Spot the difference

How do you choose between the main parties, and can you trust them? Anthony Bevins and Colin Brown unravel their pledges so far

The duplicity and plain dishonesty of politics is elevated into an art form in election manifestos. However, in the coming election, voters will not only be required to distinguish the hard truth from the soft lie; they will also be expected to distinguish between two main parties - Labour and Conservatives - which are falling over each other to win the middle-ground vote. While the Conservatives will blur their right- wing aspirations, Labour will Blair its left-wing past. The burial of politics and the concealment of truth will be found across the spectrum: in law and order, education, employment and health. But the evidence is easier to come by when the words on tax are put under the microscope ...

TAX

Yesterday's spat between Tony Blair and Kenneth Clarke, prompted by Michael Meacher's reiteration that Labour had made no promises to leave about 200 tax reliefs and allowances untouched, shed little light on the tax plans of Labour or the Tories.

"Decisions will be taken by the Chancellor in government," Mr Blair said. "But we have made it clear where we are on the basic and top rates of tax." They would remain unchanged.

"What is absolutely untrue, however, is to say that the Labour Party has hidden spending plans that it has not properly financed. That is simply not correct," the Labour leader added.

One small question that was not covered by that answer was: How will Labour finance its plans for a 10p starting rate of income tax? That is not a spending plan, but it is something that would cost money, and that money could come from a squeeze on tax allowances - a less painful way of increasing taxes, as the Tories have found.

For while tax rates have been cut by the Conservatives, the overall tax burden has increased in the past 18 years. Gordon Brown can freeze the standard and top rates of income tax but that does not mean he will freeze the tax burden.

The tax burden inherited from the last Labour government, in 1978-79, was 34.75 per cent of domestic output. Having risen to a record 39.25 per cent under Margaret Thatcher in 1981-82, it fell with painful slowness to 34 per cent in 1993-94, and is back up to an expected 36.25 per cent this year. If Mr Brown is committed to Mr Clarke's spending limits for the next two years, is he also tied to his increases, too - with the tax burden planned to rise to 37.25 per cent in 1999-2000?

The only clarity being offered yesterday came from the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, Malcolm Bruce. He said for the first time that in addition to an extra penny on standard rate income tax, to pay for pounds 1.7bn worth of improvements in education, he would use pounds 1.4bn raised from 140,000 top earners - with a new 50p rate for those on taxable income of pounds 100,000 - to finance a pounds 1.2bn tax cut for the low-paid.

One senior Liberal Democrat source told The Independent that there had been a fear that Labour would occupy their territory. Instead, the party walked straight over it, and had become a new model Conservative Party.

LAW AND ORDER

The Liberal Democrats say the similarities between the Tories and Labour are so marked in home affairs that while Jack Straw, the opposition spokesman, talks regularly to the Home Secretary, he has few, if any, dealings with the Liberal Democrats. "Labour must realise that in dealing with law and order, civil liberties must not be forgotten," a Liberal Democrat strategist said.

The main battle-front between Labour and the Tories is over youth crime, where Labour promises "fast-track" punishment for persistent young offenders, halving the time from arrest to sentencing. "At present," Labour says, "many young offenders have a licence to carry on offending."

In his speech to last year's Conservative Party conference, Mr Major promised a consultation paper on preventing children offending. That has not been delivered so far, and is presumably being kept back for the manifesto; a case of party policy being drafted by civil servants, at taxpayers' expense. After extending electronic tagging to under-16s in the Police Bill, the Tory aim is to divert the young from crime by bringing together the police and care agencies to identify children at risk of committing a crime.

The Conservatives' plans, which could cover the under-10s for the first time, could include helping offenders to understand the effects of their actions; forcing them to make reparation or apologising - face to face, or by letter - and giving the victim a possible say in settling cases. Labour says: "Across a range of issues from drugs to firearms and knives, from domestic violence to stalking and racial violence, we have been in the forefront of sensible, practical measures which can make our communities more secure."

The Liberal Democrats are to issue a policy paper in advance of their spring conference in Cardiff, which is being held on 7 March. The law and order heading says simply: "Preventing crime through effective policing." But the party wants to reverse the increase in prison numbers with more community-based sentences.

EDUCATION

While Labour is making the hard promise to divert resources from the Conservatives' assisted places scheme - paying for children to receive a private education - to pay for a cut in class sizes to 30 or under for all five-, six- and seven-year olds, the really big money is being pledged by the Liberal Democrats.

