It's my party and I'll lie if I want to

Why Vote Liberal Democrat? by William Wallace, Why Vote Conservative? by David Willetts, Why Vote Labour? by Tony Wright, Penguin, pounds 3.99 each

The past 30 years have seen a remarkable revival of political thinking and philosophy, but by academics and for academics. Little of this political capital has filtered down to the general reader. Political publishing, other than for academia, is a high-risk business. Penguin's stock list has 167 titles under Politics in four columns (many by classic authors); "New Age" has 19 full columns. That's consumer sovereignty for you.

So this unholy trinity of manifestos is a timely venture into popular political publishing: with a cheap price, and a uniform length of 100 pages, each title is written with accessible vigour. The idea was excellent; the results are somewhat disappointing, as they say.

Tony Wright, perhaps the brightest and best of the new MPs, wrote well on the history of socialism in his academic days and as joint editor of Political Quarterly often editorialised for cooperation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. None of that appears here. He simply throws strong partisan punches at the Tories, with more right hooks to straight lefts on my card. "Between 1979 and 1993 the income of the poorest tenth declined by nearly 20%, while that of the richest tenth increased by 20%": a well-stated if familiar indictment of the Conservative record. Income differences and disabling poverty grew dramatically worse. Industry ran down to the benefit of City speculation: hence increased unemployment and government borrowing. Wright explains well the paradox of the anti- statist party that enhanced the arbitrary powers of government.

His punches are thrown, however, with padded gloves. Wright discusses "the renewal and transformation of the Labour Party . . . under Tony Blair - that has brought hope to all those who want a sensible and radical party of reform to vote for and who understand that being radical and sensible do not have to be alternatives." Don't pause to puzzle whether those two vital "ands" are conjunctive or distinctive. A chapter headed "New Labour, Old Values" beckons, but the values are left a wee bit vague.

Only William Wallace, for the Lib-Dems, body-snatches those abandoned triplets "liberty, equality, fraternity" (which he calls "community"). Wright recklessly quotes Yeats to the effect that Labour is "changed, changed utterly", but stops short of saying that "a terrible beauty is born". Too much of his pamphlet is on such a level of generality that truism wrestles with tautology. When it comes to policy, the vision becomes distinctly blaired.

I struggled to find meaning in Wright's words on taxation policy - surely basic to the common good. Gordon Brown had not crossed the Rubicon when Wright wrote, but the latter must have seen the commitment to static tax levels coming and trimmed his sails. But Wright still flies a "stakeholding" colour, which seems meantime to have been lowered from the admiral's mast.

He is strongly for constitutional reform, but now has to sail around the rocks of PR. So he raises the possibility of "a system that makes all votes count": Blairy code for the alternative vote, which is not PR. His calls for a "civic vision" and "a responsible society" are heartfelt and admirable. But how is the gross inequality that negates both to be tackled? By "training", it seems, and by the one-off cure-all windfall tax.

Wright speaks well for all of us who would do almost anything to get this lot out. But what then? I find it hard to share David Willetts' belief in a hidden agenda. I agree with Wallace that all too little is prepared.

Lord Wallace has an easier ride because of the looser rein up there in the other House. The values he finds in a potted history of the Liberal Party (which ignores the still not irrelevant reasons for its collapse as a governing force) are liberty, equality of opportunity and community. To move society that way is a matter of morality and civic responsibility, but also of economic stimulus to allow more equality without panic. How? Here Wallace agrees with Wright: by a mixture of constitutional reform and exhortation.

However, he is clear and bold on the need for graduated and marginally increased income tax, as "this election, like the last, risks descending into a competitive auction between promises of lower taxation". Those are words Blair should have started saying two years ago. Wallace could almost persuade me to vote Lib-Dem, if I couldn't count. He is so clear and trenchant on how national assets have been squandered in the name of privatisation by a party that debases debate by labelling its opponents unpatriotic.

David Willetts MP seeks to restore his fortunes by stoppping his lads from fighting the last war. Blair's party "has indeed changed", but New Labour brings new dangers. Unlike Tony Wright, he draws attention to his previous books. I once reviewed his Modern Conservatism (1992) warmly as a brave and intelligent failure to bridge the contradictions between Burkean traditionalism and the aggressive free-market ideology. These currents still pull in different directions.

"Middle England", however, knows that only the Tories can reconcile "two desires, each deep-rooted and legitimate": for "the fruits of economic success" but also for "the rootedness of long established society". The volksgeist can do what social theory cannot - even if most of Two-Brains' colleagues have firmly come down on the side of the fruits. Tradition demands we do not change the constitution, especially as it is so flexible (that it allows Conservatives in power to do whatever they want). All he adds to his old stuff are batteries of dodgy figures, like an old Fabian in reverse.

Above all else, "the party of commonsense" protects Middle England against "intellectual fads with continental models" (except those of Hayek, Von Mises and the Bruges Group). All this is good, stout polemical nonsense, but no worse than Wright or Wallace in trying to present a picture of doctrinal unity within the party that is preposterous to common sense and observation.

Perhaps the sheer uselessness of these three books is signalled by the cover pictures of their smiling leaders. Big Brother watches their authors. "A writer cannot be a loyal member of a political party", said Orwell, who had just joined one. Only free men and women can debate politics honestly, and excessive loyalty destroys the lively, unexpected quirkiness of what Orwell had in mind when he "wanted to make political writing into an art". Perhaps there are no intellectuals left who could explain why they vote for their party without embarrassing the leaders of the moment.

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