Lib Dems miss election tricks

From the perspective of my struggles of yester year to force even a tiny space for Liberalism within the political spectrum, I look with envy at the acres of barren land now wide open for a third party with serious radical pretensions. Despite - literally - ephemeral support from '60s revolutionary Tariq Ali, and advice from the Financial Times Sam Brittan, to go back to Liberal roots, the Lib Dems are yet again the prisoners of their own temerity and of the Conservative nature of most of their target seats.

The Lib Dem manifesto illustrates the party's lack of nerve. Even when faced with the gift of new Labour's landslip to the authoritarian Right, the party time and again takes a lone stand on an issue of principle and then draws back from embracing the consequences. It is rather like tackling the Grand National and leaping Becher's Brook only to flop at the Water Jump.

Take the greatest moral issue of the Blair premiership - the invasion of Iraq. The debate has raged, and is still rightly raging on important questions of truth and legality, but the Lib Dems were the only party to oppose the war in principle and to predict many of the disasters that still plague the poor Iraqis. A brave stand, justified by events, to be shouted from the rooftops? Now all we get is an exit strategy for British troops.

The same is true of the party's stance on Identity Cards. Well, yes, opposed in principle, but have admitted they might accept a voluntary card! The case against voluntary ID cards is actually stronger than against compulsory ones, not least because the vulnerable individuals in the community are precisely those who would not apply and who would thus be more easily singled out. The gut reaction against being forced to carry - and pay for - an ID card is certainly not confined to the chattering classes.

The Lib Dems fudge the issue even more cynically by proposing to spend the ID card money on 10,000 more police officers - as if there is some sort of trade-off in assisting law and order. It sounds obvious - more police, less crime - but it simply isn't true. We have today more police per population than ever in our history, and during the time the numbers of police have increased, so has crime! It is the relationship with the public that is the crucial determinant of law and order. The vast majority of crime is detected by the public, and it is the level of public confidence in the police that makes that detection effective.

Political parties that trade votes against police numbers are either naive or culpable. Either way they are dangerous. To give the impression that increasing their numbers enables the police to improve the security of our neighbourhoods is a dangerous fallacy in that it encourages the public to leave it to the police rather than working with them to develop safer communities.

The other numbers game in the Lib Dem manifesto is, inevitably, that of hospital waiting lists. Here again the chance of a radical shift is missed. Over simplifying but still true: the better the consultant, the longer the waiting list. The shorter the waiting list, the greater the number of referrals from GPs.

My two years as Liberal health spokesman in the 1983 parliament provided me with a salutary lesson. From scratch I had to learn a great deal that ran counter to apparent logic. Put bluntly, no amount of money poured into the NHS can satisfy the importunate demands of clinical practice, particularly in glamorous specialities such as paediatrics or transplant surgery. What is more, for the few who benefit from remarkable medical research and innovations, there are often many more further down the ladder who die for want of more basic provision. Improvements in the health of the public, and in the expectation of life, come from public health, not from clinical practice, however excellent.

Thirty years ago, after his experience as health minister, Enoch Powell put his finger on the problem: if the power to tax and the power to spend are in different hands, the NHS will always struggle to justify the "grants" from government, however tantalisingly they are dressed up. The sad truth is that in such competition, geriatric care and psychiatry will regularly miss out. The Lib Dems could have signalled a radical move to rejuvenate local and regional democracy by including the NHS within democratically accountable authorities with power to tax. But they haven't and so we have the same old fruitless competition over waiting list numbers.</p >

The Lib Dems propose to replace council tax. Hurray! A popular policy. Instead they want a local income tax. Hmm .... not so popular? There are big logistical problems with a local income tax, not least in that the present PAYE structure is based on where one works, rather than where one lives. But these are surmountable, as Liberal party research showed forty years ago. However, the fiscal dangers in further taxes on income are more serious, coupled with the experience of the poll tax when millions of avoiders simply disappeared from the register.

The Lib Dems could have learnt the obvious lesson - that people move but that land does not, and opted instead for a land tax, based on the maximum developable value of each plot. Such an annual tax would encourage the best use of land, would ensure that the public benefited from the increases in land values produced by public policies and would be pleasantly deflationary. What more could one wish for in a policy that is as old as the hills and which has come back on to the political agenda in recent years. Clearly a mite too radical for the Lib Dems.

Chalres Kennedy promises a positive campaign which will steer clear of Labour and Tory mudslinging. That will certainly be well received. The manifesto contains worthy ideas and attractive promises. Unfortunately the electors no longer believe the politicians. It is a pity that a commitment to positive campaigning is not accompanied by a "mission to persuade". Playing safe, and failing to enthuse the electors, may actually backfire. Politics in the UK, as in the USA, has become remarkably shameless; winning is all that matters. The radical shaped gap in the political spectrum is still there and, if left unfilled, we may once again have a general election marked by disillusion and low turnout. The Lib Dem manifesto will put few people off, but it is an opportunity missed.

14 April 2005