Not a split opposition but an alternative one: The Liberal Democrats have marked out a distinctive post-Tory agenda, says Paddy Ashdown

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The Independent Online
IF YOU want a symbol of the resistance to new political ideas in the British Establishment you need look no further than Peter Snow's swingometer. This year it is even more hi-tech in style, but even more old-hat in its grand


That assumption, of course, is that there are really only two parties in British politics - the reds on the left and the blues on the right. It follows from a mind-set orientated to duality: left-right, heroes-villains, red-blue, Oxford- Cambridge, boss-worker, and it leads to odd phrases such as that used by a respected commentator yesterday, who said that we have a 'split opposition'. This is only true in the sense that the Allies and the Russians represented a 'split opposition' to Germany. They came from totally different traditions but had in common for a time their opposition to a specific enemy.

A single opposition in a two- party system is a creature that commentators like because it is easier to explain, and - as we heard yesterday - the Tories like it because it is easier to defeat. Yet however much commentators might find it easier to deal in two dimensions, the electorate remains stubbornly three-dimensional.

Those who see the Liberal Democrats and Labour as two halves of the same whole should spend next weekend either in Liverpool - where the parties have opposed each other for decades and their philosophical differences are expressed in very different practical proposals for the future of the city; or in reading the past year's worth of Liberal Democrat policy papers, each distinctive, radical and forward-looking, and all contributing to a unique political identity.

One of the main triumphs of this year's election campaigns is that the Liberal Democrats have now marked out their distinctive territory, not only geographically, but politically. There are three distinct strands in British politics represented by three parties: Conservatives put money first, Labour puts services first, Liberal Democrats put people first.

The existing dispensation assumes a population which remains roughly constant in terms of attitudes, aspirations and engagement with the political system. Competing parties offer different combinations of policy goodies in return for votes.

The Liberal Democrat agenda shifts that old order by suggesting that the people themselves can become a much more dynamic factor in the political and economic process - first, through better education; second, through the motivation which accrues from a higher quality 'playing field' following infrastructural improvements ranging from light transit systems to information superhighways.

This people-centred policy mix distinguishes the Liberal Democrats. Its tendency, for example, is to harness the power of the individual to help society, rather than to harness the power of society to help the individual.

Low tax is the Tories' grand lie, one which the electorate has rightly rumbled. But we are now about to be beguiled by Labour's grand lie - that full employment in the Nineties can be achieved without pain as a primary political priority. It will be a stern test of Tony Blair's political mettle whether he can explain this hard fact in the teeth of opponents who are, economically, throwbacks to 1945.

The painful truth is that Keynes and Beveridge, both Liberals, both giants of their era, were right in the Forties in the context of an economy largely within the control of the nation state, dependent on mass production, low-skilled workers and building for reconstruction. But they would offer different counsel today.

In an economy where many of the levers are beyond the control of the Government, based on information, services and high technology, it would be counter-productive madness to borrow billions to create jobs in public works and boost demand. Jobs for all would mean inflation for all, sliding exports, a plummeting pound, resurgent union militancy, and national bankruptcy.

The economy needs not the quick fix of contrived demand management, but supply-side expansion in deliberately targeted sectors - construction, IT, transport and communications - as part of a drive towards a 21st-century infrastructure. It needs labour flexibility with decentralised wage bargaining and a welfare system that encourages people into work, rather than trapping them in unemployment. But it does not need armies of road sweepers. The crucial investment, moreover, should not be targeted on low-skilled jobs, but on education and training to create high-skilled workers.

Before 'full employment' must come 'full employability'. It is fraudulent to pretend that free governments have it in their power to provide employment for all. What they can do is enable all to be employable.

Then, with a new infrastructure in place, plus early-years education, better vocational training, skills updating and reskilling of the unemployed, we will be en route to an economy that eliminates structural unemployment by rebuilding its supply side, resists cyclical unemployment by being more resilient to recession, and would therefore suffer only frictional unemployment.

The bitter truth is that if government spends its money on trying to create immediate but transitory low-skilled full employment, it will not spend it on creating the conditions in which high-skilled, lasting full employment can prevail later. To adapt a phrase: we must be tough on unemployment, but tougher on the causes of unemployment.

None of this is to say that we should not have imaginative proposals to deal with joblessness, like the working benefits scheme through which welfare payments are turned into wage subsidies. This is one idea in which we lead the field - earmarking of taxes, reforming Parliament or fighting pollution are others.

And in those areas where we and other parties have similar ends, the Liberal Democrats are frequently ahead on the means. Everybody wants pre-school education - we say how it can be financed. Everybody wants economic stability - we accept the need for an independent central bank to keep a lid on inflation and interest rates. Everybody wants full employment - but we have marked out a realistic route towards it.

To offer full employment without such a route is to offer nothing but vote-bait - the equivalent of the Conservatives' broken tax promises.

There are many who dream of a post-Tory world. But those seeking real reform must choose between a party that looks over its shoulder and one that looks over the horizon.

(Photograph omitted)