Ashdown turns away from tax and spend

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Indy Politics
Paddy Ashdown yesterday tweaked the Liberal Democrats' election strategy and tried to move the party away from its tax-and-spend image.

While putting health and education at the centre of the campaign, he said improvements could be achieved through better value for money rather than tax rises.

The Liberal Democrat leader unveiled manifesto plans for a national inspectorate for health and social care in the NHS. It would audit spending to cut waste and ensure value for money.

That would be coupled with a "tax contract" with the British taxpayers aimed at rebuilding trust in taxation, "reconnecting the tax-payer with the tax- spender, and beginning to raise the level of the debate on tax above the puerile, the posters and the posturing we will see in the weeks ahead," Mr Ashdown told a meeting last night.

Behind his initiative lies a plan by Liberal Democrat strategists to soften the party's tax-raising image, following its plans for a penny- in-the-pound increase to pay for higher education spending.

"Our thinking is that there is a big niche between Labour and Tories who are competing with each other to avoid mentioning tax," a senior Liberal Democrat source said. "We understand why they think that. We believe it leaves a gaping hole and the party feels comfortable with it.

"We will be saying if you want improvements, it's an old Liberal theme, 19th-century Gladstonian value for money. It is important that we are not seen as a party that throws money at problems."

The shift in strategy to embrace value-for-money initiatives may been seen by the Liberal Democrats' critics as evidence that they are already losing their confidence, with the pre-election campaign only one week old. They have come under withering fire from the Tories for proposing tax increases and Alan Milburn, Labour's Treasury spokesman, yesterday accused the Liberal Democrats of being "irresponsible". "The Liberals' desire to make people pay more tax is simply piling on the misery," he said.

Mr Ashdown did not shift from the Liberal Democrats' commitment to put an extra pounds 2bn on taxation if necessary. The Liberal Democrats will be campaigning on their commitment to reintroduce free eye tests and dental check-ups through a 5p tobacco tax, which they believe has public support.

But Mr Ashdown concentrated on ways of achieving better services through value-for-money initiatives. The Liberal Democrats would ask the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission to check on whether policies are delivering improvements in services, such as the nursery voucher scheme. The audit office at present audits government departments; the commission checks on spending in local government and the NHS.

In spite of his commitment to improving public services, Mr Ashdown set a target of reducing public expenditure to below 40 per cent of GDP. He insisted it could be achieved by fulfilling the Liberal Democrats promise to "wage war on waste".