There are clear-cut examples of the problem in both Conservative and Labour manifestos, which make it impossible to get through to a complete, crystal-clear truth.
The Independent has repeatedly pressed John Major to say that he would not further extend the scope of value-added tax, or increase its rate, if re-elected. The manifesto repeatedly talks of low taxes, but neither the Prime Minister nor the manifesto answers the question.
During Margaret Thatcher's last Parliament, we know that the Conservatives hit a snag when they wanted to make a change - and a saving - on child benefit.
They were thwarted because the 1987 manifesto said: "Child benefit will continue to be paid as now, and direct to the mother." The comma after the word "now" blocked all change and all savings, because it stopped Ministers arguing that a means-tested benefit would indeed continue to be paid to the mother - but not all mothers.
Because of the row that internal debate provoked, the 1992 manifesto said: "Child benefit will continue to be paid to all families, normally to the mother, and in respect of all children." The new manifesto says: "Social Security must be there to help families, pensioners and people in need. We will protect the value of Child Benefit and Family Credit which help with the cost of bringing up children." That would not stop means-testing of child benefit. Indeed, the words "in need" suggest that is exactly what they might be planning. The fact that the manifesto does not say so, means nothing.
If a manifesto makes a hard-and-fast, unqualified pledge, no Prime Minister would seek to break it. But there are pledges and aims, aspirations, targets and goals.
Thus, Labour's draft manifesto - last year's New Labour New Life for Britain - said: "We will deliver low inflation, rising living standards and high and stable levels of employment". That was so hard that I scribbled: "Huge pledge. Whoops!" against the paragraph when it was published last year.
Someone in the new Labour Party must have had the same thought, because the manifesto now says: "Our goals are low inflation, rising living standards and high and stable levels of employment."
Goals can be missed, which is why the "long-term objective" of the 10p starting rate of tax is also a Labour "goal", rather than an outright pledge.
The decision is yours
To help you find your way through the maze of the manifestos and emerge with some idea what the parties actually stand for, we have produced this comparison of the policy statements.
To help inform your decision on 1 May, there are boxes for you to score each party's position on the 15 policy headings. Rate the parties from 0 to 5 - depending how close you think they come to your views.
Total the scores at the bottom of the page opposite and vote for the party to which you give the highest score. Alternatively, you could just use a pin.
CONSERVATIVE School performance targets, with action taken to bring under- performers up to mark. Inspection of local education authorities, with remedial action when required. More delegation to schools; more specialist schools and a grammar school, if wanted, in every major town. Nursery vouchers, education or training credits to be introduced.
LABOUR Nursery places to be provided for all four-year-olds. Class sizes to be cut to 30 or fewer for all pupils of 5, 6, and 7, financed by phase- out of assisted places scheme. Ministers to close and restart failing schools. Open University-style University of Industry.
LIB DEM Nursery education for children of 3 and 4 whose parents want it, as first call on pounds 2bn annual spending programme. Five-year pledge: to limit class sizes to 30 for all children 5-11; and spend pounds 500m on school repair backlog. Double year-one spend on school books and equipment
CONSERVATIVE Mandatory prison sentences for persistent burglars and drug- dealers; automatic life terms for anyone convicted of second serious sexual or violent crime. Extra 10,000 public place CCTV cameras by 1999. Voluntary ID cards. Speedy court sanctions for young offenders, including electronic curfews and Parental Control Orders.
LABOUR Halving of time to get persistent young offenders from arrest to sentence. Parental responsibility orders, to make parents face up to child's misbehaviour, community safety orders for bad neighbours, and child protection orders for youngsters left out too late at night. Free vote on total handgun ban.
LIB DEM Extra 3,000 police officers on beat within a year. Encourage community sentences as alternative to prison, using prison where essential for public protection or effective punishment. Councils to get crime prevention powers. Royal Commission on drugs. Witness and victim support schemes to be developed.
CONSERVATIVE Around 2m one-taxpayer couples to get extra pounds 17.50 from transfer of married partner's unused tax allowance to working spouse, where partner looking after dependants. Five-year Parliament, "aim" to reduce basic rate income tax to 20p. Cuts in burden of capital gains tax and inheritance tax "as prudent".
LABOUR Five-year pledge of no increase in income tax rates. Long-term objective of 10p starting rate income tax. VAT on domestic fuel and power reduced to 5 per cent. No extension of VAT to food, children's clothes, books, newspapers or public transport fares. Windfall tax on privatised utilities.
