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Leading Article: Some sound ideas, but don't forget liberalism, Paddy

IT IS the ultimate test of political utility: if the Liberal Democrats did not exist, would we have to invent them? Fortunately for Paddy Ashdown, the answer is emphatically Yes. Without them, there would be a liberal- shaped hole at the heart of the nation. But, by the shades of Gladstone, Keynes and Beveridge, that does not stop Paddy talking a lot of guff. He presented yesterday's wide-ranging policy document as "the most radical repositioning and recasting of a party's agenda I think we have seen in the last five or 10 years".

It was a claim as baseless as it was unnecessary. Whatever we think of the merits of Mr Blair's cult of the New, and his re-writing of Labour's constitution, his is a hard act of repositioning and recasting to follow. And Mr Ashdown should not try to follow it. Liberalism has a past of which it should be proud, and which provides it with a strong claim to the future. Mr Ashdown does not need to go around ditching and dumping in order to produce a party committed to the free market, to Europe, to the environment and to a more democratic constitution. The Liberal Democrat party and its predecessors have long been those things.

We should, too, take yesterday's policy document with a pinch of salt - or, rather, as a pinch of salt. Its function should be to add flavour to the political debate. After all, this is less an old-fashioned composite resolution and more an American-style "platform" for the Lib Dem party convention in Brighton later this month.

The proposals on tax are useful, not because it is feasible to abolish income tax on everyone on, or below, average earnings. It was the case after the war that income tax was only paid by the better-off, but the shape of income distribution has changed since then. Nevertheless, it is worth asking the question: is our tax system progressive enough?

For the vast bulk of the population, combined marginal rates of tax and National Insurance rise (with a dip in the middle) from 33 per cent to 40 per cent. There is a strong case for cutting taxes on income at the lower end, and raising revenue instead from taxes on energy and pollution, with protection for those on state benefits - a case the Liberal Democrats are well placed to make, with both Labour and the Tories prisoners of history in this matter.

As for the other new gizmos in the document, the gist of the policy on pensions is right in suggesting personalised pensions for all but, as Frank Field found, the details can be diabolical. While the idea of "neighbourhood committees" to run schools, instead of local councils, sounds like the sort of charter for social misfits and busybodies that such well-meaning attempts at local democracy often become.

However, the real value of the Lib Dems is not as a glorified think-tank but as advocates of an ideology. Yesterday, Mr Ashdown trotted out his by-now standard evasion of the question of whether he was moving the party to the left or the right. He says he is moving the party forwards, "out ahead of British politics". It sounds good, but it is meaningless. He should be moving his party towards genuine liberalism.

His consistent defence of civil liberties, his opposition to censorship, his advocacy of our rights as citizens rather than subjects, should all be applauded. Unfortunately, his actions have not always lived up to his words. On Wednesday night, for example, Lib Dem MPs should have been voting against the Government's rushed and unnecessary Terrorism and Conspiracy Bill.

When it comes to the Government's failure to enact Freedom of Information law, and its decision to arrest David Shayler, Mr Ashdown has been curiously muted. His desire to secure a historic reform of the electoral system is understandable, but his pandering to Mr Blair should not be allowed to obscure the liberal message.