Pack’s podcast shows striking parallels between Kennedy’s leadership and now

In the 36 years the Liberal Democrats have existed as a political party, we have had eight leaders, and Mark Pack’s latest Never Mind the Bar Charts podcast offers an evaluation of one of those eight, Charles Kennedy (1999-2006). The podcast, featuring Mark chatting with the Liberal historian Duncan Brack, has just come out, and the timing is interesting.

Most of the information in it has long been in the public domain, and anyone who has read Greg Hurst’s biography of Kennedy – or, for that matter, mine of Nick Clegg – will find it a refresher rather than a revelation. What was a revelation, however, was just how similar the party’s situation is now compared with the 2001-05 parliament when Kennedy was at his peak.

There are of course some differences, notably that Kennedy’s 52 Lib Dem MPs elected in 2001 were in opposition to Labour, while the 11 Lib Dems elected in 2019 have been opposing the Conservatives. But there are some striking similarities, with some equally striking conclusions to be drawn.

Brack is a firm adherent to the conclusion Hurst drew: that alcoholism was not the cause of Kennedy’s downfall, rather he had no agenda for his leadership, and as he became more aware of this, his drinking got worse. Kennedy was a great communicator who had cut-through with the public because of his appearances on popular TV shows, but he had no clear idea of what he wanted to do with the party leadership, and never seemed to give any policy direction.

Pack takes this as read, and describes Kennedy’s approach to the 2005 general election as “muddled”. Numerically, it was the party’s most successful election, peaking at 62 MPs (up to 63 following a by-election in early 2006), but Pack says, “under those very favourable circumstances (notably the principled Lib Dem stance on the Iraq war), perhaps that was more of a missed opportunity.”

More strikingly still, Pack says Kennedy was “remarkably lucky” that the election didn’t lead to a hung parliament. The attempt to be both more leftist than Labour and a better opposition than the Conservatives left disaffected Tory voters with nowhere to go, and Pack believes if the 2005-10 parliament had been hung, the Lib Dems could not have done any better in 2010 than we actually did in 2015. “What on earth would the Liberal Democrats have done in a hung parliament like that?” he asks. “The failure to have a strategic plan was glossed over by the fact that we didn’t do better in 2005.”

Fast forward to 2024. The party has done OK in this parliament, winning four spectacular by-elections and numerous council seats. But with the Conservatives breathtakingly unpopular since Partygate started to leak out, the fact that the Lib Dems have trundled along at 9-12% in the polls for most of this parliament begs the same conclusion that Pack draws about Kennedy: we are missing an opportunity.

The 2024 election manifesto is not out yet, but one of the elements that prompted several dozen experienced party members to compile November’s letter to The Guardian calling for bolder policies is that the party really doesn’t seem to stand for anything. We all hope for a hung parliament, but what will happen if we get one? If Labour is the biggest party and it needs our help, it will ask “What do the Lib Dems want and can we give it?” If we don’t know ourselves what we want, will we need saving from a 2024 hung parliament?

Brack’s view of Kennedy is hardly a surprise – the editor of the Journal of Liberal History, he is a dyed-in-the-wool British social Liberal who signed the Guardian letter. Pack, by contrast, has to walk a tightrope. As party president, he is de facto part of the leadership team, yet hearing him talk in his own podcast about Kennedy’s failings, you’d think he’d have wanted to sign the Guardian letter if his job had let him. He is, after all, the prime mover of the ‘Core Vote’ initiative which seeks to get the party’s poll rating up to a steady 20%, even in bad times. For that, voters need to have a vision of what the Lib Dems stand for. Our recent polling suggests we’re miles from 20%, and Pack must be worried that too many voters still don’t know who the Lib Dems are.

During the 2001-05 parliament, many in the party despaired about the lack of direction set by Kennedy. Some tried to take action, like the publication of The Orange Book in 2004. November’s Guardian letter was a call for a greater articulation of what the party stands for and what voting for it will mean in the 2024 election. If we’re to learn the lessons from the failings of the Kennedy leadership, the voices in the party calling for a clearer message must be listened to.

The Never Mind the Bar Charts is available here and all major podcast platforms.

* Chris Bowers is a two-term district councillor and four-time parliamentary candidate. He writes on cross-party cooperation and in 2021 was the lead author of the New Liberal Manifesto.

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26 Comments

  • Mark Johnston 5th Jan '24 - 4:32pm

    The podcast was excellent, and these are just the right conclusions to draw from it. How much longer before Ed wakes up to smell the coffee?? And is still enough time left??

  • Chris is entirely right to draw lessons from that period for today. I have been struck for some time now about how the LD poll rating failed to move up when the Tories collapsed during 2022. Historically both the LDs and the Liberal Party have tended to benefit in those circumstances. Are we missing an opportunity is a fair question?