LIB DEM Penny on basic rate income tax - 24p - to raise pounds 2bn a year for education. Higher rate of 50p for taxable income over pounds 100,000. That finances raising of tax threshold by pounds 200, taking 470,000 out of tax. Fivepence on packet of cigarettes to pay for health package.
CONSERVATIVE Exemption from European Working Time Directive to be demanded. Project Work, "workfare" programme to be extended, if economically viable, to cover long-term unemployed nationwide. Developing scheme to use private and voluntary sectors to get people off welfare and into work.
LABOUR Windfall tax to finance welfare-to-work scheme for 250,000 under- 25s, unemployed for more than six months. Six-month tax rebate for employers taking on long-term unemployed. Special Employment Zones to co-ordinate benefits, training and job-hunting. Special help for lone parents.
LIB DEM Help for long-term unemployed with self-financing Benefit Transfer Programme, turning benefits for one-year jobless into employers' incentive to recruit and train. Citizen's Service scheme to give youngsters up to two years', environmental, conservation, crime prevention, social services, housing renovation, and armed services work.
CONSERVATIVE Annual increases in real resources for NHS. Hospital league tables to inform patient and GP choice. Practice-based cottage hospitals. Nurse prescribing to be extended. No long-stay mental hospital to be closed without adequate community care alternative. Private Finance Initiative to "unleash" modernisation funds.
LABOUR First pounds 100m saved on ending internal market bureaucracy to take 100,000 off waiting lists. No-wait cancer surgery. Annual real terms increase in NHS spending. Action on mixed-sex wards. Ban on tobacco advertising. Independent food standards agency. New Minister for Public Health.
LIB DEM Free eye and dental checks and freeze on prescription charges. Three-year target of six-month limit on hospital waiting lists. Invest pounds 200m annually to recruit more front-line staff. End two-tier NHS and local pay bargaining. Six-month freeze on finance-driven closures.
CONSERVATIVE Aim to raise pounds 25bn over decade for rundown housing estates where tenants agree switch to private sector landlords. Rough Sleeper Initiative to be extended from London to other big cities. Aim for at least 60 per cent of all new homes to be built on derelict urban sites.
LABOUR Phased release of council house sale receipts to be re-invested in housing. Action on gazumping. Tenant agreement to be sought for private finance improvement of public housing. Commonhold ownership of blocks of flats, and easier purchase of freehold by leaseholders. New council duty to protect homeless.
LIB DEM Phased release of council house sales receipts for housebuilding. Mortgage Benefit to replace MIRAS for first-time buyers; eventual merger of Mortgage and Housing Benefit "focused on those most in need". Help for homeless, street-sleepers, and action on empty homes. Strengthen tenants' right to repair.
CONSERVATIVE "Tough but affordable" targets to improve air quality. Sustained improvements in water quality, at affordable pace. Encouragement of low- pollution vehicles. Continuing exploration of polluter pays principle. Product labelling to show environmental impact of how goods made.
LABOUR All departments to promote environmental policies, with parliamentary audit. Integrated transport policy. Review of vehicle excise duty to promote low-emission vehicles. Tough regulation of water industry. Tax penalties for pollution. Moratorium favoured on "large-scale sales" of Forestry Commission land.
LIB DEM Cut car tax to pounds 10 for cars up to 1600cc, while gradually increasing fuel duty 4p per litre. Urban road pricing to finance public transport. Carbon tax to finance VAT and employers' NICs cut. Countryside Management Contracts to help farmers to protect vital habitats.
CONSERVATIVE All youngsters entering work to get personal pension fund, with rebate on National Insurance Contributions. More flexibility for personal pension holders to continue investing even if subsequently join company schemes. Easier set-up for small employer personal pension plans.
LABOUR Basic state pension to be increased "at least in line with prices". Private, state-approved second pension scheme proposed, offering high value-for-money standards. Action to stop pension mis-selling. Help mooted for million pensioners not claiming Income Support entitlement.
LIB DEM Guaranteed minimum standard of living in retirement. Additional top-up pension for those with incomes below Income Support. Phase-out of expensive contributory system. Flexible decade of retirement from 60. Expansion of personal and occupational pension schemes, replacing SERPS.
CONSERVATIVE Positive vision of partnership of nation states; no further extension of qualified majority voting, or erosion of veto. Strong defence of frontier controls. Demand exemption from Working Time Directive. Will not join fudged Euro currency. Membership only by referendum approval.
