Kennedy launches mini-manifesto with eye on breakthrough

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Indy Politics

Charles Kennedy yesterday declared the Liberal Democrats had the "best prospects" of an electoral breakthrough for 20 years as he launched his party's early election manifesto on a platform of "freedom, fairness and trust".

Charles Kennedy yesterday declared the Liberal Democrats had the "best prospects" of an electoral breakthrough for 20 years as he launched his party's early election manifesto on a platform of "freedom, fairness and trust".

Setting out his "priorities for government", Mr Kennedy declared that "anything can happen" under the present voting system and said "it would be foolish of me to have low ambitions" for the next election.

The pre-manifesto paper, designed to capture votes from Labour and the Tories, included proposals to abolish the council tax and replace it with a local income tax. This would lead to lower bills for most families and pensioners. But those on higher incomes and working couples would pay more.

The Liberal Democrats also published their proposals to raise the top rate of tax to 50p in the pound for those on over £100,000 to pay for the abolition of tuition fees for students.

They promised to put an extra 10,000 police on the beat, paid for by the abolition of Government plans for ID cards. And they pledged free personal care for the elderly and disabled and £25 a week extra for pensioners over 75. Yesterday's launch was seen at Westminster as a dress rehearsal for the general election, where the Liberal Democrats will be viewed as a greater electoral threat by Labour and the Tories, and will face closer scrutiny of their policies.

But there was concern yesterday among some Liberal Democrat MPs that the party needed to improve on "the detail" of its programme after a press conference where there was apparent ambiguity about some of the party's policies.

There was confusion about the party's stance on Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos), which they opposed in a vote in Parliament. Some Liberal Democrat councils have used the orders as tools to clamp down on "yob culture".

Mr Kennedy indicated that the Liberal Democrats remained opposed to their use but Mark Oaten, the party's home affairs spokesman, later said some Asbos were "a useful tool for the police" if used in conjunction with other measures to try to break the circle of crime.

The Liberal Democrats also faced fresh scrutiny over their tax and spending plans, including policies to abolish the DTI and business subsidies, and the impact of its tax plans on ordinary households. Mr Kennedy rejected the imposition of a formal limit on the share of tax a government could raise in a Parliament.

He said there were no plans to set an overall tax limit, which would prohibit the government from raising taxes above a certain percentage of gross domestic product. Currently the share of national tax is just under 40 per cent of GDP.

But Vince Cable, the party's Treasury spokesman, argued in an essay published last week that there was "a strong case" for a fiscal rule on the share of tax in GDP "using present levels as an appropriate base". "As a first modest step down this road, Liberal Democrats propose to couch their own expenditure proposals on the basis that any increased spending commitments should be met by cutting some other area of government spending," Mr Cable wrote in the Orange Book on "reclaiming liberalism".

Mr Kennedy said he was encouraged by polls showing Liberal Democrats were making headway in Tory and Labour areas. He said the party's policies already had proved popular in Brent East and Leicester South where it won safe Labour seats in two by-elections. "These ideas are already working for us. We have tried and tested them," he said. "As this Labour government becomes more unpopular, increasingly the challengers are not the Conservatives. The challengers are the Liberal Democrats."

But a poll for Channel 4 dealt a blow to their quest to overturn a Labour majority in the forthcoming Hartlepool by-election. The poll gave Labour 52 per cent, compared to 23 per cent for the Liberal Democrats, 11 per cent for the Tories and 10 per cent for UKIP.

IN 10 KEY POLICY AREAS, HOW THE LIB DEMS AND LABOUR SHAPE UP

INCOME TAX

Lib Dems: Raise tax to 50 per cent for those earning £100,000 a year.

Labour: No increase in income tax rates for this Parliament.

Is policy to the left or right of Labour? Left. Increase in tax for the highest earners while cutting tax burden for pensioners and those on low incomes.

COUNCIL TAX

Lib Dems: Replace the council tax with local income tax.

Labour: Review of council tax under way. Warning to councils to keep bills down and threat to cap high-tax authorities.

Left or right of Labour? Left: highest-earning households will pay more but poorest households, less.

PENSIONS

Lib Dems: £25 more on weekly pensions for the over-75s.

Labour: Raise the winter fuel allowance, free TV licence for over 75s and minimum pension income.

Left or right of Labour? Pensions: Left. Whitehall spending cut to boost poorest pensions and abolish means-testing for over-75s.

CARE

Lib Dems: Free personal care for the elderly and disabled.

Labour: Free nursing care for those on low incomes; help for elderly to stay in their own homes.

Left or right of Labour? Free personal care: Left. Lib Dems have pushed through free personal care in Scotland in coalition with Labour.

TUITION FEES

Lib Dems: Scrap tuition and top-up fees for students.

Labour: Introduce tuition fees with grants for lowest income students. Pay back fees after graduation, based on income.

Left or right of Labour? Left. Tuition fees to be funded by a tax rise on the highest earners.

BUSINESS

Lib Dems: Scrap the Department for Trade and Industry, and business subsidies.

Labour: Continue to support business through the DTI and subsidies, but cut civil service jobs.

Left or right of Labour? Right: abolition of business subsidies is part of a free-market approach.

POLICE

Lib Dems: 10,000 more police on streets

Labour: More police and 20,000 more community support officers

Left or right of Labour? Neither right nor left. Party grows tougher on crime but with a greater emphasis on rehabilitation than prison, except for violent or dangerous offenders

ID CARDS

Lib Dems: Scrap Labour plans for identity cards.

Labour: Introduce ID cards following a pilot scheme.

Left or right of Labour? Neither right nor left. But the Liberal Democrats are more concerned about protecting civil liberties than the other parties.

RECYCLING

Lib Dems: Recycle 60 per cent of household waste by 2010 and improve enforcement of pollution controls.

Labour: 25 per cent by 2005-06, 30 per cent by 2010 and 33 per cent by 2015.

Left or right of Labour? Neither, but more Green than all the other main parties.

GM CROPS

Lib Dems: Oppose commercial use of GM crops until they are proved to be "safe for the environment".

Labour: Strict controls on commercial planting, but no objection in principle.

Left or right of Labour? More cautious than other parties, and aware of consumer concerns.

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