Election `97: Crafted by cabinet of three

Ashdown added finishing touch to the document. Barrie Clement reports
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The Liberal Democrats' 60-page manifesto was basically a committee job, with the final flourishes added by Paddy Ashdown, writes Barrie Clement.

Lest the party be accused of woolly-mindedness, the allegation often levelled against the Liberals, strategists have insisted all the pledges have been costed in detail.

About two years ago, Alan Beith, the deputy leader, was asked to take charge of the process, which involved prolonged consultation inside and outside the party. The long gestation period meant that, unlike the Conservative Party, "we cannot pull last minute rabbits from the hat".

Formally, the document is the responsibility of the 30-strong Liberal Democrat policy committee and the parliamentary party, but there was an "inner Cabinet" of three with the greatest degree of influence.

Apart from Mr Ashdown, who chairs the policy committee, Lord Wallace of Saltaire took the role of rapporteur and distilled the views of party members. Neil Stockley, head of policy, was responsible for its intellectual respectability.

There was an attempt to emphasise practicality. According to party sources, the 1992 election manifesto was concerned with processes, such as Europe and constitutional reform, rather the "outcomes" ,such as smaller class sizes and shorter hospital waiting lists, which formed the centrepiece of yesterday's document. Education and health were the "big ideas".

Although the party prefers not to see itself on the right-left political spectrum, Liberal Democrat officials conceded that its preoccupation with the need for competition in the economy could be described as right-wing, while its call for increased taxation to pay for improvements in education and health was vaguely left-wing. The preferred formulation is "radical but pragmatic".

Over the last 18 months, drafts of the document have been presented to the policy committee and the party's parliamentary representatives, where it has been amended. There was also consultation with outside research organisations and trade associations.

Members get a look-in, according to party officials. Their representatives at annual conferences elect more than half the policy committee, the other half being co-opted worthies and ex officio party figures.

The 4,000 representatives at the annual conferences also engage in debates over policy papers which feed into the manifesto. Two weeks ago it was given the final spit and polish by the policy committee.