Always look on the bright side of life

by Stephen Tall on January 7, 2006

Rarely has Enoch Powell’s dictum – “all political careers end in failure” – seemed so apt. When Charles Kennedy became leader of the Liberal Democrats, six years ago, he took over a party buoyed by its breakthrough in the 1997 landslide election, at which the Party doubled its Parliamentary representation to 46 MPs.

But there was nervousness too. There was a fear that the party had become too close to Labour for its own good. And a very real fear that the party could not hope to repeat its 1997 triumph at the next election. Mr Kennedy deftly soothed our anxieties.

A polite but pointed distance from Mr Blair was maintained (which later became a scorching chasm); and, against expectations, the Lib Dems gained seats in 2001. In the next four years, Mr Kennedy secured for himself a reputation as one of the country’s most popular politicians.

He bravely led the Party into the No lobby in opposition to the war in Iraq, a decision which has been wholly vindicated – but which could have cost the Lib Dems dear if those damned elusive WMD had turned up after all. On issues like the Hutton and Butler Inquiries, and on ID cards, Mr Kennedy’s statements were intelligent and principled, and recognised as such.

In short, Mr Kennedy has achieved a huge amount for this party, far more than he might have imagined possible when he became our leader.

The pace at which events are now moving is quite startling. Even a couple of days ago, many ordinary members like me were annoyed with, and baffled by, our MPs’ constant anonymous backbiting based on what appeared to be little more than personal animus. It is now clear there has been a lot more to it than that.

It seems Mr Kennedy used up his second chances, and that a group of MPs sought him out privately, handed him the loaded revolver, and invited him to do the decent thing. He refused to do so. Critics who think the Lib Dems lack ruthlessness will argue they should have shot him point-black. They may be right, but if we were that kind of people we would not be in this party.

Those MPs who then briefed to the press may have been out-of-line to do so anonymously, but the personal circumstances of Mr Kennedy’s problem put them in a very difficult position. I think and hope most members will be understanding of that, regardless of the respect and warmth we hold Mr Kennedy in.

There can be no doubt now that Mr Kennedy must and should resign: for his own sake, and that of the party. (I have written in those terms to Mr Kennedy, as an ordinary party member, and posted my letter here.) I hope he will do so swiftly, and with dignity, so that those of us who have been his staunch supporters can remember his leadership for the good that he achieved, without a bitter after-taste.

We are a proudly democratic party in which every member’s vote is valued and counted equally. That stands in stark contrast to the Labour Party, where trade unions still rule the roost, with ordinary members accounting for just one-third of the voting power. And of course Tory MPs attempted just a few months ago to remove from their members the authority to elect their new leader (though they were ultimately thwarted on a technicality).

The leadership contest on which the party is about to embark gives us a real opportunity to debate openly the issues that matter to the public, to show that we trust our members to elect a leader who can project a crystal clear liberal vision, and to unite behind whoever wins so that the Lib Dems can serve the people without distractions in the years ahead.

It’s been a grim few days and weeks. But the thing about being a liberal is that you have to be constitutionally optimistic. So I have no hesitation in saying and believing that the current doom and gloom will prove transient, and that the party, under new leadership, will emerge stronger than ever in the coming months.