Why doesn't the opposition put some fizz into politics?

'Where Ashdown was bristling with ideas, some proto-Blairite, Kennedy is much more the positioner'
Click to follow

William Hague's call for the closure of the Dome and the resignation of Lord Falconer is rather a relief. Iain Macleod's famous dictum that the job of oppositions is to oppose has been rather forgotten in the orgy of introspection in which the Tories and Liberal Democrats have been indulging in the past 48 hours. It seems bizarre, for example, that the Tories were so consumed by their own interim manifesto that they found no time to exploit more vigorously the genuinely tragic loss to Labour of a politician of Mo Mowlam's ability, humanity, and popular standing. There is, moreover, something truly unreal about analysing within an inch of their lives the programmes of two parties which even their leaders cannot, deep down, expect to form a government after the next election.

William Hague's call for the closure of the Dome and the resignation of Lord Falconer is rather a relief. Iain Macleod's famous dictum that the job of oppositions is to oppose has been rather forgotten in the orgy of introspection in which the Tories and Liberal Democrats have been indulging in the past 48 hours. It seems bizarre, for example, that the Tories were so consumed by their own interim manifesto that they found no time to exploit more vigorously the genuinely tragic loss to Labour of a politician of Mo Mowlam's ability, humanity, and popular standing. There is, moreover, something truly unreal about analysing within an inch of their lives the programmes of two parties which even their leaders cannot, deep down, expect to form a government after the next election.

But while Charles Kennedy cannot realistically expect to form a government the present electoral arithmetic brutally suggests he has the chance of joining one rather earlier than William Hague. Kennedy, whose turn it was yesterday to outline his own electoral programme, is also unusual, because - like Mowlam, Ken Clarke, Ken Livingstone, and only a few others - he is an able politician who doesn't sound like one. His party's victory in Romsey has given him an authority and mandate which he had seemed to lack. He has a sense of humour. He has found the right language to concentrate his fire on the Conservative Party without kowtowing to Labour. He is a sure-footed radio and television performer. And if he panics, he has yet to show any sign of it.

That said, the Liberal Democrats' neatly packaged draft manifesto is at once a skilful and disappointing document. Skilful because its emphasis on civil liberties will go a long way to assure those deeply uneasy about the party's relationship with Labour, that he has borrowed none of its authoritarianism. Skilful because commitments like that to raise the old age pension touches a raw nerve with Labour - and no doubt some Tory - voters, while underpinning the Kennedy mantra of social justice. Disappointing because it is pretty short of the modernising, outward-looking ideas with which Kennedy's predecessor Paddy Ashdown used to fizz. In particular there isn't much on reform of the public services. Disappointing because there is an element of opportunism in its approach to the main talking point of the document, its tax and spending commitments.

It's possible to exaggerate the importance of these. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats have given a whole new meaning to the term stealth taxes. For it may go down as the first party in history to claim to be in favour of higher taxes than it actually is. The only circumstances in which that mythical beast, a Liberal Democrat government, would add a penny to current income tax levels for spending on education would be if the economy was well below the level of growth forecast by the Treasury - an unlikely post election outcome.

The idea of a 50 per cent rate for those earning over £100,000 a year was actively considered within the Labour high command - not least by Gordon Brown - in the run-up to the last general election. And although it was dropped, the all powerful focus group evidence was by no means unambiguously opposed. The tax tables produced by the Liberal Democrats yesterday are confusing in that some projections envisage zero growth and some envisage forecast growth. But the increases are significantly offset by a £4bn a year proposal to reduce the current 10p rate to zero. Finally most of the taxation ideas - like much else in the document - were actually contained in the party's 1997 manifesto, in the admittedly rather different circumstances of a big deficit.

Nevertheless Mr Kennedy's party, having seen its 1997 spending commitments overtaken by what Gordon Brown has actually done, has consciously chosen to differentiate itself from Labour partly by pledging to tax and spend somewhat more than Labour would. This has one obvious plus, which is that it makes the Liberal Democrats a plausible repository for Labour voters disappointed by the delay in the Government's own programme for investing in public services, outlined in this year's Comprehensive Spending Review. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats believe that Labour defections to them at Romsey stemmed even more from such disappointment than from simple anti-Tory tactical voting. Mr Kennedy may well be right, too, when he says that Labour failed "to invest in our public services with the speed and urgency required". The paradox is that the Liberal Democrats' own spending commitments are only credible - in so far as they are - because Gordon Brown's stewardship of the economy triumphantly made spending - within limits - respectable again. But that's life.

The potential minus is that even the perception of old-fashioned tax and spend make Tories alienated by Mr Hague's brand of nationalist Conservatism, well displayed at his own launch on Tuesday, more nervous about switching to the Liberal Democrats, as Mr Kennedy invited them to do yesterday.

The cold political calculation may be that this doesn't matter because what the Liberal Democrats really need in their Tory target seats is a series of Labour squeezes to deliver victory. But it could be a problem if it actually shores up the Tory vote. The Liberal Democrats' shameless sop to the middle classes - for it is not above such a thing - the abolition of tuition fees, may or may not offset that problem. This means that once again the poorest - whether with children at university or not - would be taxed to pay for the university education of those whose parents could easily afford to pay. And no one seriously thinks this is the long term future for the financing of higher education in England and Wales.

So Mr Kennedy has taken a calculated gamble. Where Paddy Ashdown was a position-taker, bristling with ideas, some of them proto-Blairite, some less so, Kennedy, rather like David Steel, is a positioner. (Though his new book, to be published next week will, like yesterday's document, emphasise his greenness). His position will help him to get through his coming party conference - where his main worry is likely to be a threat of an attempt to rule out the Alternative Vote system which the Blairites seem to favour as the most plausible form of electoral reform.

But in the end the electoral differences with Labour should not be over-estimated. It's true that if Gordon Brown cuts a penny off the standard rate of income tax next March, the Lib Dems would find it hard, on present showing, not to oppose it. But it is much less clear that Tony Blair is pressing Brown for such a cut than some Liberal Democrats think. Targeted cuts for the lowest paid - which the Lib Dems favour - appears just as likely an option.

In any event, the Liberal Democrats are highly unlikely to enter head to head combat with Labour in the election. On Europe, as in the broad arguments between better public services and a smaller state, and on a good deal else, the similarities with Labour are much greater than the differences. As the election campaign, just as it did in 1997, will surely show.

* d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

Comments