take them off the centre ground where they can attract votes from both Labour and the Tories.

Mr Kennedy always resisted being branded as the new left wing influence in the Commons but was equally opposed to any significant attempt to take on the Tories on their own agenda.

Now the Tories have started to change that agenda, the issue can no longer be avoided.

Much of the current emphasis tends to be on those Tory voters who, if they return to their old polling habits, can deny the Lib Dems any further advances
Nick Assinder

There is, of course, the option of attempting to reconcile the two trains of thought to forge a new Liberal Democrat agenda that will continue to attract both Labour and Tory voters.

Much of the current emphasis tends to be on those Tory voters who, if they return to their old polling habits, can deny the Lib Dems any further advances and even pitch them back to the old days of minority status.

But keeping them on board and attracting even more of them while not turning off disillusioned Labour voters - particularly when the Iraq war issue will have faded - is the trick.

Sir Menzies Campbell and his band of supporters hope that he may be the man to do that.

He retains the respect of both wings and, over the years, has described himself as a liberal "with a capital L" - specifically citing social issues - but has also expressed support for a new, patient-led approach to the NHS supported by the right of the party.

Whatever the outcome of the leadership contest, the new leader will have to address this issue as one of his or her first tasks.





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