They would spend the pounds 1.7bn product of an extra penny on income tax to finance nursery places for all children aged between three and five whose parents want it; a reduction in primary school class sizes; work on the schools' maintenance backlog; and pounds 200m for further education.

When Mr Major met his Cabinet for a manifesto brainstorming session at Chequers on Monday, it was decided that a main theme would be an enhancement of opportunity and choice for the "hard-working classes" - which includes the provision of a grammar school in every town.

However, it is suspected that the Tories also plan to ease the public spending burden by encouraging greater self-help - private provision, particularly for welfare and health. Certainly, that is one way of increasing choice.

But it is difficult to match that with the other fundamental idea that has been delivered by the Prime Minister over the years - that the Conservatives want to make public services so good that people would not want to go private.

Labour says: "We do not share the view that primary school standards are adequate. They are not. Fifty per cent of children are failing to reach appropriate levels in numeracy and literacy tests at the age of 11. This is simply unacceptable."

After 18 years in office, the Conservatives now blame Labour local education authorities for that state of affairs.

As for their own specifics, the Tories say they would extend the pounds 1,100 nursery voucher scheme from four pilot areas in London and Norfolk to a nationwide scheme for all four-year-olds. They also want an expansion of grant-maintained schools, but the Cabinet has ruled out forcing all schools to adopt GM status.

HEALTH

The Tory pledge on health will be a continuation of the NHS as a tax- based system, free at the point of delivery, with increases in spending, in real terms, year on year.

Pilot schemes allowing family doctors to run cottage hospitals, open surgeries in supermarkets, and offer more services, such as small operations, will be promised.

Other items on the Conservative agenda include: a Bill on the mentally ill, seeking "effective partnerships" to tighten the controls on the release of mentally ill people into the community; a draft Bill on long-term care for the elderly, to be published in mid-February, allowing the elderly to avoid selling their homes by taking out private insurance when they go into homes; and an adoption consultation paper, due next month, to end "politically correct" choices.

The Liberal Democrats are, as usual, braver and bolder. They are calling for an increase in taxes on cigarettes and pollution to pay for more doctors and more nurses in front-line hospital service. They are also want more preventive care, looking after the public health before people get ill.

But that policy is not without cost. The party's latest alternative budget said an extra 5p or 6p on a packet of cigarettes would be used to pay for abolition of charges for eye and dental checks, and a freeze on prescription charges.

The Liberal Democrats also want to introduce a maximum waiting time for operations from consultation to treatment of six months, to be achieved within three years.

Labour's key - costed - policy on health is also for a cut in NHS waiting lists. Labour's policy statement says: "The huge waste of the Tories' internal market - up from 9 per cent of NHS spending in 1988 to 12 per cent in 1996 - will be put to improvements in patient care, in particular cutting both the process and length of waiting time.

"Our aim is to cut waiting time, with more patient choice on when and where they are treated, by redirecting money from the waste of the internal market. Cutting back on only pounds 100m of the pounds 1.5bn spent on the internal market would enable 100,000 patients to be treated and taken off waiting lists."

JOBS

Employment is one of the clearest of all issues between the parties, with Mr Major saying in South Wales on Wednesday that over the past four years the Conservative government had presided over an economic environment that had generated more jobs than all other European countries put together.

The message, therefore, is: Conservative government works, don't let Labour ruin it.

The snag is that when the statistics are tracked back for a further two years - let alone the past 18 years - the Tory record does not look so good.

Between 1990-96, the six years in which Mr Major has been Prime Minister, employment has fallen, and comparisons with other European countries, let alone comparison with members of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, do not look at all favourable.

While Mr Major and his colleagues will urge "steady as she goes", Labour and the Liberal Democrats want to invest in employment. The Liberal Democrats want to reduce employers' national insurance contributions - "a tax on jobs" - and introduce a voluntary citizens' service, with up to 250,000 places, to train the young and the unemployed for community service.

With one of those coincidences of numbers that could well serve to confuse a befuddled voter, Labour say they will "get 250,000 under-25s off benefit and into work by using money from a windfall levy on the privatised utilities". How much the levy will raise, and from which industries, has not yet been firmly announced.

The Conservatives say that the cost of the jobs, and the windfall tax, will be switched to the customers, through water, gas and electricity bills.

Given the imposition of value-added tax on domestic fuel and power bills - in breach of all Tory promises in the last election - this shows a certain brass neck. But then we must expect politicians not only to forget their promises, but their actions, too.

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