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Monday, 24 January, 2000, 16:07 GMT
Tax, drugs and Liberal Democracy

BBC News Online's Nyta Mann interviews Matthew Taylor, Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman and MP for Truro & St Austell

Matthew Taylor, the Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, is carrying out a comprehensive spending review of his party's policies. Come the next election he plans, New Labour style, to present the voters with four or five "key pledges".

There are already key policies the electorate clearly associates with the Lib Dems - but they are still those that were their only widely-known policies at around this point of the electoral cycle last time round: proportional representation (PR) for Westminster, a penny on income tax and being in favour of signing up to the euro.

A problem, surely, at a time the party is suffering a lower profile since last summer's leadership election?

We're unashamed about tax because we're just telling the truth
Taylor on Lib Dem tax policy
"I don't think that's right," Taylor disagrees. "I think if you were to ask people what they know about the Liberal Democrats the single biggest policy is undoubtedly the penny on income tax for education, at least in terms of positive, clear spending priorities. We're happy with that."

The penny - the longest spent in political history, according to critics - looks safe now. Thoughts were entertained of dropping it after Charles Kennedy replaced Paddy Ashdown as leader. Instead it is now more firmly hypothecated to education, and has the "only if required" caveat more insistently attached. "We're prepared to be more honest about what things cost - I think people know that you can't get something for nothing - and I think that is part of how people now see the Liberal Democrats," Taylor says.

Unashamed to tax and spend

Turn left: Simon Hughes argues for the Lib Dems to reclaim the ground vacated by New Labour
Alone of the three main parties, the Lib Dems are unembarrassed to champion the principle of taxation.

The political rhetoric of Labour and the Tories increasingly treats "tax and spend" as a deeply unpleasant, almost illegitimate activity of government. In contrast, Taylor's party is happier about presenting it as a key function that government exists to fulfil: "Yes we're unashamed about taxing, because we're just telling the truth."

This is just one of the differences in general policy emphasis between Labour and the Lib Dems that have become sharper since Tony Blair succeeded John Smith. Britain's third party is now in the position of challenging the government from the left ground vacated by New Labour over recent years.

Some of his fellow Lib Dems, most prominently home affairs spokesman and leadership runner-up Simon Hughes, have argued that this is precisely what the party needs to do more of. Taylor, though, is from the co-operationist, Lib-Lab wing of the Lib Dems.

Does he feel at all awkward to now find his party in frequent alliance with Labour's left-wing Campaign Group on a range of issues, rather than with Blair and others in the cabinet?

"First of all, we haven't moved. Labour has moved to the right," he emphasises. "The fact that Labour has moved out there" - Taylor gestures into the far distance - "is not a reason for us to change our policies on these issues. But people need to bear in mind that we remain as moderate, sane, rational, costed as we always have been."

"Labour has also moved into an extraordinary area of illiberalism, state control, meddling in everything that we do."

The Lib Dems' profile has dropped since Kennedy took over from Ashdown
Home affairs is where the sharpest differences have emerged. Changes to the treatment of asylum seekers, to legal aid, and anti-terrorism legislation have all come in for heavy criticism from the Lib Dems.

Jack Straw's present determination to restrict the right to trial by jury - something the home secretary opposed when the last Tory government had the same idea - is just the latest issue finding the two parties on opposite sides.

'Lack of intelligent debate'

Another example of the Lib Dem approach clashing with the government's more hard-line, Middle England-pleasing stance is on the issue of decriminalising of cannabis. Kennedy has called for a royal commission to examine the issue. Labour would prefer the subject not be raised at all.

The government's tough talk on drugs - the appointments of "czars" and declarations of war - haven't impressed Taylor.

"The reality is, as a whole generation of people ever since the 1960s have been well aware, that lots of people at some point in their lives try drugs at some level," he points out. "Some people use them pretty regularly, some people it really badly messes up their lives."

He cites the government's apparent unwillingness to differentiate between different kinds of illegal drug and drug-taking, as well as the inconsistency in enforcement of anti-drug laws.

An individual caught in possession of cannabis for their own use, for example, is unlikely to be charged by the police. Which makes it tougher luck if you're one of the minority who is charged - "so you won't necessarily be equally treated, particularly if you happen to be young and black in some areas compared to white and middle class in others".

"There isn't a simple solution to this," he acknowledges. "But these are intelligent debates that nobody in politics is having and Labour certainly isn't prepared to have."

Taylor on drugs

I've certainly been at parties where dope was smoked ... it was absolutely disgusting
Matthew Taylor
Taylor compares fear among many politicians of broaching the subject with past attitudes to homosexuality and the time when no openly gay MPs existed. "Then we started to see Chris Smith very, very bravely, and then others [coming out], and actually - shock horror! - the electorate is rather more mature than the politicians or tabloid newspapers."

When I ask him, Taylor himself admits - shock horror! - he has his own drugs past, albeit a minor one.

"Well, if you said had I been to parties and not encountered drugs when I was at college, you must obviously be joking," he says. Thirty-seven-year-old Taylor was at Oxford from 1982 to 1986, in which time he had his encounters with cannabis.

"We've seen Mo Mowlam saying 'Yes, I did use drugs when I was at university'. Well, I wasn't there in the 1960s, and in the early 1980s we tended to see people who used drugs as washed-up hippies on the whole."

"But there was some dope, and when you went to parties dope was smoked. I've certainly been at parties where dope was smoked."

Yes, he did join in - though not successfully: "I'm not a smoker, so you'd try a drag and all you'd do is cough. It was absolutely disgusting!"

Mo Mowlam started the recent mini-trend of politicians admitting to a dope-smoking past
He finds equally abhorrent what he sees as the double standards and near-hysterical tone of much public debate on drugs.

With the next election already approaching, the Liberal Democrats need to ensure they are clearly distinguish themselves from Labour.

It is, after all, Tory recovery in the south of England that is most likely to deprive the Lib Dems of seats won in 1997, not the Labour Party.

Taylor sets out the standard Lib Dem line about not pursuing opposition for opposition's sake. "But realistically, as we come to the election we will be setting out our stall of what we want to do and they will be setting out their stall of what they want to do."

Leadership ambitions

Though only 37, Taylor is already a Lib Dem veteran at Westminster: he entered the Commons a Liberal MP at the tender age of 24 after David Penhaligon's sudden death shortly before the 1987 election. Does he see himself as leader of his party one day?

"Clearly not just now, because I was campaign manager for Charles Kennedy rather than a candidate. And given the number of Liberal Democrats who either were or said they'd like to be candidates, I guess I must be fairly low down the list of those who wanted to be leader this year."

So that's a yes, then.

"We will have to see," is as far as he will go. "When the time comes for the party to choose a new leader, it may be that it's right for me to put my hat in the ring at that point."

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See also:
22 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
I tried cannabis - Kramer
16 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Mowlam: I smoked cannabis
13 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Kennedy threatens to end Lib-Lab ties
26 Sep 99 |  UK Politics
Hughes warns of Lib Dem slide

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