LABOUR Rapid completion of single market, high priority enlargement, urgent reform of CAP, greater democracy in EU bodies, retain national veto over key national interest issues, and signing of Social Chapter. Triple lock on single currency membership: Cabinet, Parliament and referendum.
LIB DEM Referendum for substantial change in relationship. PR for 1999 European parliamentary elections. Enlargement, with more majority voting; keeping veto for constitution, budget, pay and social security. Aim to join single currency, but in line with convergence criteria and only with referendum majority.
CONSERVATIVE Tight control on public spending with five-year goal of reducing government expenditure below 40 per cent of national income. Maintaining inflation target of 2.5 per cent or less. Aim to virtually eliminate public borrowing by 2000. Maintain lowest European tax burden.
LABOUR Inflation target 2.5 per cent or less. Greater independence for Bank of England. Public debt at "stable and prudent level", borrowing only to invest, "over economic cycle". Review of Whitehall assets. Maintenance of current, two-year spending plans. High and stable employment.
LIB DEM Bank of England independence; accountable to Parliament for keeping inflation low. Lower inflation and stable exchange rate best served by single currency membership. Public borrowing should not exceed investment "over economic cycle". Public-private investment partnerships. Savings encouragement. Investment and economic stability.
CONSERVATIVE Complete "successful transfer" of British Rail, followed by plans to privatise London Underground, with recycling of proceeds to modernise network within five years, and regulation of fares to ensure no rise above inflation for four years. Road-building programme to be sustained.
LABOUR More effective regulation of privatised railways, with new rail authority back-up. Unpersuaded on case for 44-tonne lorries. Strategic review of roads programme. New public-private partnership for London Underground, with no sell-off. Proper, local regulation of bus services.
LIB DEM Treble rail freight and double passengers by 2010, withholding subsidies from Railtrack if targets not met, with possible renationalisation of controlling interest in Railtrack in event of "persistent failure". Urban road-pricing to help pay for "clean and rapid" public transport. Public-private partnership investment.
CONSERVATIVE London Underground and Parcelforce. Preserve national identity, universal service and distinctive characteristics of Post Office Royal Mail while considering options - including "different forms of privatisation" - for providing private capital and management.
LABOUR "We will ensure that self-financing commercial organisations within the public sector - the Post Office is a prime example - are given greater commercial freedom to make the most of new opportunities." Privatisation not mentioned.
LIB DEM London Underground to be retained. Existing utility regulators combined in Office of Utility Regulation, ensuring excess profits used to cut prices and improve services.
CONSERVATIVE Public protection from "abuse" of union power by removal of legal immunity from court action for strikes which have "disproportionate or excessive effect", allowing public and employers to seek injunctions to stop such strikes. Strike ballots to be repeated at regular intervals.
LABOUR Union legislation of 1980s to stay on ballots, picketing and industrial action, but where majority of "relevant workforce" vote for representation, union should be recognised. "Full consultation on the most effective means of implementing this proposal." Minimum wage to cut taxpayer subsidy to low-pay employers.
LIB DEM New rights to consultation and participation in decisions. Promotion of profit-sharing and employee share-ownership. Extension of EU Social Chapter benefits to all employees, "while resisting the adoption of new rules that unnecessarily harm job opportunities."
CONSERVATIVE Evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, change. Plan to give Parliament more time to consider legislation by extending Queen's Speech programme to cover firm programme for year ahead, and provisional programme for the year after.
LABOUR Referendums offered on Scottish, Welsh and London devolution, and Proportional Representation for general elections. Abolition of hereditary peers' rights in Lords. Reform of party funding. Freedom of Information Act. More freedom for councils. Human rights guarantee.
LIB DEM Smaller, stronger Commons. Ten-year plan for elected Lords. Proportional Representation. Four-year Parliaments. Party-funding cleansed. Bill of Rights. Freedom of Information. Scottish and Welsh home rule. Stronger local government; London authority. Ulster power-sharing executive.
CONSERVATIVE Encouragement of further development of cadet forces. No need for defence spending review. Will resist attempts to bring Western European Union under control of EU.
LABOUR Retention of Trident, though nuclear weapons to be included in multilateral negotiations "when satisfied with verified progress towards our goal of global elimination". Strategic defence, security, and spending review promised.
LIB DEM Retain Trident, with restricted warhead capacity, until international multilateral nuclear disarmament can be achieved. Retain defence capability at current level. Strengthen UN peacekeeping. Control of arms sales, and ban landmines.
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