Today, we list eight of the big questions we believe need answering if this election is to prove a proper test of the parties. These are fair questions which can be answered if the party leaders are prepared to level with the rest of us. But without proper answers, voters will lack essential information and democracy will have stumbled.
What will happen to taxes?
It is unreasonable to expect precise information about the detail of taxation year after year - since that depends partly on the economic cycle. But the parties need to be clear on their early proposals and principles. In 1979, over Value Added Tax, and in 1992, over taxation generally, the public was seriously misled. So in 1997 the Conservatives have a special duty to explain what they intend to do on direct taxes and VAT; how that will be funded; and to respond to the detailed questions about the state of the public finances they evaded last time.
The Liberal Democrats have made clear statements about the likely higher level of income tax they would impose to fund education. Labour, though, despite making anti-tax noises in general, has refused to discuss any proposed higher rate of income tax, or what would happen to tax thresholds. The party has pledged to fill out the detail; it has an absolute duty to do so.
Would the Tories take us out of Europe?
``Don't be ridiculous,'' is John Major's likely response. But he has moved relentlessly in a Euro- sceptic direction since his early days in Number 10, and his party is in Euro-sceptic hands. Many of his senior colleagues talk about ``renegotiating'' Britain's relationship with the EU. But if other countries move towards a federal Europe, what does renegotiation then mean? In the end, if they didn't like it, would the Conservatives lump it? Or would they withdraw? We deserve an answer to what, given the intensity of the argument inside the party, is no longer an academic question.
Will Mr Blair back voting reform?
The Labour leader is committed to holding a referendum on whether Britain should change the voting system for the House of Commons. Potentially, that would be the biggest single act of internal political change since women won the vote; it might alter the party system. Yet though he is said to be ``unpersuaded'' about the need for a change to proportional representation, Mr Blair has been coy about his thinking. Voters have a right to look deeper into his mind before they take his hand and leap.
Would Labour take Britain into the single currency?
Another referendum question: Labour is divided, though not as publicly so as the Government. Its formal position is that if the economic conditions were appropriate, it would see no constitutional objection to introducing the euro - but it wants ``real'' economic convergence. Gordon Brown has committed Labour to a referendum before joining any first wave of monetary union. But decision time is looming. So is Labour keen to join that first wave or not? The time for bashfulness has passed.
Will the parties spend more on schools?
All of the party leaders have announced, with great solemnity, that improving the state of British education is their priority. But neither Labour nor the Tories have made any specific promises about paying for that improvement. So: if this matters particularly, will they shift taxpayers' money towards schools and colleges? And if they will, where will they take the money from?
Would Paddy Ashdown keep Mr Blair in power without PR?
The Liberal Democrat leader has made it clear that he is close to Labour on a wide range of issues, from Scottish devolution to reform of the House of Lords. But his strategy and his party depend upon him winning more out of the Labour leader on voting reform. Would the Lib-Dems support Labour anyway?
Can Labour match the Conservatives' pledge on NHS spending?
Labour is assumed by most voters to be a safer guardian of the NHS than the Tories. But this is likely to mean higher spending; and Labour has not yet matched the Conservative promise (unfulfilled in the latest Red Book spending plans) to increase NHS spending year on year in real terms. Why not? And if they cannot, what outlook do they offer for state medicine?
What do the parties really mean by radical reform of the welfare state?
This is a policy area where economists and pundits expect a dramatic shift in policy in the next few years. Take pensions. Politicians such as Labour's Frank Field and the Tories' Peter Lilley have canvassed the idea of turning to a new savings and insurance-based system. But what do their party leaders think?
Labour is critical of the Tories for breaking the old link between the state pension and earnings, but won't restore it. Again, many senior people in both parties are privately hostile to ``middle-class benefits'' like mortgage interest relief and universal child benefit. All the parties talk of radical solutions, but lapse into embarrassed silence on the details ... because they will be painful for many people innocently voting for them later this year.
These are not all the big questions for the election; but they are, we think, the biggest unanswered ones. Readers may have others. The test is, are they great national issues, where the parties' positions are hidden or unclear? We will monitor our list, add to it if necessary, and do our best to get what answers (election stunts permitting) we can.Reuse content