The unspoken lessons from Charles Kennedy’s leadership

During the Lib Dem leadership race, both Tim Farron and Norman Lamb have often paid tribute to Charles Kennedy. Given the recent and tragic nature of his death, it is not only understandable but also appropriate that those comments dwell on the good in the man and in his leadership.

Both – especially Tim Farron – also point to Kennedy’s leadership as something which the party can learn from, and that requires a more nuanced and franker understanding of how his leadership went than was appropriate in the immediate aftermath of his death.

He was a good and kind man, as the letter I blogged a little while go demonstrated. He was kind to those he disagreed with – perhaps at times too kind as a result when it came to political struggles.

As a leader, he was also controversial and many from all wings of the party saw his leadership at the time as, at best, not up to the opportunities on offer and, at worst, as a failure. People such as Richard Grayson (who left the party for Labour over the coalition) or Duncan Brack (one of the party’s leading social liberals before even the Social Liberal Forum existed) were both highly critical of his leadership record. This was not criticism from Orange Bookers; this was criticism from people frustrated at the party’s inability communicate a clear message during Kennedy’s leadership other than that of being ‘the Labour Party with slightly higher taxes and no illegal wars’.

2005 was the high point for getting MPs elected, but at the time (and even more so with hindsight) the wider political circumstances seemed so very good – a very unpopular main opposition combined with the absence of a third party national squeeze as the question of who would be Prime Minister was hardly in doubt – that the 2005 result was met not with rejoicing but with muted disappointment.

Having hard left Labour MP Brian Sedgemore showcased as a defector to the Lib Dems just a few days before the 2005 general election summed up all that was wrong with that approach. It would be like John Redwood joining the Liberal Democrats now: whatever the importance of the single issue that triggered him to make the change, it said an awful lot about how limited the party’s projection of a distinctive set of beliefs was that it not only accepted him into the party but decided to make it a showcase press event too.

So what are the more rounded lessons to learn from Charles Kennedy’s leadership? The most important is that however good the leader is as a person and a speaker, they need to lead a party with a clear, distinctive ideological position.

With that you don’t end up with the same mistake that was made in both 2005 and 2015 – a long list of individually popular policies which don’t add up to an overall message that is more than the sum of the parts.

There is a lesson too about the importance of organisation. Despite the party’s polling and electoral highs during Charles Kennedy’s time, the party’s membership and local government base did not soar. (The party’s membership fell and its share of local councillors went up by only just over 1% during his leadership.) Both were areas where drive and leadership from the top were, at best, intermittent and brief. The missing message also needed a better organisation.

Charles Kennedy showed how good people can make it to the top in politics. He also showed how important message and organisation also are to fulfil a party’s potential.

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