Election 2010: And the choice boils down to...

Still undecided? 'Independent' writers explain the differences between the main parties' manifestos
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Indy Politics

Public finances deficit, by Sean O'Grady

Gordon Brown passed a law requiring his government to reduce the budget deficit by half in four years, and insists that he has a plan to do so. Trouble is, economists say the Government's plans are based on over-optimistic forecasts for the economy, and that the "ring fencing" of "frontline" spending on health, schools and policing will make cuts in other departments far deeper than they need be. Some £15bn of efficien-cy savings are planned, plus £5bn in cuts to "lower priority" programmes, and a 1 per cent public pay cap. The Institute for Fiscsal Studies puts Labour's undeclared cuts at £44.1bn. VAT will not be extended; but a rise has not been ruled out.

The Liberal Democrats have the smallest "black hole" in the plans, according to the IFS, but still have to account for £34.4bn of spending cuts they say they want but have not identified. The IFS also cast doubt on the realism of the £4bn the party says they would gain from clamping down on tax dodgers. Apart from a bank tax, the Liberal Democrats say there will be no net tax rise under their plans; taking everyone on less than £10,000 out of income tax would be paid for by the mansion tax on homes worth £2m and other measures. Extra taxes are a "cop out" says Vince Cable – but he might be forced to introduce them if he moved into No 11.

An emergency budget in 50 days would lop £6bn off public spending immediately. Many economists agree with Labour claims that that would slow the recovery and that around 30,000 to 60,000 public sector jobs would be lost; but it would not be enough to plunge the nation into a "double dip" recession. Most of Labour's planned employers' national insurance contribution rise for next year would not be brought in. The Tories say they want to reduce the "bulk" of the deficit in four years, implying even deeper spending cuts. The IFS puts their planned but undisclosed public spending cuts at £52.5bn.

Environment & climate change, by Michael McCarthy

Labour will try and increase current climate change commitment to cut UK CO2 by 32 per cent by 2020 (as part of an EU deal), and will try for 40 per cent low carbon electricity by 2020 (as part of the EU 15 per cent low carbon energy target). Will create 400,000 green jobs by 2015. "Pay as You Save" financing for home energy improvements; landlords will have to insulate rented homes properly. Will begin a new programme of nuclear power. However they pledge to go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow while not allowing airport expansion elsewhere in the next Parliament.

The Liberal Democrats will scrap new nuclear power programmes (and scrap the Trident nuclear missile system). Target of 40 per cent of UK electricity from non-carbon-emitting sources by 2020, and will cut carbon emissions by "over 40 per cent" by 2020, and make the economy carbon-neutral (ie, producing no net emissions) by 2050. New taxes on flying, especially on domestic flights. Will create 100,000 jobs in green industries by an unspecified date. "Eco cashback" scheme as part of big drive for home energy improvements. Will cut rail fares to improve the take-up of public transport.

The Tories promise to keep Mr Cameron's green commitments (even if some new backbench MPs are less keen). These include scrapping the third runway at Heathrow, and joining Heathrow to a proposed high-speed rail network. They will accept the EU target of sourcing 15 per cent of energy from renewables by 2020, but have no CO2 reduction target for that date, although they accept the 80 per cent target (on 1990 levels) by 2050. They will build new nuclear plants to help with climate change and energy security and also allow a free vote, early in the next Parliament, to re-legalise foxhunting.

Health, by Jeremy Laurance

Labour, like the other main parties, pledges that the NHS budget will rise in line with inflation. Even so, it will come under immense pressure from growing demand caused by an ageing population. For Labour, "patient rights" will replace targets, including a legal right to hospital treatment within 18 weeks of referral by a GP or within two weeks for suspected cancer. The best innovation is a new right to receive cancer test results within one week – evidence shows delayed diagnosis is the chief reason for Britain's poor cancer survival record. GP boundaries to be scrapped so patients can register with a GP near where they work.

No eye-catching pledges equivalent to Labour's one-week cancer test results or the Tories cancer drug fund. Instead the Liberal Democrats focus on structural reform. Primary Care Trusts, which run GP services, to be replaced by elected local health boards to give people a say in how NHS cash is spent. Strategic Health Authorities to be abolished to cut bureaucracy and waste. Spending on quangos to be cut by a fifth and the pay of senior managers will be capped to the level of the Prime Minister's salary – though only a handful earn more. Different waiting time guarantees will be set for different conditions in place of the existing blanket 18-week target.

NHS funding to be increased in real terms "every year" – although it will be a miracle if that pledge survives a five-year term. Administration costs to be cut by 30 per cent – politically popular, but if consultants are left without secretaries, it may not be efficient. All "politically motivated" targets to be scrapped. The "forced closure of A&E and maternity wards" will be stopped, although many argue there is still a need to concentrate services in fewer, larger units to improve quality. A cancer drug fund will also be established to enable patients to get the drugs "their doctors think will help them", bypassing Nice.

