Election 2010: The challenges ahead

The IoS stress tests the three main parties policies – largely ignored during the campaign – and delivers our verdict on which of them make most sense
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This Friday, if one party wins outright, a new prime minister will return from Buckingham Palace with one of the most difficult in-trays any holder of the office has had to contend with for years. If there is a hung parliament, the horse-trading will revolve around where which party stands on the serious and pressing issues facing the country.



The deficit

It should have been the most important issue of the campaign, but dealing with the £163bn deficit was lost in the excitement of the TV debates until last week. The Conservatives will cut by £12bn this year. Yet they are opposed to Labour's planned national insurance rise for April 2011. Labour and the Liberal Democrats will continue spending until next year.

Verdict: Most serious economists seem to agree that public spending should be maintained to minimise the risk of a double-dip recession. Labour and the Lib Dems are right to put off cuts, but all parties have avoided spelling out what those cuts should be.



The war

All three parties support the ongoing mission in Afghanistan, which has claimed the lives of 281 British troops since 2001, although David Cameron has suggested he would look at withdrawal within the next parliament, and one of the first acts of a Tory government would be to hold a "war cabinet".

Verdict: The IoS became the first national newspaper last year to call for a phased withdrawal from combat operations. A new strategy must be drawn up as a matter of urgency.

Electoral reform

A flaw of first past the post is that Labour could come third in the share of vote but still have the most number of seats. Labour has offered a referendum on the alternative vote, which is not proportional, while the Lib Dems prefer the single transferable vote, which is. The Conservatives oppose electoral reform. This issue could make or break a coalition deal.

Verdict: The IoS supports a fairer voting system that would better match parties' votes and seats. Labour's proposal for the alternative vote is a small step in this direction.



Environment

One of the most serious long-term issues, yet it played no significant part in the campaign. All three parties are committed to emission cuts, household efficiency measures such as smart meters and support for a green economy. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are opposed to Labour's building of a third runway at Heathrow.

Verdict: Labour's credentials are undermined by support for a third runway. No party is really prepared to say that fossil fuels must cost a lot more.



Health

The Tories will ring-fence NHS cash, and Labour will protect frontline health spending. The Tories and Lib Dems would axe Labour's targets. Labour has new "rights" on cancer test results and treatment, while the Conservatives would fund new cancer drugs.

Verdict: The only way to improve the NHS in a period of fiscal stringency is to accelerate the reforms that increase the number and diversity of providers of healthcare. Labour's disciplines are essential and the Conservatives would be foolish to scrap them.



Education

Labour is committed to protecting frontline spending on education, claiming that the Conservatives would cut provision for existing state schools. All three parties favour some form of "pupil premium" where money follows disadvantaged pupils. The Tories would introduce state sector "free schools" run by parents or charities.

Verdict: The IoS favours new, especially smaller, schools, on condition that they are not selective. There must be doubts about whether the Conservatives would maintain spending.



Crime

Crime overall has fallen in the UK under Labour, but this year gun-related crime has risen and violent crime remains an emotive subject. Lib Dems would free up near-capacity prisons by axing prison sentences under six months. Labour and the Tories favour tougher sentencing and greater local control of police forces.

Verdict: The Lib Dems have the right instinct that prison does not work. The Conservatives might do most to tackle police bureaucracy.



Civil liberties

The terror threat after 9/11 triggered a string of new powers for police to stop and search, seize cameras from tourists taking pictures of landmarks, and ID cards. The Conservatives and Lib Dems would scrap ID cards.

Verdict: Britain is nowhere near a police state, but most of the encroachments on personal liberty of the past 13 years have been unnecessary and counterproductive. Lib Dems and (less viscerally) the Conservatives understand the importance of freedom.



Immigration

One of the top three issues for voters in this election. The Conservatives want a cap on immigration; Labour favours the skills-based points system while the Lib Dems would introduce an amnesty for illegal immigrants who have been in the UK for 10 years.

Verdict: Immigration is both a good thing for this country and a symptom of its economic and cultural success. An amnesty is probably the least worst way of tackling accumulated problems.



Foreign policy

The second leaders' debate on foreign policy made no mention of the Middle East. The new foreign secretary (and chancellor) will have to grapple immediately with the crisis in the Greek economy and its impact on the European Union. The Tories' sceptical position on the EU has seen them withdraw from the mainstream centre-right grouping, which critics say will leave the UK weak at a critical moment for the bloc. A Tory government will protect spending on international development.

Verdict: The Conservative attitude to Europe is damaging to the national interest, and the party's conversion to Labour's action to tackle world poverty is not wholly convincing.

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