The Liberal Democrats plan to guarantee quality nursery education for all under-fives as the key element of the party's pounds 2bn commitment to educational improvements.
The new pledge, part of a strategy focusing on three principal policy areas to be set out in a priorities document for next month's party conference, would be accompanied by a call for three and four-year-olds to be taught by qualified staff, led by a graduate.
The three main policy strategies, covering education, constitutional reform and an environmentally-friendly economic policy, have been selected by party strategists as key areas to mark out the Liberal Democrats from the other two parties. But they also form the key changes that the Liberal Democrats would seek to pressurise Labour to introduce if it forms a government after the general election.
Paddy Ashdown, the party leader, has already dropped the previous policy of "equidistance" between the two main parties, vowing not to prop up a further Conservative administration under John Major.
The new, sharper policy in the three areas, under the direction of Alan Leaman, prospective parliamentary candidate for Mid Dorset and North Poole and head of the recently-created Liberal Democrat strategy and planning executive, builds on a speech by Mr Ashdown earlier this year when he declared that the role of his party was to be "the backbone of change in Britain, to be the guarantors of real, sensible reform and renewal of our nation".
While the achievement of that aim would depend on the detailed parliamentary arithmetic after the election, a senior party source said: "Our message to voters is that if you vote Lib Dem, the more likely it is that these policies will be delivered."
Beneath the recriminations over the bitterly fought by-election campaign in Littleborough and Saddleworth, which Labour lost only narrowly, Liberal Democrat strategists will invoke the episode as revealing Labour as a less radical party that had reached its high-water mark in seats where it came third in the last election.
The Liberal Democrats are already pledged to provide pounds 2bn of improvements in education, paid for by an extra 1p in income tax, and to the provision of quality education for all three- and four-year-olds whose parents want it, within the lifetime of a parliament. The new policy will mean that nursery education will get "first claim" on the injection of funds. The Labour high command will not put a time-scale on its own education and nursery commitment at this stage, because that would involve a public spending pledge.
Liberal Democrat policies on constitutional change also go further than Labour, which is now threatening to drop its commitment to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons.
On the environment and the economy, the party will argue for a shift in taxation away from jobs to pollution. A policy paper due to be published next Tuesday will propose the phasing in of an energy/carbon tax, based on European Union plans, with the revenue fed back into the economy via reductions in other taxes, beginning with "the tax on jobs" - employers' National Insurance contributions (NICs) - and call for the creation of a Department of Natural Resources.
And, in preparation for a much more detailed energy policy paper to be published next year, the party is considering ambitious proposals for exempting employers from paying NICs where they take on long-term unemployed people, abolishing the three bottom rates of employers' NICs (covering earnings up to pounds 10,600), and trimming other NICs rates.
The party's Treasury team argues that while the proposals would deplete the Exchequer by some pounds 4bn, 9.2 million workers would be taken out of employers' NICs, encouraging firms to create more jobs.
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