Education, by Richard Garner

Labour would resurrect plans to introduce one-to-one teaching for all pupils struggling to keep up. Parents would be given the right to get rid of headteachers and bring in new management to run schools if they were dissatisfied with standards. They promise that school budgets will rise by 2 per cent a year in real terms for the next three years but there will be cuts in administration costs. Labour has the same stance as the Conservatives on student fees, but they would face a backbench rebellion if they opted for rises because one in three candidates has signed a pledge opposing any increase.

The main pledge is to introduce a "pupil premium" which would give schools £2,500 extra for every disadvantaged pupil they take in. It would be up to the school to decide whether it spends it on reducing class sizes or one-to-one tuition. It would cost £2.5bn a year – which would be paid for from scrapping Children's Trust Funds and certain tax exemptions. On student fees, the Liberal Democrats are pledged to abolish them over a six-year period. On the academies programme, they would like to see sponsors backing schools rather than running them.

The big idea is the introduction of Swedish-style independent "free" schools, run by parents, teachers or companies but paid for by the state. They have budgeted for up to 100 new schools a year. However, critics say they will have to cut budgets to existing schools to pay for them and it is also not clear whether enough groups will run them. On student fees, they remain silent, awaiting the outcome of a review of student finance. There would be no substantial backbench rebellion over increasing fees. A late pledge was for parents who make malicious accusations against teachers to face fines.

Electoral reform, by Nigel Morris

The party promises to stage a referendum by autumn 2011 on introducing the alternative vote system, which it says would mean MPs would be elected with wide support while retaining their link with a constituency. However this system is not the fully proportional one demanded by the Lib Dems. Labour would also offer a free vote on lowering the voting age to 16. It repeats its usual manifesto promise of completing the reform of the House of Lords by ending the right of hereditary peers to sit in the upper chamber. Like the other main parties, it backs giving voters the power to "recall" corrupt MPs.

Nick Clegg has said that the introduction of "fair votes" is one of his four policy priorities and the issue could be at the centre of negotiations in the event of a hung parliament. The Lib Dems' preference is for multi-member constituencies elected by the single transferable vote. Critics say it would have the perverse effect of giving them a permanent share of power in coalition government. The party also wants to slash the size of the Commons from 650 to 500 MPs, cut the number of ministers to 73, and replace the Lords with a smaller elected chamber. It would cap individual donations to parties and reform union funding.

David Cameron has repeatedly stressed his opposition to scrapping the first-past-the-post voting system for Westminster. He argues that it allows the country to throw out unpopular administrations, but the Conservatives fear that electoral reform would never give them a majority again. Instead the Tories would legislate early to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 585 and equalise the size of constituencies. Other populist measures would include reducing the length of Commons recesses, and cutting ministers' pay by 5 per cent and freezing it for the duration of the parliament.

Defence, by Kim Sengupta

The Labour Party is committed to keep defence spending high within the constraints of tighter public spending. They are also committed to keeping the Trident nuclear deterrent. Backbenchers are unlikely to complain about money for the troops, at least as long as the Afghan war continues, with the popularity the forces enjoy among the electorate. But many MPs, as well as party members, are lukewarm if not downright opposed to nuclear weapons. Labour, like the other two main parties, have signed up to the Strategic Defence Review, and long term spending, and policy, will depend, to a large extent, on that.

By promising to abandon the Trident programme Nick Clegg is reflecting the view of the vast majority of his party who are against nuclear weapons. Many – with the exception of a few like Paddy Ashdown – are also naturally opposed to most forms of military action and would like to withdraw from Afghanistan as soon as possible. However their manifesto promises to maintain current levels of defence spending. Backbenchers are also likely to be opposed to future wars of intervention and, in this, they may well be end up representing mainstream opinion seeking a respite from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Like Labour, the Conservative party has signed up to renew Trident and there will be little or no opposition to this from the backbenchers and members. The Conservatives will also keep up defence spending – within the overall public spending curbs – but that is not going to stop deaths and injuries in Afghanistan from IEDs (improvised explosive devices) which they will no longer be able to blame on lack of defence spending by Labour. The Conservatives have also proposed a military rapid reaction force which can be deployed abroad at short notice and used to counter Mumbai-style attacks in the UK.

Social policy, by Sarah Cassidy

Gordon Brown has argued that families with children would lose out under the Conservative tax plans. On abortion the party is predominantly pro-choice. The Prime Minister voted for the 24-week limit to be maintained, arguing that medical experts were not pushing for a reduction. Labour are keen to emphasise how far they have advanced the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people while in government. However, Labour was criticised by equality campaigners after launching an LGBT Manifesto which failed to commit the party to legal equality for same-sex marriages.

Nick Clegg dismissed the Tory tax break as "patronising drivel", saying people married for love, not £3 a week. But his own party's family policy has been very low key. One specific promise is free childcare for pre-school children. They would allow a free vote on abortion time limits although Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg voted for the 24-week limit to be maintained. The Liberal Democrats have pledged support for gay marriage with Mr Clegg saying in February: "I support gay marriage. Love is the same, straight or gay, so the civil institution should be the same, too." They too have not committed to legal equality for same-sex marriages.