    However, I differ from Mark in his view that we were fortunate to avoid a hung Parliament in 2005. Whatever would have happened could hardly have been worse than the 2015 wipeout from which we have not yet recovered. It wouldn’t have been plain sailing. Supporting either a Labour or a Tory government was always going to lose us a chunk of our vote.

    The key difference is that it was then, and still is now, significantly more likely that we would get some form of electoral reform at Westminster from Labour than from the Tories. After all we had achieved that with Labour for Scotland and Wales, and Labour introduced the supplementary vote for Mayors (now removed by the Tories).

    Electoral Reform is essential to a LD soft landing coming out of any form of Coalition. That is an important lesson for what comes next. The Jenkins Report is still sitting on a shelf. It is an official government document commissioned by Blair. We should be clear that it has to be implemented as the price of any post election deal with Labour.

  • Leekliberal 5th Jan '24 - 5:59pm

    Thanks Chris for this thoughtful article.. As our leaders are set against all of our suggestions on how to get across to voters what we stand for, in this post our discussion can be.seen.as ‘navel gazing’. But what the heck! The leader that we never had, except as a stand-in, is the one who l really rate.and that’s Vince Cable. His dealing with the Tories in coalition was forensic and transactional. No Rose Garden love-in with Cameron for him! Had Nick.Clegg kept cool and opposed Cameron’s harshest wheezes, we might have avoided our trouncing in 2015. Sadly the quad chumminess with Alexander as his partner, cost us dear! Should we be fortunate enough to be necessary in sustaining a Starmer Government l hope that we will learn a lesson.from Vince.

  • Chris Moore 5th Jan '24 - 6:14pm

    At best there are only the most generic of lessons to apply to the LDs in 2024 based on the experience of the LDs in 2001-2005.

    As Chris himself accepts, the political situation was totally different. The economy was in a good place. And the LDs were much stronger in Parliament and benefitting in the opinion polls from our opposition to the Iraq War.

    A much better comparison on every front is the 1992-7 Parliament with the late lamented Paddy as leader.

    We were facing a Tory government in its 4th term, the LDs had only 18 seats, but then won a series of by-elections against the Tories. Our poll ratings, however, post the arrival of the Prophet of the Third Way were very poor indeed.

    Paddy worried that Labour had moved its tanks onto our lawn and no one would be interested in voting for us. However, he eventually realised that instead of straining to find new “distinctive” policies or stances, the LDs needed to keep their cool and present themselves as party to the country’s desire to be rid of a tired and corrupt government.

    We are doing that quite successfully currently. And we have had really strong results against the Tories locally.

    Perhaps, Duncan and yourself and others should have a think about 1992-7.

  • Katharine Pindar 5th Jan '24 - 7:11pm

    “If we don’t know ourselves what we want, will we need saving from a 2024 hung Parliament ?” you ask, Chris Bowers. Hardly. Because I suggest many of us DO know what we want, and ask our leadership to stop just obsessing about getting the Tories out and devise a strategic plan to get what we want. Please see my OpEd ‘Make it known – we are a party of CAN-DO and Care. We want big things, like their future co-operation in developing Guaranteed Basic Income, which can eliminate deep poverty and the need for food banks within the ten years of a two-term Labour government. And working with us towards closer co-operation on developing good relations with Europe, and green policies to tackle climate change. Much to share, and other major things to push for.

  • Oliver Leonard 5th Jan '24 - 8:27pm

    The bigger question as well is what happens after Labour messes up and loses again at some point does the country just go back to the Tories then? This is why the Lib Dems need to be targeting Labour as well as the Tories so they can also win seats from Labour or at least be competitive, why not go for Cambridge, Sheffield, London, Liverpool or Manchester at the very least?

  • LDs need to change two things to be successful again. Firstly to have a clear and distinctive set of policy aims which persist independently of the small windows of time before General Elections when parties launch manifestos that often bear little relation to their priorities the rest of the time. These should include long, medium and short term aims. Secondly about cooperation with other parties in a hung parliament – that should be driven by which collaboration will deliver the greatest fulfilment of those policy aims.

  • Steve Trevethan 6th Jan '24 - 9:16am

    Might it help both our nation and our party if H Q were to investigate current mainstream socio-economic assumptions such as the “fiscal rules”?

  • Alex Macfie 6th Jan '24 - 10:13am

    Those who say we should have done better in 2005 forget that there weren’t that many realistically winnable Labour-facing target seats for us. Also we did remarkably well against the Tories in that election considering they were in Opposition at the time — a net loss of one seat, with swings and roundabouts. (It’s a myth that we have act like Tories to win over soft Tory voters, who do not take their cues from Tory media apparatchiks.) In 2010, when we abandoned targeting, we actually lost seats to Labour, which simply should not have happened, anywhere, in that election.

    I also dispute the idea that a hung Parliament in 2005 would inevitably have led to a 2015-like disaster in 2010. In the second Scottish Parliamentary election we increased our seat tally after a term of coalition with Labour. The reason we did so badly in 2015 was the way our leadership of the time conducted the coalition, not coalition per se.

