Charles Kennedy understands more than any Liberal leader to date
the importance of communication. He has just emerged victorious from the
most closely fought and drawn-out leadership battle faced by a Liberal
Party since the Second World War, convincing 56.6 per cent of the
Liberal Democrat membership to buy into his key message: that he is the
man who will be able to connect the party with the wider UK
Behind Kennedy’s success lies a slick, subtle brand marketing campaign
unmatched by his four competitors, Simon Hughes, Jackie Ballard, David
Rendell and Malcolm Bruce.
The campaign has capitalised on Kennedy’s existing media profile and his
status as Paddy Ashdown’s tacitly anointed successor and the
front-runner in the leadership race.
The new Lib Dem leader himself is in no doubt about the effectiveness of
the strategy. ’Our communications have been the best, the most
professional and the most sophisticated,’ he says. ’That probably sounds
too self-satisfied, but it’s worked very well.’
Kennedy attributes his success to the collection of communications and
media professionals he gathered around him during the months from
Labour’s election victory, when it was assumed that Ashdown would step
down at the next general election, until last February, when the Lib Dem
leader took everybody by surprise and announced he would be leaving
By that time, the Kennedy team was raring to set the campaign ball
This behind-the-scenes campaign coterie includes GPC senior consultant
James Gurling, former Lib Dem communications director Jane Bonham Carter
and Lord Newby, a founder of public affairs consultancy Matrix - now
part of the Flagship Group.
These three, working closely with Kennedy’s main policy wonk, Richard
Grayson, director of the Centre for Reform, were instrumental in
elaborating the campaign’s key messages, which were fronted by campaign
chairman and fellow Liberal Democrat, MP Matthew Taylor.
The first communications step taken by the team was ’A Vision for New
Times’, Kennedy’s manifesto, which he and his aides had written by
This short, to the point, almost bullet-pointed document - as
authoritative and staccato as Kennedy’s own Scottish tones - formed the
basis for his newspaper articles and the speeches he made alongside his
four competitors at the 20 public hustings held across the country
during the formal May-to-July campaigning period. And, to strengthen the
backbone of the campaign, the cuttings were all progressively collated
on to a web site, designed by Kennedy’s close friend and chairman of
Forward Publishing, William Sieghart.
The manifesto and web site are more reminiscent of a FTSE 100 company’s
PR tools than those of a third party politician. They both carry
Kennedy’s trademark black-and-white logo and photograph and are
sprinkled with common soundbites - ’partnership (with Government) where
it is sensible, opposition where it is right’ and ’we are good at
running things’ - crop up time and again. These phrases have even
permeated Kennedy’s everyday conversation.
But while ’Charles Kennedy: The Brand’ may well have worked within the
Liberal Democrat party, his challenge now is to win the support of the
sceptical UK masses over the next two years. And that is precisely what
the party elected him to do.
As Newby says: ’Charles’s key campaign message was that he’s by far the
best communicator because he comes across as a straightforward, sincere
person who doesn’t talk in jargon. So he’ll be good at persuading people
who don’t vote Liberal Democrat to do so.’
Kennedy is persuasive when expounding on the subject of reconnecting the
public with politics, and with the Liberal Democrat Party in
’Politics is in a very difficult situation at the moment,’ he says.
’Membership of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is two
million - more than the entire membership of every UK political party
Why is it that young people are joining War on Want or the RSPB or
Greenpeace, but not the Conservatives, Labour or the Lib Dems? It has to
be the way we communicate.’
On one level, Kennedy is well placed to invigorate the Liberal
Democrats’ electoral fortunes: of the five potential leaders the party
could have chosen, he is the most media-friendly - a fact that Kennedy,
in a fit of coyness, shies away from admitting.
Much has been made of the new leader as an accessible and personable
character always ready to share a beer and a chat. These traits are all
borne out in person, although his boyish round face belies a more
serious, taller and slimmer 40-year-old than this image allows for.
