Wednesday, September 20, 2006

My Guardian piece on Charles Kennedy

As my Comment is Free piece on Charles Kennedy soon faded into obscurity, I am reproducing it here. I hope it was honest but not unkind.

Kennedy's sun finally sets

It wasn't the drink that did for Charles Kennedy: it was the drift.

When Kennedy stood for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats in 1999, the West Highland Free Press - a radical newspaper published in his own constituency - remarked that people in London were beginning to ask what it had been asking for 15 years: what exactly does Charles Kennedy stand for?

Though he won that contest and went on to lead the party for nearly seven years, we never really found out.

Observing Kennedy at close quarters did not help to solve the mystery. One job that falls to the leader under the Liberal Democrats' constitution is chairing the party's Federal Policy Committee, and veterans of the Paddy Ashdown years recall pre-meetings of loyalists to ensure that his views prevailed. There was nothing of that sort under Kennedy: he simply chaired its proceedings impartially.

In a way this was admirable: the more restful atmosphere was welcome, and the idea that a party's leader must originate all its policy is a modern heresy. A growing party like the Liberal Democrats is bound to harvest ideas from far beyond its leader or parliamentary party. But it was also symptomatic of the lack of direction to Liberal Democrat policy or strategy under his leadership.

And as far as there was any direction to party policy under Kennedy, it was away from that you would expect from his publicly expressed views. When asked about his political beliefs, Kennedy generally named European unity as the most important. Yet under his leadership the pressure of events meant that adoption of the euro slipped from the centre of Liberal Democrat economic policy - at one time it seemed to be the only Liberal Democrat economic policy - to a place on its distant fringes.

A month or two ago the appearance of Greg Hurst's biography of Kennedy, with its promised revelation of treachery at the highest level, threatened to overshadow the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton. Yet the newspaper serialisation failed to deliver anything very new or shocking. If anything, it confirmed a growing perception that Kennedy's MPs remained too loyal to him for too long

Hurst's book will still find plenty of buyers at Brighton, but not because of a hunger for more scandal about the former Liberal Democrat leader. If the start of the conference does resemble a class of 10-year-olds the day after the new Harry Potter comes out, it will be because the inner working of the party remains obscure to many Lib Dem members and they will seize upon any work that promises to cast light upon it.

Charles Kennedy remains immensely popular with those members and, properly used, could again be an electoral asset to the party. His affability and conversational style of speech-making were made for television, and he was regularly named as the politician voters would most like to go down the pub with - even if some of them always did sense that the problem would be getting him out of the pub afterwards.

It is less clear that an attempt by Kennedy to launch a subtle challenge to Menzies Campbell's leadership in Brighton would be well received. There are many Liberal Democrats who see his leadership as an era of lost opportunity, given the party's failure to exploit the Conservatives' bizarre choices of leader over the period - even if few of them are quite as clear on what should have been done instead.

Campbell's early wobbles have been overcome, and no leadership challenge is now on the cards. When Liberal Democrat thoughts do turn to a new leader after the next general election, Chris Huhne, who finished second to Campbell in this year's contest, or a representative of the younger generation like Nick Clegg will inherit his crown.

Though Charles Kennedy, as a well-known figure in a party that still has to fight for its share of media attention, will always be a story, it is hard to imagine him returning to lead the party.

1 comment:

Tim Swift said...

Interesting piece.

As an ex-Liberal Democrat, the election of Charles Kennedy as leader always summed up the fundamental structural problems the party has.

The Lib Dem style of community campaigning, whilst hugely effective and sometimes done with honesty, rarely seemed to build a mass membership. So there was always a potential mis-match between the general party membership - whose view of the party was largely shaped by the small numbers of indvidiual MPs who secured national profiles - and the active members who drive policy and campaigning.

So I always expected that when Ashdown stood down, Kennedy would be the main challenger for the leadership, not because of his policies but because of a high media profile which came largely from non-political activity. (I remember being involved in campaigns against him becomign party chair in the early 1990s with little success).

It was interesting to see that any movement during that leadership campaign was clearly away from Kennedy, and that perhaps reflected his weaknesses as a politician.

And, observing from outside, I still don't know what he really stands for. It seems to me he could have followed the same fairly affable brand of politics within either the Labour or Conservative parties, and would not have to change his views very much.

I think - and I don't believe this is just wishful thinking on my part - you are right about the squandered opportunity. Under Ashdown, the Lib Dems had gained a reputation for toughness on certain issues; he commanded respect for his views even if you did not agree with them. That has been lost under Kennedy, and I'm not certain that your current leader will regain it.