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Tuesday, 25 September, 2001, 16:09 GMT 17:09 UK
Quiet battle rages for Lib Dem soul
The time for fudging is drawing to an end
Nyta Mann

Poor Charles Kennedy? One of the very few weeks when the Liberal Democrats could realistically hope to be centre stage, and instead its annual conference is utterly dominated by the gathering pace of international events since 11 September.

But lucky Charles Kennedy is more like it, however.

Because if the political media were as attentive to the Bournemouth gathering as they would otherwise be, they would only expose his party's deep and fundamental divisions over its future direction.

Iain Duncan Smith: New Tory leader is a Thatcher devotee
The greater events unfolding elsewhere have obscured the fact that a battle is under way for the soul of the Liberal Democrats, and it comes down to which path the party now chooses to take: left or right.

Mr Kennedy has always evaded the question of whether his party is to the left or right of Labour, insisting it is neither of those but simply "ahead".

But many Lib Dem activists know exactly which side of the divide they will be fighting for.

War cries of the right

Those on the right flank want Kennedy to move further onto the ground vacated by a Conservative Party which has just elected a Thatcher devotee as its leader.

Their war-cries have been unmistakable on the conference fringe in recent days.

Foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell, emboldened perhaps by an acceptance that he is never going to become Lib Dem leader, telling his party it must discover discipline, abandon "self-indulgence" and adopt a consumer-based approach to public services.

Labour's Neil Kinnock used a "review" to dump policies he wanted to get rid of
Former Lib Dem policy chief David Laws MP, echoed Mr Campbell's support for more private sector involvement in the public services with an attack on the conference motion tabled by party health spokesman Evan Harris for "showing our fixation only on the producer side".

And at a meeting held by Liberalfuture - the right-wing vanguard within the party - even the once-taboo subject of education vouchers was approvingly raised.

Though the troops on this side of the battle are impatient with the pace of change under Kennedy, who is certainly not unsympathetic to them, they expect to win the day in the end.

Resistance to 'Blairisation'

Ranged against them on the libertarian left are the likes of the New Radicals, who along with other grassroots activists are determined to resist what they see as a "Blairising" of their own party.

By this they mean not only a shift to the right but also the centralisation, focus-grouping and emphasis on presentation that have become New Labour trademarks.

They do not enjoy the same resources or sponsors in influential positions around the leadership as do their rivals.

But they are no disorganised rabble, having already seen off the leadership on a recent bid to adopt one-member-one-vote (Omov) for key Lib Dem committees.

Menzies Campbell: Blazed a trail for the right on the fringe
Little-noticed in the aftermath of the June general election, Kennedy sought to change the method of internal election to the three bodies which have most say over the party: the federal policy, federal executive and conference committees.

But Lib Dem members, balloted on the proposal, opted by a narrow margin to stick with the current system of committee members being chosen by conference delegates.

The activists on this side of the fight also view the comprehensive policy overhaul currently under way as cover for the kind of Neil Kinnock-style review process whose prime aim was to dump proposals - unilateral nuclear disarmament and opposition to EU membership in 1980s Labour's case - the leadership wanted rid of.

D-day due for Kennedy

Charles Kennedy has been critical of government plans to boost the role of private firms in public services.

So too have the leaders of the biggest trade unions affiliated to Labour - "my new best friends", as he ironically describes them.

John Edmonds: Hard to tell if Charles Kennedy agrees with him
But ask the Lib Dem leader if he actually agrees with what GMB leader John Edmonds, for example, has been saying, and his answer is 100% fudge.

"I don't doubt there is a genuine sentiment... an awful lot of trade union members are voting Lib Dem these days... he's right to be cautionary about what the government's instincts are, but no blank cheques to Mr Edmonds any more than to President Bush."

The time when that kind of response will do is coming to an end, and the Lib Dem leader will soon face the day on which he has to choose the path to take his party down.

The Liberal Democrats emerged from the last election as victors of circumstance, profiting electorally from a deeply unpopular Tory Party and a Labour Party with disillusioned supporters.

Relying on this fortuitous combination again would be a big gamble, and Lib Dems can afford to waste little time in positioning themselves for the next election.

But first the conflict to decide just what that position should be must be played out.

See also:

26 Jun 01 | UK Politics
Union accuses privatisation 'freaks'
24 Sep 01 | Liberal Democrats
Which way now for Lib Dems?
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