How the Lib Dem leadership contenders can learn from Charles Kennedy's example

Journal columnist Paul Linford on how the Liberal Democrats can stand tall again after the shattering blows of recent weeks

Chris Ison/PA Wire Charles Kennedy who has died aged 55
Charles Kennedy who has died aged 55

In my last two columns I have looked at what the general election result has meant for the two main parties – Labour pitchforked into a leadership contest and a fresh bout of navel-gazing, the Tories embarking on an ambitious legislative programme with a wafer-thin Commons majority.

The shocking death of Charles Kennedy this week seems an appropriate juncture at which to turn my attentions to the fate of the Liberal Democrats.

As was evident from Wednesday’s Commons tributes, it was a cause for huge sadness across the political spectrum that such a talented and genuinely nice man should have had his life and career cut short at the age of just 55.

To my mind, though, it was equally sad that he should have lived to see the radical left-of-centre party he helped build and which he led to its greatest electoral success in 2005 reduced to a parliamentary rump of just eight MPs.

Many of the tributes to Mr Kennedy this week highlighted his judgement in making the right call on the single biggest decision of his leadership – opposing the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

But he was also right on the other great dilemma which has faced his party in the past dozen years or so – whether to go into coalition with David Cameron’s Tories in 2010.

When Mr Clegg asked Liberal Democrat MPs for a confirmatory vote on the pact in 2010, Mr Kennedy stood almost alone in refusing to back the deal, knowing instinctively that for a party that had run as left-of-Labour to join a right-of-centre coalition would be certain electoral suicide.

The rest, as they say, is history.

In the North East, the election saw the Liberal Democrats reduced to near-irrelevance as the party lost both the seats it previously held in the region by wide margins.

Over the course of 42 years, Sir Alan Beith had built the Berwick constituency into what Bill Shankly would have termed a bastion of invincibility – but his departure from the scene saw it revert once more to the Conservatives.

But it is not just the loss of Berwick to the Tories and Redcar to Labour which shows how far the party in the region has fallen in recent years.

It’s not so very long ago, after all, that the region also had a Lib Dem MEP in Fiona Hall, and a Lib Dem leader of Newcastle City Council in John Shipley.

So what next for the party? Well, it is way too facile to assume that the Liberal Democrats simply need to reclaim the ground on which Mr Kennedy so successfully positioned them a decade ago.

That will be the first instinct of Westmorland and Lonsdale MP and leadership front-runner Tim Farron, certainly, but Labour has also shifted to the left since the Tony Blair years and there is far less mileage to be gained now from outflanking them in that direction.

By contrast, Mr Farron’s rival, former health minister Norman Lamb, can be expected to argue for a much more centrist position, having been a key Liberal Democrat figure in the coalition and a close ally of Mr Clegg.

Given the current predicament which the party finds itself, this almost certainly means he will lose, although in terms of experience, ability and general gravitas, I would have to agree with Shirley Williams that Mr Lamb looks the best-qualified of the two contenders.

But whoever emerges victorious, where both contenders can surely learn from Mr Kennedy’s example is in his determination to establish the Liberal Democrats as a genuinely independent political force.

It is worth remembering that Mr Kennedy came to the party leadership in 1999 in the wake of a five-year flirtation between his predecessor Paddy Ashdown and Mr Blair which – had John Prescott not blocked it – would have seen two Lib Dems join the New Labour cabinet.

And just as Mr Ashdown had allowed the party to get far too close to New Labour, so Mr Clegg allowed it to get too close to the Tories – to the point where the bigger party effectively cannibalised it.

The most fitting tribute the Liberal Democrats can now pay to their lost leader would be to ensure – as he did - that the party can once again stand on its own two feet.

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