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Lib Dems join the pre-election bidding war but will voters listen?

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Both Labour and Conservative pledges have been deemed implausible with the continuing need for austerity. Now Nick Clegg’s party hope moderate voters will take fright at Ed Miliband in government and a Tory majority in coalition with ‘right wing loonies’

For the second year running, the Lib Dem Party conference fetched up on the west side of Glasgow, a city whose poor east end has an average male life expectancy of 54 and voted Yes to independence.

As Britain catches up with its neighbours on cancers and cardiac, it slips behind on lifestyle follies like obesity, diabetes and liver disease, even in Scottish National Party run Scotland.

‘Clegg’s party was quickly drawn into the pre-election bidding war’

It’s not all about money, as conference delegates know.

The British Medical Association fringe meeting - at which we were reminded of these woeful statistics - was also handing out large free drinks.

But Nick Clegg’s party was quickly drawn into the pre-election bidding war, which has already seen both Labour and Conservative rival plans to “save our NHS” rightly disparaged by serious analysts of tax and spend options.

Not so promising pledges

Both major parties’ health pledges - less generous than they sound - were deemed implausible and inconsistent with the continuing need for austerity.

In Glasgow, “liars” was the way hair-shirted Vince Cable put David Cameron’s promise of tax cuts and deficit cuts, not to mention inflation plus NHS funding. He was not alone, although Cameron’s personal and economic credibility (it’s all relative) are his best hope.

‘Doomsters say the crisis is here now’

As for Ed Miliband, he was forced to confirm his promised extra £2.5bn would not come on stream for the NHS right away, assuming he can make his sin taxes - tobacco, the tax shy and those mansions - actually work.

But the doomsters - “isn’t it a bit early for shroud waving in this campaign?” mutters a world-weary NHS veteran over media headlines - say the crisis is here now. Trusts pile up borrowing with a £30bn funding black hole awaiting them at the end of the tunnel in 2020.

Will voters listen?

Did the Cleggsters do much better in Glasgow? A bit. They did promise to reopen the 2015-16 settlement agreed between the coalition partners that will remain in office (I suspect), despite mutual conference abuse.

They also upped Cameron’s extended ringfencing pledge for the NHS (but not for foreign aid this time) by promising an extra £1bn to be provided by squeezing tax and pension arrangements for the better off.

This has the merit of being fairer and (unlike Labour’s targets) within the government’s power; taking away allowances is easier than raising the tax take at a time when revenue is falling because pay is stagnant.

On the other hand, the Lib Dems conference motion on “proactive” public service reform is dotted with price tag items like a “carer’s bonus” and a “carer’s passport”.

At least the Lib Dems seem aware of the need to avoid more structural upheaval. Plenty of activists want to join Labour in repealing the hated Lansley Act.

‘Clegg’s allies hope moderate voters will take fright at the prospect of an incompetent Miliband in Number 10’

Others see the value of letting things settle, integrate even, without more top-down tinkering. “We’re only 18 months into the new system,” protests former health minister Paul Burstow, who, of course, voted for it.

Aware of its historic “Cinderella” status, Burstow and his successor, the tireless Norman Lamb, are keen to get mental health to acquire equal parity of esteem with physical health. Mr Lamb says he intervened to prevent even worse cuts to Cinderella budgets, and hints at a major policy announcement.

Clegg’s allies like Lamb are hoping moderate voters will take fright at the prospect of an incompetent Miliband (“our Francois Hollande”) in Number 10 or of a Tory majority government “in coalition with right-wing loonies”.

If only voters would forgive and grant us a hearing, we can tame their excesses and steer the NHS through tough times, they pray. Is anyone listening?

Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian

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