After yesterday's launch of the Tory manifesto, today is the Lib Dems' turn. (Read the PDF here.) Since the Conservative programme was more dog's dinner than dog whistle, does the party that promises "The Real Alternative" actually deliver it?
After all, this is meant to be the Lib Dems' year; their mood is apparently as buoyant as it was in 1983. If they are a power in ascendant, then we should brush up on what voting Lib Dem means beyond "not voting for the other two".
After ploughing through the Tories' London manifesto yesterday, the first thing that strikes the casual reader is how similar the leaders' forewords are. This is the first part of the Tories' dismal effort:
London is Europe’s leading city and one of the greatest cities in the world. It is modern, cosmopolitan and dynamic. But alongside success, there exist poverty of aspiration and lack of opportunity, rundown inner city areas and high crime. No city can remain great when crime gets out of control.
And the Lib Dems:
London is one of the great capitals of the world. It is not only the history of London, the arts, music, sport and wonderful diversity of culture and language that makes London such a fantastic city; it is not only that as a centre for business - from family shops to international banks – London is an economic powerhouse; above all, Londoners themselves make this city one of the most interesting and exciting places on earth.
But we can do better.
London should be a place where crime or the fear of crime is not a routine experience ...
So far, so similar. They both flatter to deceive, and they both bring crime up at the top of their priorities - which possibly reflects the concerns of most Londoners, it's true. (The Lib Dem manifesto also mirrors the Tory version with a pleading "Us too!" pledge of support for the Olympic Bid.)
The eerie similarities between the Tory and Lib Dem agendas continue, but this isn't to say that Kennedy's gang is thinking what Howard's thinking - not in the least. The Lib Dem manifesto reads like a Conservative manifesto that has been put through a wringer to remove all the icky xenophobia and appeals to fear and loathing.
All this means that a lot of the same messages - lower crime! Fewer NHS targets! Tougher licensing laws! - come across, but feel a lot cuddlier. What becomes obvious is that the two opposition parties have read pretty much the same list of concerns the British people have about the Labour government, and have addressed them in their distinctive manner.
But the Lib Dems have also learned a few tricks from Labour - the verbless pledge, for instance. Try this for size:
No tuition fees, no top-up fees, fair grants - university affordable for every student.
Generally, the Lib Dem manifesto comes across like a transparent appeal to the everyman. We can do everything the other parties do, only much, much better! Crime! Education! Health! It's a magical fantasyland of promises that will never have to be met.
But there's a lot in the manifesto to like - for a start, it's loquacious on the subject of public transport. The part-privatisation of the Tube gets slammed, and Crossrail gets backed. There are some sensible ideas on cutting London's waste and making London more efficient, but the idea of reducing the assembly vote to veto mayoral schemes to a simple majority (which also pops up in Tory policy) sounds like a recipe for institutional paralysis, not efficiency. But the real difference between the Lib Dem and Tory approaches is that you get a sense that the Lib Dems actually know and like the city of London, and aren't writing a programme for people who actually live in Surrey.
In all, however, you emerge from reading the Lib Dem manifesto feeling like you have just spent an hour with an eager-to-please salesman who is prepared to promise anything. There's no sense of ideology or commitment behind it, just a tick-box approach - government a la carte. Whether this is a serious programme for government, or a dreamy wishlist from a party that - although it may improve its standing - has no chance of achieving serious power, is hard to establish.
Not that voting Lib Dem is necessarily a bad idea - Londonist is not going to get all partisan, just so long as we keep the blue bastards out. But bear in mind that voting yellow might be like signing up to one of those book clubs advertised in the back of colour supplements. Sure, you get the fabulous enticements, but you're commited to a whole lot more you don't want any part of.