Kennedy receives hero's welcome

Charles Kennedy returns to a hero's welcome at the Lib Dem conference
Charles Kennedy returns to a hero's welcome at the Lib Dem conference

Charles Kennedy was given a minute-long standing ovation today when he addressed Liberal Democrat members for the first time since resigning as party leader.

In a rousing and wide-ranging speech on everything from the environment to Europe, he gave his backing to his successor, Menzies Campbell, and called for the party to unite to take the opportunity it now had for electoral success.

Mr Kennedy also confirmed he would play a "significant role" in the Scottish elections next May, where he said the Lib Dems had a "big, big" chance to lead the government for the first time ever.

"I believe it is for the good of not just this party but for the British people that we should feel optimistic about our future," he said.

This morning Sir Menzies said Mr Kennedy's speech would be a "highlight" of the Lib Dem party conference in Brighton, and stressed once again that he would be happy to have him back on the front bench.

This afternoon Mr Kennedy made no mention of a return to frontline politics other than as a campaigner for the Holyrood polls, but had strong words of encouragement for party members - and some clear ideas on where they were heading.

At the last general election, the Lib Dems had their best parliamentary result for 80 years, he noted - "I was quite pleased with that." But he highlighted the increase in the party's vote of one million people between 2001 and 2005 as more encouraging.

"We are the only party that has been on an upward curve where our principle competitors have been on a steady downward slide," he said.

"We are a force for change in British politics but we can change the context around us without surrendering the fact that we are Liberal Democrats, we are staying Liberal Democrat and by God we are proud to be Liberal Democrat."

He urged activists to "keep the flame alive" on the issue of proportional representation and constitutional reform - which meant having a properly elected House of Lords.

On local government, Mr Kennedy said Wales should be given full legislative powers as Scotland has been, and there should also be some kind of devolution in England.

He praised the party's "bold step" today in voting for tax reforms that would both redistribute wealth and tackle climate change, although on the latter point he warned that "it's only a start" and more must be done.

And on foreign policy, he said that while the Lib Dems must play their part in criticising the Bush administration, this should not become "some crude, cheap slide into anti-Americanism should have none of it".

At the same time the party must stop prevaricating about Europe and state clearly their support for the union, Mr Kennedy urged.

"You would do well to go out and talk about it in a confident voice - let's not be holding back too far into the future on the EU..Even if people disagree with us they will understand us. Let's get more pro-European, please," he said.

Overall, the Lib Dems must be proud of their values and particularly their independence, he argued, rejecting any suggestion of campaigning for a hung parliament in which the party's MPs might have a louder voice.

"Go into the next election completely independent, arguing for more voters and winning more seats and come out better and stronger for it," he concluded.

"If we do that, and by seeing and believing on the big issues, at the end of the day we can do a real duty.from this conference let the message go out, quite simply but quite clearly, and definitely united.the best is yet to come."


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