For middle-class welfare, vote Lib Dem

The horrible truth is that many thousands, perhaps millions, of people who have voted Labour all their lives will find it hard to support the party on 5 May. They may prefer a Labour government to a Tory one; but they may think it more important to cast their vote for a candidate who shares their views about the horror of launching an unprovoked war that led to tens of thousands of deaths. And the obvious beneficiaries of such votes are the Liberal Democrats - the only major UK party to oppose the war.

For many, that will be enough. A decision to go to war is the most important that any government can take - and Tony Blair's government got it wrong. All those responsible are still in office, and their responsibility includes a wilful misreading of intelligence material, if not downright lying, about Saddam Hussein's weapons. Moreover, the same ministers' Prevention of Terrorism Bill (also opposed by the Lib Dems) suggests their mindset is unchanged. Just as they insisted that the Iraqi threat justified the sacrifice of foreign children's lives, so they now insist that wider threats justify the sacrifice of British civil liberties. These ministers ask for a fresh mandate. They should not get it, many will say. End of story.

But some will want to look at the picture more broadly. What exactly are people voting for if they vote Lib Dem? A Lib Dem vote, after all, is no longer just a protest vote. True, the party is hardly likely to form a government. But, if the result is as close as some commentators predict, it has every chance of playing a crucial role in the next parliament, either as part of a coalition or as the backer of a government that has a small majority or none at all. This is a very different party from its Liberal predecessor that sustained Labour in the late 1970s. Then there were only 14 Liberal MPs; now there are 54. How would they use genuine influence and power?

The answer is not at all comforting. What the Lib Dems propose is the restoration of the middle-class welfare state. First, they pledge to abolish university tuition fees - not just the top-up fees introduced in the 2001-2005 parliament, but also the basic fees introduced in the previous one. As university students are still overwhelmingly middle class - and those from very low-income homes are largely exempt from the fees - the effect is to use working-class taxes to subsidise the children of the better-off. Even more outrageously, the Lib Dems would abolish Labour's Child Trust Fund, which builds up from birth a capital sum that becomes available to every 18-year-old. As free tuition amounts to a handout to exactly the same age group, the Lib Dems propose, in effect, to offer a bounty to children from mostly affluent homes, but not to those from poorer families. They say a 50 per cent tax on incomes above £100,000 a year would pay for it. But why should such a tax be spent on a privileged minority, and not on pre-school education for all children in the years when many from poor homes fall so far behind that they can never recover? All arguments about taxation boil down to questions of who pays and who gains. In this instance, the gainers will be students from moneyed homes who will mostly go on to make more money, so that they can pay for a privileged education for their own children, and so on, ad infinitum.

Second, Charles Kennedy's party proposes free personal care for the elderly, regardless of their means. In other words, middle-class people, owning houses worth anything up to £1m, would no longer need to sell up to cover the costs of old age. Their children, having had their tuition fees paid, could look forward to a substantial inheritance that had not been frittered away on care bills.

Third, the Lib Dems propose a "citizen's pension" for everyone of 75 and over. It would be £100 a month more than the current basic pension (£140 for a couple) and rise in line with national average earnings, not, as at present, in line with inflation. Again, the overwhelming benefit would be to the middle classes, who live longer than the working classes (a male life expectancy of 78 years against 71) and who have to fall back on their own savings and private pensions, because they do not usually qualify for pension credits.

Fourth, the Lib Dems would abolish council tax and replace it with a local income tax. This sounds redistributive because, as the party rightly points out, poor householders pay a higher proportion of their incomes in council tax than the better-off ones. Yet it is not redistributive at all. Council tax needs reform, not abolition. It is the only significant British tax on property, and inequality in asset wealth is far greater (and far more unfair) than inequality of income. The rich easily dodge income taxes, because they can move their money offshore and hide it in various other ways. That is why the working poor always end up paying such a high proportion of income tax revenues. Property, however, can't be moved or hidden. A tax on it may be tough on that familiar figure of self-pitying Conservatism, the widow living alone in a large family house, and perhaps allowances can be made for her. But is it too hard-hearted to point out that she could sell the house, make a big, untaxed capital gain and move to a granny flat?

All these policies strike a chord with those sections of the chattering class that most strongly opposed the Iraq war. Indeed, some of the policies, notably tuition fees, are as much a source of grievance among middle-class Labour folk as the war itself. The Lib Dems thus have the advantage of appealing not only to hearts but to wallets, too. But this is not socialism, and it is the reverse of redistribution from rich to poor; it is a proposal for a gigantic welfare system for people who don't need it. True social democrats should not support it.