The Prime Minister must feel the lash of accountability

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The Independent on Sunday does not presume to advise its readers on how to vote, but we are obliged to set out the factors that we believe should determine the nation's choice. Each reader, even if broadly in sympathy with this newspaper's editorial views, will weigh the factors differently and may view his or her choices differently according to the situation in particular constituencies. But our priorities are clear. We want to safeguard the environment; promote social justice, both within nations and between them; defend universal human rights; and uphold the rule of international law.

The Independent on Sunday does not presume to advise its readers on how to vote, but we are obliged to set out the factors that we believe should determine the nation's choice. Each reader, even if broadly in sympathy with this newspaper's editorial views, will weigh the factors differently and may view his or her choices differently according to the situation in particular constituencies. But our priorities are clear. We want to safeguard the environment; promote social justice, both within nations and between them; defend universal human rights; and uphold the rule of international law.

This newspaper led the campaign against a war in Iraq that we described as illegal, immoral and indefensible. In the spring of 2002, as George Bush sought to project the American desire to avenge 11 September 2001 beyond Afghanistan to Iraq, we warned Tony Blair not to sell out the British national interest. When it became apparent that he had done so, we warned the British people and Parliament not to accept a propaganda case stretched and twisted to frighten us into endorsing his decision. In February last year we were the first to reveal that the legal advice from the Attorney General had changed on the eve of war. Today we report that Mr Blair was fully aware of the Foreign Office's view that the war would be unlawful without an explicit United Nations resolution, which, of course, was not forthcoming.

We do not accuse the Prime Minister of lying. As he invites readers to do in his interview with them on page 13, we question his judgement rather than his integrity. He made a terrible error of judgement and then compounded it with distortion, bluster and evasiveness. A functioning democracy requires that he should feel the lash of accountability for that.

Some of our readers say that they cannot vote Labour while Mr Blair remains leader of the party. Reluctantly, we reject such an absolutist view. One-third of Labour MPs voted against the war, and many Labour candidates have publicly opposed it - we provide a detailed analysis of the stance of candidates in the various kinds of local contest on page 14. But such absolutism would also favour the Conservatives. No purpose could be served by punishing Mr Blair only to reward Michael Howard, who also supported the invasion - at times with considerably more enthusiasm.

There are many other reasons why The Independent on Sunday does not believe that the Conservatives deserve to benefit from Mr Blair's mistakes. Mr Howard has fought a distasteful campaign. His validation of covert racism ("are you thinking what we're thinking?"), his campaign against immigrants and Gypsies and his hostility to the European Union make it undesirable to risk the election of a single additional Tory MP. The surprising conversion of the Tories earlier this year to the defence of civil liberties, and their alliance with the Liberal Democrats against the control orders in the Prevention of Terrorism Act, are too little, too late to offset the rest of what they stand for.

The Liberal Democrats have provided the real opposition to Mr Blair over the Iraq war. Charles Kennedy deserves to be rewarded, provided that a vote for the Liberal Democrats does not advance the Conservatives. Again, our guide on page 14 is designed to provide the information needed to make an effective choice by distinguishing between those seats where the Lib Dems have a realistic chance of winning and those where voting Lib Dem could let a Tory in.

The environmental imperative suggests a similar order of tactical priorities. Voting for the Green Party might be a worthwhile symbolic gesture in seats that are unlikely to change hands. But those who believe that climate change is the most important issue at this election should vote for the Liberal Democrats where they can win. Whatever their faults, they are greenest of the three main parties.

The Liberal Democrats certainly have their faults. Their opportunism on tuition fees, pensions, council tax and personal care for the elderly amounts to a thoroughly backward-looking attempt to reverse Labour's mild reform of the middle-class welfare state. Labour's record of promoting social justice over the past eight years may have frustrated many on the left with its caution, but it remains a valuable, if unfinished, achievement. Employment has risen; poverty among children and old people has fallen and extra resources have been devoted to universal health and education services free at the point of use - all without provoking a taxpayer revolt.

Although we remain underwhelmed by Mr Kennedy's leadership qualities, on the key issues of Iraq, the environment and civil liberty, the Liberal Democrats stand for values that are closest to those espoused by this newspaper. But Mr Kennedy will not be forming a government on Friday. The best that he can hope for is influence in a hung parliament, presumably over a minority Labour government led by Gordon Brown. That is an outcome for which many disillusioned Labour supporters may devoutly wish, although it is hardly a positive choice - or even a choice at all, because the ballot paper in individual constituencies does not include a space marked "no overall majority".

In Labour seats vulnerable to the Conservatives, therefore, it makes sense to vote Labour. Realistically, a re-elected Labour government with a sharply reduced majority may best reflect the mood of the nation. Mr Blair has also been astute in promising that he will not see through the whole of the Parliament as Prime Minister. It is not insignificant that Mr Brown, who is ever more likely to succeed him, yesterday advertised his commitment to a more open decision-making process when it is proposed that British military forces be engaged in future. As Mr Blair's power wanes, it is also possible to expect the emergence of a stronger Cabinet and a more collegiate style of government.

The Independent on Sunday makes two recommendations. The first is to vote. To abstain is to abdicate responsibility. The second is to vote intelligently in different constituencies to promote the values of environmental sustainability, social justice, human rights and the rule of international law. In Northern Ireland, the parties that deserve support are those unambiguously committed to democracy and tolerance. In Scotland and Wales voters have the additional option of the nationalist parties, but despite the tenacity and skill with which Plaid Cymru MPs opposed the Iraq war, devolution should be preferred to separatism. In most of the country the choice is a simple one depending on the nature of the local contest.

Where the realistic choice is between Labour and Conservative, we prefer Labour, but the values for which this newspaper stands are best promoted by voting - where they can win - for the Liberal Democrats.

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