Kennedy is one of the few politicians to have agreed to appear on Have I
Got News For You - something which clearly did not pass unnoticed by his
competitors in the leadership election and which Kennedy is defensive
about. ’People ask whether you really want someone to lead the party who
was on Have I Got News For You. Well, have they looked at the viewing
figures? On a good night on Newsnight, you get about one million
On the two hits of Have I Got News For You, you get nine million. You
have to ask yourself just who you are trying to get through to,’ he
As leader, one of the ways Kennedy wants to ’reach out to the voters of
the 21st century (and) show the country that we are serious about
Government’, as pledged in his manifesto, is to reform his party’s PR
’I think we need to review our communications strategy, simply because
we’re now involved in Government, in the Welsh Assembly and we also play
a pivotal role in Edinburgh. The capacity for a better profile is
there,’ he says, but adding in the same breath that ’the capacity for
things to go wrong is greater too’, referring at least in part to the
way Labour’s ’Mandelsonian’ approach to the media has at times backfired
and heaped more attention on the messenger than the message.
Without going as far as Labour’s media operation, Kennedy’s concrete
plans include increasing the party’s seven-strong communications office
and persuading high-profile Liberal Democrat supporters from the
entertainment and business communities to vocalise their support
’We don’t want to have a ’luvvies for Labour’-style organisation, but
there are a lot of well-known household names who are Liberal Democrats
and who are very happy to be known as Liberal Democrats,’ he says.
But the party’s relatively cash-starved status remains Kennedy’s main
obstacle to improving its communications. The most recent party donation
figures show the Liberal Democrats receiving pounds 2.5 million in 1997,
dwarfed by Labour’s pounds 14.5 million and the Conservatives’ pounds
Kennedy himself is undoubtedly one of the party’s greatest
communications assets. After 16 years in politics, he is an accomplished
parliamentarian and a good spinner. He also has a more natural common
touch than even Tony Blair - Kennedy was clearly in his element being
quizzed in an on-line Q&A session last month for the Guardian about,
among other subjects, his favourite David Bowie album and whether his
ginger hair was an asset.
’It was great fun, I thoroughly enjoyed it,’ he says. But this talent is
double-edged: the most fundamental charge levelled at the new leader is
that, while he may be an excellent communicator, he lacks clear,
convincing and consistent policies to communicate.
The only policy the media has so far managed to label as Kennedy’s is
his support for ’The Project’ - Ashdown’s co-operation with the
Government on constitutional reform, and something his rivals in the
leadership battle all opposed. Kennedy, however, refuses to bow to media
pressure on the subject. ’Journalists always want two-dimensional
stories,’ he says. ’The Project is not the predominant issue.’
Perhaps the new Liberal Democrat leader’s biggest challenge will be to
communicate to the media and the public exactly what the predominant
issues he stands for are.
WEIGHTY ISSUE - Kennedy must prove his clout
Despite having convinced his peers he is the best man to lead the Lib
Dems, Charles Kennedy may have more difficulty convincing the voting
public that he is a heavyweight politician.
There is no doubt Kennedy comes across as a plain-speaking man. But he
also has a reputation as a ’bon viveur’, and the media greeted his
victory with unfavourable comparisons with former soldier, ’Action Man’
Paddy Ashdown, dubbing Kennedy ’inaction man’.
And there is the oft-levelled criticism that the reason Kennedy is well
known is due to his appearance on TV and radio quiz shows. They may have
been orchestrated to show Kennedy’s fun-loving quick-witted nature, but
now he will have to fight to prove he is more than a media
Most damaging - at least, at the time - was the Sun’s revelation that
Kennedy won pounds 2,000 after betting on a poor result for the Lib Dems
in the 1994 European Elections. Despite expressing regret at his
actions, it has become a defining incident in Kennedy’s public
So will the public perceive him as a Hal-like figure, waiting to
metamorphose into Henry V? Or as a Falstaff - popular, but lacking
What happens over the next few months will be crucial.