Ashdown warns that promises must be ditched

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The Independent Online
Senior Liberal Democrats will be warned by Paddy Ashdown that their policies will face an unprecedented level of scrutiny as they take the first steps towards producing a fully costed general election manifesto.

A key meeting of the party's Federal Policy Forum in Oxford will today begin the painful process of paring down a formidable list of commitments into a programme that will specify policy priorities and how to pay for them.

The meeting, which Alan Beith, the party's deputy leader and head of its manifesto group, will give an initial outline of the "tough choices" faced by the party, will be told that the Liberal Democrats have a historically unique opportunity to take advantage of the lack of trust faced by the two main parties - especially on tax. It will also be told that after high-profile divisions in Labour ranks as well as among Tories it has clear potential to be seen as the united party.

The party is in buoyant mood having confounded last year's predictions of collapse in the face of Blair-led Labour and after seeing its vote share in the May local elections climb to 26 per cent - matching that achieved by the Alliance at its electoral high-water mark in the 1983 general election.

The party's policymakers will be told that they are now in a position to build on that platform at the expense of both the main parties if they base their manifesto on clear, fully costed priorities. By criticising government borrowing for being too high, Malcolm Bruce, the party's economic spokesman, has already given a strong hint that, unlike in the 1992 election campaign, there will be no plan for an increase in borrowing to pay for its programme.

Instead, it will make a virtue of what Liberal Democrats believe is still a low level of public trust in Labour as well as the Tories on tax by giving clear but limited commitments, such as those for a pounds 2bn increase in education spending and taking more low-income earners out of income tax. The party has already said it is prepared to pay for the first by a 1p increase in the standard rate of income tax and the second by imposing a 50p rate on those earning more than pounds 100,000 a year.

In emphasising such costed specifics. party leaders believe they score a "double hit" by having bold commitments which will attract electors while not inspiring fears that they have a hidden tax-and-spending agenda.

A recent MORI poll showed that around 30 per cent of electors still think Labour will not increase taxes and 70 per cent think they will. Liberal Democrat strategists believe that Labour as well as the Tories have suffered from a public mood of cynicism as a result of the Government's broken tax promises.

But it will be made clear to today's meeting that there will be painful choices and the ditching of a formidable raft of commitments - including those for increased benefits such as income support and pensions.