Sadly, Mr Kennedy's policies are not nearly as smart as his politics

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For a party that has traditionally had some difficulty creating a strong identity for itself, yesterday's Liberal Democrat draft manifesto does at least have the benefit of making clear precisely where on the political spectrum the party now stands: well to the left of New Labour.

For a party that has traditionally had some difficulty creating a strong identity for itself, yesterday's Liberal Democrat draft manifesto does at least have the benefit of making clear precisely where on the political spectrum the party now stands: well to the left of New Labour.

Of course, Liberal Democrats dislike the reduction of politics, particularly their politics, to a simple left/right spectrum. They prefer to see themselves as above all that, and just plain "liberal". Fine, except that, on the basis of this document, there is little that is authentically liberal and radical about the party's economic policy; instead, it has the fusty whiff of "tax and spend" social democracy about it.

When Charles Kennedy says he wants to see a Britain where "as the country does better, the poor do best", he speaks the pure language of Croslandism, a 1950s doctrine that became discredited in the 1970s and was finally abandoned by New Labour in the 1990s. This is not the fresh thinking that Mr Kennedy has been promising.

What it is, though, is a skilful piece of political positioning. The attack on those Ferrari-driving folk earning over £100,000 a year is set high enough to avoid alienating the "aspirational classes" (although, the middle classes are also being asked to help the poor, too). And short of handing the proceeds to the St Tiggywinkles Hospital for sick hedgehogs, to earmark the money for pensioners is just about the most popular thing that could be done with it. Mr Kennedy has an eye on the "grey vote" - a quarter of the electorate and comprising plenty of disgruntled Labour and Tory voters in his target seats.

Good politics, though, does not always make for good policy. There remain doubts about whether the figures stack up. Squeezing the pips of the rich may feel good, but the additional funds yielded are notoriously meagre and difficult to gather.

But there is a more substantial objection to Mr Kennedy's tax-and-spend strategy as a way of winning the "war on poverty": it wouldn't work.

Like it or not, funding decent increases in the state pension for a rapidly ageing population would soon become economically and politically impractical, as Continental European governments are discovering. And, as ministers point out, vast increases in the welfare budget have not exactly abolished hunger and want. Unemployment is the real problem, and poverty is more often than not merely a symptom of joblessness. Helping people with disabilities, and single parents, to get a job is a more effective way of taking them out of poverty than a pound or two on their benefits, welcome though that may be. Similarly, Mr Kennedy is clever to exploit public dissatisfaction with schools and hospitals, but he indulges in gesture politics when he fails to give the Government credit for the new money in the Comprehensive Spending Review.

The manifesto convinces when it follows the party's more radical instincts. On the euro, the environment, asylum-seekers and, of course, constitutional reform, Mr Kennedy has an excellent record, and one that was vindicated at the Romsey by-election. The Liberal Democrats' manifesto will probably serve them well at the next election. But, given that their only realistic chance of putting it into effect lies in coalition with Labour, the economic policy (like PR) is likely to be an early casualty. Which would be no bad thing.

Comments