One of their key policies would give four million married couples and civil partners an annual £150 tax break. The £550m a year cost would be funded by a levy on banks. Mr Cameron has pledged to review the abortion laws. The Conservative leader said that he would personally favour reducing the abortion limit from 24 weeks to 20 or 22 weeks. On gay rights, Mr Cameron suggested during the campaign that he would reclassify civil partnerships as "marriage", but this is not a binding pledge. The party has been widely criticised by gay rights campaigners for perceived homophobic comments by leading members of the party.

Law and order, by Mark Hughes

As the party which pioneered Asbos, Labour will continue its crackdown on anti-social behaviour and the police forces which fail to act upon it. It has two new proposals: victims let down by police can take out an injunction against the force; and forces who continually fail will be taken over by neighbouring forces. Both proposals lack detail and, like much of the debate around law and order, have not been widely discussed in the campaign. Current chief constables are highly unlikely to be keen on the second proposal. Labour has said it will maintain the current number of officers policing the streets.

The party's main policy is the pledge to put an extra 3,000 police officers on the beat, paid for by scrapping ID cards, and aiming to cut anti-social behaviour. The Liberal Democrats are keen to reduce prisoner numbers, saying that prisons are "colleges of crime" where young criminals learn new tricks and become hardened – increasing reoffending. They say they will do this by telling the courts to reduce the number of short-term prison sentences and replace them with restorative justice penalties – effectively community service. Such an approach would always see the party labelled soft on crime.

They plan to introduce directly-elected police commissioners but have yet to spell out what powers these individuals will have. The proposal is opposed by the majority of the policing fraternity. David Cameron is keen on the rhetoric of "more cops on the streets" but his party has not said whether it will increase police numbers. More likely they will try and reduce the number of uniformed officers performing "office roles". The Conservatives have pledged to build more prisons and to abolish early release schemes; the party stance is that jailing more and more criminals is a necessary evil.

Manufacturing, by Sarah Arnott

Lord Mandelson has put Britain's long-ignored manufacturers at the heart of Labour plans for a more balanced economy with "less financial engineering, more real engineering". In practice, the Business Secretary's "industrial activism" means public money to help seed growth areas, particularly renewable energy, electric cars, and the nuclear industry – £1.2bn has been splashed around with notable successes. Nissan is to make its electric "Leaf" in Sunderland, and Clipper is building Britain's first wind turbine factory on Tyneside. But critics say it resembles disastrous attempts to "pick winners" in the 1960s, and that it is too capricious to work.

Nick Clegg has made a general commitment to "rebalancing and transforming" the economy, but his party has by far the least-developed industrial policy. The biggest pledge is to create 57,000 "green jobs" by investing £400m to turn disused shipyards into offshore wind turbine factories, with another £100m for training and testing facilities. The party is committed to cutting red tape, setting up local enterprise funds and establishing a national "infrastructure bank" to channel finance for big projects. The main focus is on banking reforms, to underpin stability and ensure sufficient lending to business. There are few details on other industrial policies.

The Conservatives are also talking up the need for a more balanced economy. Unsurprisingly, they take a less interventionist approach. Deriding the Labour stance as French-style dirigisme, the Conservative focus is on supply-side measures such as cutting red tape, lowering corporation tax and dismantling the costly network of Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). Although the broad thrust is popular with industry, there are concerns over how the useful work of the RDAs will be replaced. And plans to fund tax cuts by restricting the capital allowances that help manufacturers defray massive upfront machinery costs have brought squeals of anguish.

Civil liberties, by Robert Verkaik

Labour remains committed to the values enshrined in the Human Rights Act, which it proudly enacted in 1998. But since then it has extended pre-charge detention, eroded trial by jury, and overseen a growth in surveillance and storage of private information. The focus of the Labour manifesto is on law and order rather than the rights of the innocent, with nothing to reassure voters that a Labour government wouldn't return to some of its more draconian policies. What it does promise to do is make full use of CCTV and the DNA database, which will include the inclusion of innocent adult suspects.

Before the election was called, the Liberal Democrats couldn't stop talking about civil liberties. Yet when Nick Clegg stole the television limelight in the prime ministerial debates he could barely muster a sentence on the rights of the innocent or the tyranny of living in Big Brother Britain. The Lib Dem manifesto has much more to say on civil rights, promising to stop the misuse of CCTV and to restore the right to protest by curtailing police powers to block peaceful marches. The Lib Dems would scrap ID cards and return detention without trial to a maximum period of 14 days, from its current 28 days.

The Conservatives have said they want to scrap ID cards, scale back the DNA database and commission an inquiry into Britain's alleged complicity in torture. But there has been near-silence .since the campaign was announced – by attacking Labour's record on civil liberties the Tories open themselves to the charge they have gone soft on law and order. The Tories' big idea is to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a Bill of Rights, to protect citizens from the excessive powers of the state. How much priority these issues will be given should the Tories form the next Government is questionable.