Lib Dems – The Effective Opposition

So, the party conference season has concluded, just before the panto season begins. And there’s no doubt about it – the Tories topped the bill, and had the audience alternately gripping their seats and rolling in the aisles. What a super villain that Mr Howard turned out to be – “Look out, IDS, he’s behind you!”.

New Labour managed to survive a fairly fraught conference, largely by banning the discussion of anything controversial. So, no debate on the Iraq war, tuition fees, the privatisation of the NHS, identity cards – or anything of any interest at all.

We Lib Dems had a good conference. We were still feeling pretty smug about the Brent East by-election – the first by-election lost by Labour in 15 years, and the Tories pushed into an embarrassing (but well-deserved) third place. We also had wide-ranging debates on the issues that concern people – education, health, the police service.

But back to the panto. If Michael Howard is the answer, there must be something wrong with the question, as one of our Lib Dem MPs put it. Yet he is, apparently, the answer to the Tories’ prayers.

While he will undoubtedly be popular with party workers and will give Tony Blair a run for his money at Westminster, few believe he would be able to portray the Tories as a bright new party of the future. As one insider commented about the 62-year-old: “If you want something to remind everybody why they stopped voting Tory in 1997, Michael is your man.”

The Conservatives are bringing back the very people who sank them in the first place. Michael Howard looks like the captain of the Titanic reversing back into the iceberg again. Is it any wonder that Michael Portillo has taken the emergency exit, with Ken Clarke hot on his heels?

The man who brought us the poll tax and council tax has no idea what he would do about the council tax. “We would change the system when we come back to office”. So, what exactly would he do? Howard: “I don’t know.”

For any political party it is their policies that count, not the rhetoric. Michael Howard has confirmed his commitment to the flawed policies outlined over the last year or so by IDS. And no wonder – it was Michael Howard who helped put the policies together in the first place.

Take the NHS. The Conservative policy of “Patient Passports” would fund 60% of the cost of an operation to enable a patient to go private. But the patient has to find the money for the remaining 40%. Costs in private healthcare are higher than in the NHS, so even with the subsidy, a hip operation under this Tory scheme would still end up costing the patient about £5,000!

The policy is unfair – it discriminates in favour of wealthier patients. It’s also misguided – the Government ends up subsidising higher cost private healthcare, diverting much-needed resources away from the NHS.

It would create a two-tier NHS with the better-off receiving NHS money to go private, leaving the poorest with no choice but to wait in line for a reduced service.

In Education, it’s the same story. Tory “Education Vouchers” provide a public subsidy for private schooling. But parents would still have to fund the top-up cost, on average £1,000 per year for their child. Meanwhile, state schools would lose funds and lose able teachers. On tuition and top up fees, the Conservatives’ policy would take away the chance to go to University from 100,000 students a year.

So Tory policies on Health and Education would not help to improve our public services. In fact, they would make them worse – diverting vital resources away from where they are most needed. Just like before, the Tories would subsidise the few at the expense of the many.

Michael Howard has recommitted himself to precisely these policies.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the public is fed up with New Labour. But I don’t think this means they want a return to old-style Thatcherite Conservatism. While the Conservatives remain hamstrung by a longing to return to their past, only the Liberal Democrats are working effectively to challenge Labour on its failings. Only the Liberal Democrats are setting out a fair and workable alternative for the country.

Whoever leads the Tories, after this shambles one wonders if anyone will ever want to vote Tory again. The Conservatives have proved they are incapable of being led as a party. They are out of touch, out of ideas, and out of sorts with the public. Even their own grassroots members are furious at the way Conservative MPs plotted to depose Iain Duncan Smith. Ever since Margaret Thatcher, successive Tory leaders have succumbed to the plotters. Whoever becomes leader, they remain split down the middle and out of touch with the public, leaving the Liberal Democrats as the only effective opposition.

I am particularly proud to belong to the only party which stood up to the government over the Iraq war, and which still challenges Blair and Bush. We believed the invasion of Iraq to be wrong, and we said so. Mr Howard and his friends believed it to be right – and are now pretending that they didn’t.

Thank God we have a Liberal Democrat party which sticks to its principles!