  • Alex Macfie 6th Jan '24 - 11:21am

    “Germany … where the far right AfD is rapidly growing” as opposed to the UK where the far right is arguably in power, just under the brand of a mainstream party.

  • We have to be realistic. 2019 Conservative voters who are now unhappy have 4 parties to choose from (5 in Wales/Scotland). There will not be a libdem govt this year. The best we can do is target winnable seats and hope for a hung parliament (which should bring electoral reform). We should shout about brexit and joining the Single Market! And I agree, in an ideal world Vince Cable would still be an MP.

  • Duncan Brack 6th Jan '24 - 12:08pm

    Chris Moore makes the good point that in many ways the political situation now is more similar to the 1992-97 parliament than to 2001-05, and suggests that Mark Pack and I should consider another podcast on it. In fact we’ve already done one! Back in 2020 – see here: https://www.markpack.org.uk/161166/the-project-how-the-conservatives-were-beaten-last-time-never-mind-the-bar-charts/. However, Chris’s implication that Paddy didn’t worry about coming up with distinctive policy positions is quite wrong – Paddy saw that as complementary, not antagonistic, to an effective ground operation. And so do many of us.

  • William Wallace 6th Jan '24 - 2:01pm

    Any idea that Paddy Ashdown did not worry about policy positions, distinctive or otherwise, is absurd! I led the manifesto drafting in 1996-7; I soon lost count of the number of meetings I had with Paddy, one-to-one or in larger meetings, as well as a further number of meetings with Labour MPs and staff about areas where our interests and priorities might overlap.

  • Graham Jeffs 6th Jan '24 - 2:44pm

    Not exactly straws in the wind, but:

    a) Caroline Voaden – yes, I’m sure you are dead right – what is (not) going on is a complete abdication by the leadership.

    b) Katharine Pindar: “ask our leadership to stop just obsessing about getting the Tories out and devise a strategic plan to get what we want”

    c) Alistair: ” have a clear and distinctive set of policy aims which persist independently of the small windows of time before General Elections when parties launch manifestos that often bear little relation to their priorities the rest of the time”

    d) Leekliberal: “our leaders are set against all of our suggestions on how to get across to voters what we stand for”

    Sadly, as I observed the other day, “they” simply aren’t interested in the concerns and advice portrayed on LDV. It does not auger well. But what can be done?

  • Jenny Barnes 6th Jan '24 - 5:20pm

    auger – a tool like a corkscrew for boring holes in wood
    augur – to predict the future especially from omens.

    You’re welcome.

  • From the article, “[Charles Kennedy] had no agenda for his leadership, and as he became more aware of this, his drinking got worse.”

    IIRC the Party celebrated that Kennedy was the youngest MP on his election and for some time afterwards. But was that good for either him or the Party in the long run? I think not as it meant that he entered the Commons with little life experience and none of a ‘real’ job. Yet IMO the first years of work are formative in many ways without which experience he would have been handicapped in formulating his own leadership agenda.

    Contrast that with the Labour governments of the 1950s, 60s and 70s that did so much to shape and reconstruct Britain post-war. For example, Clement Attlee’s views were influenced by volunteer work in East London. In WW1 he was captain and later battalion adjutant while Denis Healey, who was to serve as chancellor, was a major in WW2. Many of their contemporaries would have had similar experiences.

    Is it time to reconsider how we select candidates so that those chosen come with a ‘hinterland’ of prior experience from outside the Westminster/think tank hothouses?

  • Nonconformistradical 8th Jan '24 - 8:48am

    “Is it time to reconsider how we select candidates so that those chosen come with a ‘hinterland’ of prior experience from outside the Westminster/think tank hothouses?”
    Yes!

  • Graham Jeffs 8th Jan '24 - 12:40pm

    Yes! But politics itself isn’t the only area where experience of the real world could help in providing more rounded individuals, better able to address issues in a balanced manner.

  • A Labour party in the centre ground and the Tory party bang to the right and unpopular. Lots of vacant liberal space to occupy. A clear raison d’etre for a liberal, centre left, pro European internationalist party willing to take a stand on issues ranging from welfare spending to the Middle East. Am I talking about 2005 or today?

  • Chris Moore 10th Jan '24 - 7:29pm

    William, you’ve misunderstood the point I’m making.

    I didn’t say Paddy wasn’t interested in policy.

    What I said was he came to realise it didn’t matter that Labour had adopted many of our policy positions. That we weren’t distinctive didn’t matter, if we positioned ourselves as part of the movement for change.

    This is I believe the lesson of the years from 94-97.

    It is a very pertinent lesson and one I believe yourself and others who did sign the letter havenot taken on board.

    Party distinctiveness per se is of absolutely no interest to voters.

  • 1. Opposition parties won’t know the state of the country’s finances until becoming the government. Therefore beware of pre-election promises that could be unaffordable.

    2. No coalition. It requires accepting any nonsense proposed by the major party.

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