THE PUBLIC FACE OF THE LIB DEMS: He might have convinced his peers of his fitness for the Lib Dem leadership, but Charles Kennedy’s marketing team must now sell him to the greater public, says Sophie Barker

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 electorate.

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

electorate.



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

mid-Parliament.



By that time, the Kennedy team was raring to set the campaign ball

rolling.



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

April.



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

particular.



’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

added together.



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

viewers.



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

says.



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

machine.



’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

more.



’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

38.2 million.



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

personality.



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

persona.



So will the public perceive him as a Hal-like figure, waiting to

metamorphose into Henry V? Or as a Falstaff - popular, but lacking

political seriousness?



What happens over the next few months will be crucial.



Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Would you like to post a comment?

Please Sign in or register.