Secret memo leaks Lib Dems' 'weak' policies

Election strategy: Report exposes campaign pitfalls
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The Independent Online

Political Editor

Senior Liberal Democrats moved swiftly last night to limit the political damage after the leak of a robustly candid internal document, highlighting the party's weaknesses - as well as strengths - on a lengthy range of policy issues.

The document, intended for highly restricted circulation, frankly discusses issues on which the party is open to attack - for example, as a "high tax" party, open to accusations of wanting to "throw money" at education, and of promoting a costly carbon tax. On the NHS it suggests that the party risks charges of accepting the Tory changes wholesale while not being different enough from Labour.

On the environment, it identifies the danger that the party will be seen as "anti-road"; that it may be prepared "to ditch environmental policies for short-term gain" as in the case of the Newbury by-pass. On transport, it suggests the party is "split and confused" on airports and could be accused of trying to "cripple" the economy by buying back Railtrack.

The document, drawn up from the late summer but completed after the party conference in the autumn, by Gareth Roberts, the senior researcher in the party's whips' office, was deliberately circulated to test the party's policies to destruction, to ensure that they are watertight before the next general election.

Senior party sources emphasised last night that Mr Roberts was under leadership orders to act as as a "devil's advocate" in his approach to policy. A party spokesman said last night that the document was of the sort produced this time in every Parliament and was deliberately designed to "anticipate the very worst kind of attacks that can be levelled us by our political opponents."

On relations with Labour, about which Mr Ashdown will, tonight, in a major speech, hold out the prospect of a coalition, if Tony Blair backs electoral reform in a promised referendum, the document warns that there is a danger of confusion.

Written after the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election campaign, fiercely fought with Labour, it says: "For some the end of equidistance [between the two main parties] was interpreted as an armistice. I feel that this confusion has prevented us from adequately putting forward the 'no let up on Labour' part of the strategy. I suggest that we revitalise our 'no let up on Labour' campaign."

On the economy, the listed strengths include a "fully costed budget and manifesto, environmental sustainability and a realistic and honest approach to taxation".

"Points of weakness" include the potentially unpopular plan to end MIRAS, and the suggestion that "support for minimum wage, social chapter and EMU could lead to unemployment".

On education, the document says the party is seen as "genuinely" interested in improvements. The commitment to increase tax for this is seen as "popular and necessary". But it may be accused of being "regressive" by wanting to undo Government reforms, having no policies for students, or further education, and may be seen as "interchangeable" with Labour in its approach to education.

A preamble to the document, entitled Towards 1996 , says that Mr Roberts has deliberately set out to highlight a number of "policy weaknesses", by which he appears to mean ways in which the party is vulnerable to attack, during meetings with staff. He explains: "I am not attempting to suggest changes in policy but to draw attention to the research needed to substantiate the arguments behind the policies and also suggest 'spins' to rebut attacks."

Nevertheless the leak will be as annoying to senior Liberal Democrats as was the infamous "Maples Memorandum", written by John Maples, the then Tory deputy chairman, for the Tories, or the memo, by Philip Gould, a senior communications adviser was for the Labour. Party

Manifesto under scrutiny

Since Labour will avoid tax and spending pledges, policy of "zealously costing everything" may be a "little unnecessary."

Line on "economically prudent but politically unpopular" policies should be learned "parrot fashion" to prevent gaffes.

Release radical "mini papers" on education to show policy is not just extra spending.

On issues like Newbury, stress democratic party which believes in people's right to choose transport methods. Party possibly "too precise" on carbon tax.

On transport, don't stress "how environmentally sound" party is, more "how well we get you from A to B in the way which you want".

Emphasise "only by being in the heart of Europe" can Britain improve the EU. "No harm" in highlighting EU bureaucracy. Expand on proposals to reform CAP.

Unwise to accept Tory NHS changes "hook, line and sinker". Mini-papers desirable on popular preventative heath policies and to clarify line on GP fundholding. Policy of putting councillors on health authorities - seen by some as "barmy" - should be clarified.

Contrast LibDem councils with "loony" right and left - but watch out for any council "scandal and sleaze" which could be embarrassing.

On social security, opposition to ID schemes could be "tough issue".

"Prolonged period of radical activity" needed in Scotland to overcome perception LibDems have "had their day" there.

On foreign affairs, be prepared for immediate rebuttal of attacks on "woolly" defence image, emphasise Paddy Ashdown's positive interventions on Bosnia and stress detailed tangible benefits of EU membership.