Steve Richards: Phew! Someone realises that Britain is not a paradise

'In the real world there is a marked contrast between the private affluence and continuing public squalor'
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Here is a scene that I witnessed from the real world, a world far away from the campaign trail. Yesterday, three middle-aged American tourists emerged from the escalators of a London mainline station, sweaty, bewildered and dazed. One of them looked at the others blinking in the daylight and asked desperately, "Right, we've climbed Everest. What's next?"

I witnessed the exchange because I had climbed Everest, too. I had been with them on their journey, climbing the peak, wondering whether we would ever get there. The journey we had taken was a few stops on an overground train provided by West Anglian Great Northern Railways. It should have taken a few minutes. It took more than an hour. The scheduled train did not turn up, and an official had no idea when the next train would arrive, nor on which platform.

He told the US tourists that they should listen out for a "whooshing" noise, as that would provide a clue as to the likely platform. We all waited for 40 minutes for the "whooshing" and then ran madly to the appropriate platform ­ to the platform where there was "whooshing". And this is what those American tourists will remember of their visit to the UK. To travel three miles from north to central London, they had climbed Everest.

This is not a column on transport, although it could easily become one. The words would certainly flow faster than a WAGN train. Transport serves to remind us of the wider point that in the real world of Britain, there is a marked contrast between the private affluence that has been creditably broadened under this government, and the continuing public squalor. It is the public squalor that strikes foreigners who pay a visit ­ even Americans, who are used to climbing peaks in their own country, when it comes to dealing with their public services.

Yet attending the election press conferences, anyone would think that Britain was a paradise in which the only question was how a government handed out more tax cuts. From Labour there are targeted tax cuts and the promise of no increase in income tax. From the Conservatives ­ well, the extent of their generosity depends on whom you listen to.

In such a context, let us cheer the Liberal Democrats for injecting a dose of candour. As Charles Kennedy suggested yesterday, if his party did not exist, someone would have to invent them. They have a distinct role ­ putting the case for tax rises to improve services. No one else is saying it.

Their candour, though, comes in the form of a strictly limited dose. The relatively small amount of money they would raise would, according to their manifesto, transform public services. In reality, the present government has spent more on education and health ­ or has finally got around to doing so ­ as a result of economic growth. Like the other political leaders, Mr Kennedy is playing games. But at least he is playing the right sort of games. He is in the right playground.

The self-confessed unelectability of the Liberal Democrats could send out a depressing signal: that only parties with no chance of winning are able to say anything remotely daring on tax. Fortunately, such a signal is countered by the Conservatives, who have no chance of winning, either. They are heading for defeat, even while promising to make our pockets bulge with additional cash.

I have taken notes from Mr Hague's interviews and speeches, including one in Wales on Monday that focused entirely on the issue of "tax and spend". Here is how he intends to pay for his brave new world of lower taxes. He would terminate the preparations for the euro, scrap the plans for a new building for the Welsh Assembly and abolish government advisers. Nirvana, here we come.

In fairness to Mr Hague, he is claiming to save only £8bn over the next few years, which is peanuts. Labour is making much of this £8bn gap, as if it is the difference between wonderful trains, schools and hospitals and a total breakdown in society. The election campaign is threatening to boil down to this £8bn that the Tories plan to cut. Labour would transform the quality of our lives with the cash, while also offering us targeted tax cuts. The Conservatives would make us much richer and awash with cheap petrol.

This is not an attempt to place both parties in the same basket. That would be too easy ­ another sneering column about why it is not worth voting. Of course there is a big gulf, bigger than in 1997. The symbolism alone highlights the difference, with the Tories ­ a nod and a wink here ­ pointing to bigger tax cuts and Labour suggesting that this is the last-chance saloon for the public services.

Yet the questions have been all wrong, even before we get to the answers. At the election news conferences, journalists attempt to catch politicians out over how these modest programmes are to be paid for. The real question is this: should Labour or any other party be preparing to spend even more on the public services, rather than less?

There is a limit, certainly a political limit, on the amount a government can tax, although UK taxes are much lower than in most European countries, and it shows in the quality of public services. In my view, we have not reached that limit here, and if yesterday's Independent survey is anything to go by, most voters agree. Yet no one, apart from the Lib Dems, is willing to engage in such a debate.

Not that higher taxation alone will secure the improvements required. There needs also to be a candid debate about what the private sector can do in place of the reluctant taxpayer. Again, it seems to me, this could be a fruitful and unpredictable debate. Privatised monopolies are hopeless, worse than the old state-owned industries. This should have ruled out the railways as a target for privatisation and should rule out the privatisation of air-traffic control and the London Underground.

But where there is scope for competition, the private sector can have a constructive role. In Europe, even in centre-left countries, private insurance complements the government spending on health. This is something a Blair government should consider. Postal services, too, would benefit from more competition. Unlike the railways, the Post Office is not a natural monopoly.

Ownership and funding are big issues, yet they have not been part of this election campaign. Instead, hour after hour, politicians and journalists skate around this £8bn margin between the parties as if it were a profoundly significant gap ­ as if war could quite easily break out over a few peanuts.

So far, at the news conferences, only one journalist has asked about the dismal quality of our public services. He was French. He was called for a final question at a Labour conference earlier this week. The British journalists, meanwhile, were already packing their bags, preparing to catch out another politician on the tax question.