Why Britain should reject this Conservative Party

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The Independent Online

By definition, and by its founding spirit, The Independent is not a partisan newspaper. Therefore, at the time of a general election, we would not endorse one political party. Our readers, we know, are perfectly capable of making up their own minds how to vote. Our purpose is to examine the programmes of the parties and assess them by the light of our values, and to draw the reader's attention to some of the factors that he or she might want to consider before making an important and sovereign decision.

Elections should be about many things. For some people, they are about specific issues, such as fox-hunting or tuition fees; for most, they are about the wider matters of taxes and public services. In the end, voters' concerns are often resolved into general impressions of competence. But elections ought, primarily, to be about vision.

The Independent's vision is of Britain as a modern European country. This has to do with much more than engaging fully in the EU, vitally important though that is, or the narrower question of joining the single currency. It means being able to compare ­ with pride ­ our infrastructure and public services to those of our European neighbours. We are impatient for the rail services of France, the educational standards of Germany, the quality of health care in The Netherlands. We should be truly ambitious for a quality of life, in the widest sense, that matches that enjoyed by the citizens of the leading European nations. And that, in turn, means frankly admitting ­ as few politicians have been prepared to do in this election campaign ­ that our health service, our schools and, most visibly, our transport systems remain in a pitiful state in relation to the EU average, let alone in relation to the best on the Continent.

Nor can this ambition be measured in simply material terms. It also means a more open society with more liberal attitudes. For a country with a long tradition of tolerance, Britain is beginning to lag behind some of its neighbours. To cite a single example, five other EU countries now allow same-sex marriages. Others have more humane and imaginative penal policies, or a more enlightened attitude to soft drugs, or a more progressive approach to freedom of information. It also ought to mean, finally, a greener country, on the model of the more environmentally- conscious northern European nations.

How, then, do the programmes on offer in this general election campaign measure up?

Inevitably, no party's manifesto fits exactly this newspaper's values, but what has been most disappointing for much of this election campaign has been the lack of vision and ambition in the programmes of the three main parties.

Labour, in particular, has fought a highly defensive campaign, closing down debate on too many difficult issues and relying too much on its managerial competence. The party's manifesto is promisingly entitled "Ambitions for Britain", but, all too often during this campaign, leading Labour figures looked less like visionaries than functionaries. We strongly welcome Mr Blair's aspiration that Britain should be more self-confident as a country. But this has been too often at odds with the lack of confidence inherent in Labour's approach, exemplified by its unwillingness to promote the inherent value of public service or to prosecute more vigorously the European cause. One of the reasons why, among the canvassed public, there seems to be such hostility to the euro is that, so far, they have only been furnished with one side of the debate.

In parallel, we have heard far too little from William Hague of the socially and economically liberal strands of Conservatism. Instead, there has been far too much of its backward-looking insularity, so that Mr Hague's idea of Britain's future is in danger of looking like an isolationist version of its past.

Charles Kennedy does not do "the vision thing" as such, but, to the extent that the man is the message, the Liberal Democrats come closest to what is needed in this respect, holding out the prospect of Britain as a country more at ease with itself. Of course, if vividness of vision were all that mattered, the Green Party would win by a landslide. And while a vote for Green candidates would not be wasted as an environmentalist gesture, many of their policies add up to a reactionary attempt to turn the clock back against globalisation.

However, managerial competence does count, and on this the Labour Government is entitled to a benevolent assessment of its record. It may have inherited a sound economy, but it has managed not to mess it up, which, looking back over the history of the past century, is an outstanding achievement. An independent Bank of England was an admirably self-denying step for a politician to take. The repayment of a large chunk of the national debt was genuinely "prudence with a purpose".

Overall, the Government's successes outweigh its failures. Domestically, these include the introduction of the minimum wage, redistribution to lower-income working families with children and a concerted effort to alleviate child poverty. There is also the defence of human rights in Kosovo, Gordon Brown's leading role in relieving Third World debt and a settlement in Northern Ireland (where in this election the stance of candidates towards the Good Friday Agreement must be of paramount importance). Its failures include the Dome, a chronic tendency to promise more than has been delivered, an unappealing streak of cronyism and a failure to open up ­ and clean up ­ the political system in the way that Tony Blair promised in opposition. The Bernie Ecclestone affair and the unhealthily close relationship with the Hinduja brothers are not the only examples of a government too easily mesmerised by businessmen with large chequebooks. Not surprisingly, the polls show that the electorate no longer finds much to differentiate between the parties on "sleaze".

