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TAX AND DEMOCRACY KEYS TO CAMPAIGNING

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The three main parties launched their local election campaigns on Tuesday and Wednesday, with Labour and the Libera...
The three main parties launched their local election campaigns on Tuesday and Wednesday, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats focusing on trust and accountability and the Conservatives promising a fight over tax levels.

Shadow environment secretary Frank Dobson emphasised the party's problems of gaining seats after its performance last year. 'We will have to fight hard to gain what seats we can. Our principal weapon in this fight will be people's belief that this government are neither competent or trustworthy,' he said.

He cited the government's tax performance as an indicator of its lack of trustworthiness, accusing it of rigging the grant system: 'If every council in England received the same government help per head as Westminster, 336 councils (94%) would not have to levy any council tax at all - they would instead be able to pay out a refund to every council tax payer ranging from £1,417 in Forest Heath to £57 in Enfield.'

Labour leader Tony Blair also challenged the Conservatives on tax: 'Published Tory tax plans show that they plan to force local tax bills up way beyond inflation next year and the year after that. It is a con trick which we will expose in this campaign.'

The Conservatives used the tax argument to imply a similar lack of trustworthiness in Labour.

Environment secretary John Gummer restated the party's argument that Labour still believed in higher taxes: 'This year, whether you live in a bedsit or a mansion, you'll pay more council tax under Labour. For a band D home that's £225 extra on your bill.

'The Liberal Democrats are no different. Your pay nearly 30% more under them.'

He denied any government responsibility for the increases. 'Nobody forced Labour to charge more. They could have made efficiency savings, they could have put more services out to tender. By trying to pin the blame on the government, the Labour Party shows a contempt for local democracy and local accountability.'

The Liberal Democrats, describing themselves as the second party in local government, were also cautious about the number of seats they were likely to win.

'We see the prospect of returning more councils, but only on a modest scale - another three or four at most,' said Andrew Stunnell of the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors. 'The changes will be small.'

The party's published manifesto promised removal of controls that it said made Britain 'the most centralised country in Europe'.

'We would like to see the rights of local self-government enshrined in a written constitution. We would abolish central government's financial controls on local government and allow local authorities to go direct to the market to raise finance.'

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