Kennedy optimistic for June 10

STANDFIRST: CHARLES Kennedy visits East Anglia today, buoyed by opinion polls that show the Liberal Democrats are on course to do well in next month's European and local council elections.

STANDFIRST: CHARLES Kennedy visits East Anglia today, buoyed by opinion polls that show the Liberal Democrats are on course to do well in next month's European and local council elections. He spoke with EADT Political Editor Graham Dines ahead of his visit.

OPPOSITION to the Iraq War and proposals for a local income tax to pay for council services are the two policies which the Liberal Democrats believe will result in increased numbers of Euro MPs and councillors after June 10's elections.

For party leader Charles Kennedy, who is spending most of his time away from Westminster and on the campaign trail, the election strategy of putting the council tax and the invasion of Iraq at the top of the agenda is paying dividends.

In the East of England, the Lib Dems are seeking to keep overall control of Norwich and Cambridge and to better their position on a whole host of unitary and district authorities including Colchester, Ipswich and Waveney.

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In 1999, which was the first time the European Parliament elections had been fought under the controversial closed list system of proportional representation, the Lib Dems managed to win one of the eight seats at stake.

This time, the Lib Dems are hopeful that not only will Andrew Duff be re-elected, but the number two on the party's list Chris White will also secure a seat in the Brussels-Strasbourg based Parliament. This is despite the number of seats in the region - which covers Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire - being cut from eight to seven because of enlargement of the European Union.

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"It's not the system of PR we would have chosen - we want open lists and the single transferable vote - and it's a reason why people are less inclined to vote in European elections. It undermines the recognition factor of individual MEPs unlike MPs at Westminster."

If Mr Kennedy is worried about the opinion poll showing an increase in those indicating they intend to vote for the Eurohostile UK Independence Party, he doesn't show it. "I take the view that the largest bulk of people who are tempted to vote UKIP are not those who would register a first preference to vote Liberal Democrat. The best opinion poll for UKIP still shows support for the Lib Dems up and down for the Tories and Labour.

"Despite what UKIP would have you believe, who governs the UK is still decided at British general elections. But if they do increase their representation in the European Parliament, the advert that would send to the rest of Europe would be disastrous.

"If anything, the UKIP blip in one poll this week puts them under the microscope and newspapers are now showing an interest in their other policies and the kind of people  involved in this party.

"I think the more people read of its policies, the more will decide to stick with the conventional political parties."

But it is Iraq which above all other polices has defined what the Liberal Democrats stand for. Mr Kennedy was vilified by Tony Blair for opposing the war and called "Charlie Chamberlain" by Conservatives.

Despite the pressure, Mr Kennedy has stuck to the policy and joined the anti-war march in London last year. At Prime Minister's Questions in the Commons yesterday, he quoted a leading United States general who was President Bush's special envoy to Iraq as saying the policy failures were "characterised by inadequacies at the political top."

The Lib Dem leader believes Bush and Blair should have thought through the ramifications of the war and its exit strategy before signing up for the invasion.

"The European elections are not a referendum on the Iraq war but it is a legitimate and predominate issue for a lot of people who think Britain is too closely allied to Bush and his administration and dislocated from our main European allies of France and Germany at the very moment we should be working closely with them - the post war position, the Middle East peace process and the Constitution in Europe. Here we are, adrift from our European partners and that is very damaging to Britain's interests.

"Tony Blair cannot say that Saddam Hussein would still be in power if the war had not taken place. That implies that people were willing to sit back and allow Saddam to do what he liked - we were not. We were advocating a tougher implementation of the no-fly zones, increased sanctions, the need to get to the root problem of terrorism which is the Palestine situation.

"The one big thing Blair was trumpeted as part of the price for signing up to the Amercians' war was the Middle East Road Map on Palestine - that's on the shelf, we're still in Iraq, and the world is a more dangerous place.

"That to me is systemic political failure."

He added: "Iraq will not be the sole reason for people to vote Liberal Democrat on June 10 but if you take a political position and stick with it despite all the barrage of criticism from other parties, the voters will respect you more.

"My policy on Iraq has not once questioned the integrity of the Prime Minister, which is more than can be said for the attitude of Michael Howard. I have not once poured derision or scorn on the motivations of Tony Blair, but I have questioned his political judgement, which is a reasonable position to adopt." 

The Liberal Democrats have bravely stuck to their credentials as the most Eurofriendly political party while British attitudes to "Europe" seem to growing more wary. The irony of these elections is that public hostility to the mess that is currently Iraq may very well outweigh nervousness of the Lib Dems' pro European position and deliver Charles Kennedy a major victory on June 10.

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