We recognise, however, that the Labour Government started to pour taxpayers' money into public services, above all health and education, from the middle of its term of office. Many voters complain that "they have had four years", but Labour kept its promise not to increase spending during the first two. And the two years since April 1999 is a very short time in the politics of service delivery: it is unsurprising that the consumers of such services have not noticed the difference yet. Indeed, in the case of transport, the words of Labour's campaign theme last time should have been: "Things can only get worse before they get better."

As far as education is concerned, initiatives such as the numeracy and literacy hours have produced tangible improvements in primary schools. And Labour has coherent plans for secondary schools in the second term. Despite improvements in some sectors, there remain graver doubts about whether Labour can yet rescue the health service from its manifold and acute problems. Creditably, Mr Blair has risked much of his personal reputation on doing so. But there is more at stake than one man's political standing; if he fails, it will be more difficult to defend the public services from large-scale privatisation.

Although the Prime Minister has asked for a mandate to continue to raise public spending, he has not asked quite so explicitly for a mandate to implement the radical changes needed to ensure that the extra money makes a difference. And it will need to make a big enough difference to win the argument for higher taxes next time ­ or possibly earlier, if the world economy should slow down. It is only in that context that the Liberal Democrats' refrain of a penny on the basic rate of income tax makes any sense at all. But taxes should not be raised now, and, when it comes to pushing through radical reform, the Liberal Democrats are even more in hock to producer interests in the public services than is the Labour Party.

That said, we wholly congratulate the Liberal Democrats on their genuinely liberal commitments on asylum and immigration, on civil liberties and on a more open constitution, including a democratic Upper House. A large presence of Liberal Democrat MPs will be needed as a bulwark against one of the most insidious tendencies of the Government ­ its steadily creeping authoritarianism, coupled with a contempt for parliamentary democracy especially inappropriate for a party assumed to be on the brink of a landslide.

When we turn to the official Opposition, we find that it is committed to spending exactly the same as Labour on every public service, with hardly a credible notion of how to spend it more effectively ­ and while promising tax cuts worth £8bn a year conjured out of social security, "bureaucracy" and the universities.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the present Conservative Party is not a credible alternative government. That is a regrettable, not just for the health of our democracy, but because the party could offer so much. Its suspicion of the state and its celebration of individual freedom could be harnessed to an attractive politics of the centre. We will be the first to congratulate the Conservative Party when it genuinely demonstrates the "common-sense values" that it persistently proclaims. We have no antipathy towards the Conservative Party as an institution. Indeed, the need for a strong and united opposition of the centre-right could not be more urgent, and that can only be achieved when the Tories look like a government in waiting again.

Regrettably, Mr Hague's party provides too many good reasons why anyone who shares this newspaper's vision and outlook would find it impossible to vote Conservative tomorrow. This newspaper believes that adopting the euro will be in Britain's economic and political interest, and that to rule it out "on principle" for the next five years is a populist dogma that is plain irresponsible. And Tory demands for renegotiation of the EU treaties, if pressed to the limit, not only threaten EU enlargement but will precipitate the prospect of British withdrawal from the EU ­ a covert goal of too many right-wing Conservatives ­ far more swiftly than Mr Hague has been prepared to admit.

His comparison with the famous rebate achieved by Margaret Thatcher at Fontainbleau in 1985 is based on a fallacy. That was a hard bargain in which a Conservative Prime Minister secured a concession in return for an increase in the community budget. In this case, Mr Hague has no leverage for his demands and no support from Britain's EU partners. Mr Blair is right to say that Mr Hague's policy would lead to national humiliation or exit from Europe,

The Conservative plan to lock up all asylum-seekers in detention centres, which is markedly more punitive than anything practised by previous Tory governments, is offensive, illiberal and a cue for racism and xenophobia. Above all, the present Conservative Party is so fundamentally inward-looking that it seems incapable of providing this country with the leadership it needs.

On the eve of the 1987 election, the first in this paper's history, we warned against a vote for Labour primarily because of a defence policy we judged irresponsible. In keeping with our founding principles, we do not presume to recommend to our readers a vote for a particular party.

But, in the exact words we used of Labour 14 years ago, we conclude with regret that the Conservative Party on this occasion "does not deserve to be elected".