The 2010 Election: politicians and voters united in deferring the reality of savage cuts

Cross-posted from the International Business Times:

If I were one of the legions of undecided waverers up and down the country still making up my mind who to vote for I would feel just a little cheated by this election campaign.

For almost four weeks the politicians from all three major parties have argued and debated and discussed, but still none has answered the fundamental question: how is the UK going to cut the deficit over the course of the next parliament?

For sure, all have talked a good game. Lib Dems, Labour and Tories have all declared that their top priority is to balance the budget, pledged they will not shirk the tough decisions, promised they can be trusted to prioritise. But when it comes to identifying the areas of public spending they will cut politicians have responded with cautious timidity.

And do you know whose fault their shyness is, dear reader? Yours. Well, maybe not yours personally, but certainly the fault of those legions of undecided waverers up and down the country still making up their minds who to vote for.

You see, it is not that politicians are in denial about the budget deficit. Nor that they don’t have ideas about the kinds of measures that will be necessary to cut it. What they don’t have a clue about is how the public will react to the swingeing public spending cuts that lie ahead.

When Nick Clegg used the term “savage cuts” last year to describe the situation that awaits the UK, his remarks were pounced upon by opponents as a gaffe. Yet what he said out loud was no more than a universally acknowledged truth that had until then dared not speak its name.

For the Lib Dems Vince Cable has been upfront about £15 billion cuts the party has so far identified. For example, we would cap public sector pay increases at £400 for all workers (thus ensuring that the lower paid got the biggest percentage rise). We would restrict tax credits to ensure those are most well-off don’t benefit from a scheme which is supposed to benefit the poorest most of all. And we would end the Child Trust Fund – not because it’s not a nice idea, but because quite simply it’s not an affordable priority any more.

These are all controversial proposals, and by being so open the Lib Dems have, inevitably, attracted the attacks of the other two parties, both of whom prefer to stick to their ludicrous claims that the country can be set back on its feet again through largely fictitious ‘efficiency savings’.

Yet even with the Lib Dems’ £15bn savings, there is a long, long way still to go, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies last week made plain. Though they recognised that the Lib Dems’ figures are far more robust than either Labour’s or the Tories’ – not only have we identified more savings, but our tax plans actually add up – Vince Cable and his treasury team will still need to find a further £46.5bn in the next five years.

At least the Lib Dems have begun the process of levelling with the British people. Let’s be candid, though: whichever party finds itself in power after 6th May will have to implement spending cuts which they have failed to set out in their manifesto. None of the parties, therefore, can claim a mandate from the public to deal with the deficit.

That is why Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have been very clear that, regardless of the results of the general election, a Council of Financial Stability should be established bringing together the main parties, the Bank of England, and the Financial Services Authority to agree a plan and timescale for the painful deficit reduction necessary.

This election has witnessed a curious pact between the politicians and the electorate in which everyone recognises the parties are being less than frank, and everyone is much happier that way.

It won’t last. Soon all of us will have to face up to the savage cuts to come. Whoever it is finds himself occupying 10 Downing Street on 7th May – Clegg, Cameron or Brown – I hope he will work seriously in the years ahead to build public consensus. Because they’re going to need all the support they can to get us out of this mess.

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This entry was posted in General Election and Op-eds.
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4 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 5th May '10 - 4:56pm

    To be fair: there are no secrets here. Neither the Tories nor the Lib Dems have the resources of the government at their disposal to investigate and analyse what cuts are possible. Everybody knows that cuts have to be made, but most of them are going to have to be made across the entire government in detail rather than by scrapping entire projects, and it’s a big job to work out what and where. More than can be done by a few party analysts.

    Now Labour has been dragging their feet here by not making a start on this a year ago. Their reasons for doing so are fairly obvious.

  • Could it be as every Daily Mail readers knows, all you have to do is sack everyone with diversity and climate change in their job title and the problem is solved ? (OK, at my local Council that is 0.15% of the staff)

    And of course we don’t want to cut “front line services”

  • Anthony Aloysius St 5th May '10 - 6:25pm

    I don’t think people are happier that the politicians aren’t being frank.

    The only way you could be sure of that is if one of the parties were frank, and got slaughtered at the polls.

  • I’ve been thinking about what if there is a hung Parliament with the Tories running a minority administration. They could well call another election within 12 months, carrying the momentum with them, and having stacks of election funds, unlike Lab or the LDs, be on course for a very comfortable overall majority. Not a happy prospect.

    But the issue of cuts then really does start to come into play. The Tories will already have made some cuts and I expect all politicians will be much more pressed to set out details of their proposed cuts and tax rises. Added to that, Labour may start to get its ct together electing a new young leader (Milliband)…could we be in hung Parliament territory for the second election running?

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