Top rate of 50p will pay for big rise in spending

Paul Waugh, Deputy Political Editor, examines the proposals in Charles Kennedy's 'pre-manifesto'
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Indy Politics

"We are more progressive than Labour, more socially ambitious than Labour, more absolutely clear-cut about Europe. But that doesn't mean we are some kind of old-fashioned tax-and-spend Labour Party. I have seen that politics and it sucks."

"We are more progressive than Labour, more socially ambitious than Labour, more absolutely clear-cut about Europe. But that doesn't mean we are some kind of old-fashioned tax-and-spend Labour Party. I have seen that politics and it sucks."

With his inimitable gift for the vernacular, Charles Kennedy launched his party's pre-manifesto, "Freedom in a Liberal Society", with a pledge to offer voters a distinctive choice at the next election. He called the freedom talked about by William Hague "fake freedom".

Mr Kennedy said that as well as offering specific policies, his mission was to reclaim "freedom" as a Liberal idea. He said that his party's guiding philosophy was based on the promotion of basic freedoms, including the freedom from an over-centralised, authoritarian state.

The main points are:

Economy

Taxation for the lowest paid would be reduced dramatically by cutting the 10p starting rate of income tax to zero, taking more than one and a half million people out of tax altogether. More controversially, is a new top rate of tax of 50p on those earning more than £100,000 a year.

Verdict: The abolition of the 10p tax rate is a bold attempt to outflank Labour in the war on poverty, while the 50p "superich" tax rate may also impress anti-Tory voters. However, putting up taxes for everyone over £21,000 is a gift to those who want to portray the party as one of tax-and-spend.

Health

The Liberal Democrats have pledged to invest in the NHS by recruiting an extra 5,000 doctors and an extra 20,000 nurses over three years. They would also cut prescription charges and scrap charges for dental and eye check-ups, using funding from a 10p increase on cigarettes.

Verdict: Following the Chancellor's £43bn spending review, it is difficult for the Liberal Democrats to claim that they will spend more on the NHS. But cutting prescription charges and scrapping dental and eye tests are the sort of popular policies many Labour MPs would like to see adopted.

Education

The Liberal Democrats have retained one of their best-known policies, putting a penny on basic income tax if necessary to raise £3bn for education. They have pledged to reduce class sizes for 5- to 11-year-olds, establishing a maximum average of 25 in primary schools. Free nursery places would be provided for all three- and four-year-olds, and tuition fees at university would be abolished.

Verdict: One of the party's strongest cards in the past is likely to prove so again. The class-size pledge and free nursery places should be vote-winners.

Welfare

The party would increase the basic state pension and make extra payments to those over 75 and 80. Pensions for all would go up by £5 a week, paid for by the "superich" tax. The national minimum wage would cover all workers over 16.

Verdict: Increasing pensions will inevitably prove popular, particularly as the party has exploited the Government's "measly" 75p increase this year.

Environment

The party would expand the Environment Agency's control of pollution. However, the Liberal Democrats agree with some Tory criticisms of the "bureaucratic" climate change levy; a more precise carbon tax would be phased in.

Free off-peak local travel on public transport would be extended to the disabled and those over 60 or under 19. Urban congestion and workplace parking charges would fund public transport. The party would impose a moratorium on commercial growing of GM crops until 2003.

Verdict: By staking out a clear green agenda, Mr Kennedy hopes to offer a platform on issues abandoned by Labour and the Tories. But many promises appear to be uncosted.

Constitution

The party retains its commitment to introduce a form of proportional representation through the single transferable vote system. However, "in the short term, we support AV plus as proposed by the Jenkins commission as a clear step in the right direction".

Verdict: Electoral reform purists will be disappointed at acceptance of the Jenkins proposals, but many will back the more realistic line.

Civil liberties

Mr Kennedy has personally put civil liberties at the heart of the policy agenda. New measures include an Equality Act, a Human Rights Commission and "genuine" freedom of information laws.

Verdict: This is one of the main areas in which the partycan claim to be truly radical.

Europe

There would be a "positive timetable" and policies for achieving sustainable entry to the euro.

Verdict: Opinion polls show strong support for keeping the pound - but strategists may be right that the issue is not a high priority at general elections.

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