The economy has been at the heart of the general election campaign. Gordon Brown emphasises the need to support jobs and denounces Conservative plans to cut public spending by £6 billion this year as risking tipping the economy back into recession. David Cameron extols the benefit of making a start on deficit reduction in 2010/11 so that national insurance contributions do not have to rise in April 2011. And Nick Clegg calls for an increase in the personal tax threshold to £10,000 as a demonstration of the ‘fairness’ that is needed if the public are going to support tough measures on reducing the fiscal deficit.
But, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has made clear, all three main political parties have left more unsaid than said. In a detailed analysis of their plans, the IFS concludes that the Conservatives have not specified where £52.4 billion of deficit reduction would come from, Labour £44.1 billion and the Liberal Democrats £34.5 billion. It also said that ‘Labour and the Liberal Democrats would need to deliver the deepest sustained cut to spending on public services since the four years from April 1976 to March 1980’ while ‘the Conservative plans imply cuts to spending on public services that have not been delivered over any five-year period since the Second World War’.
Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have, simply, all been too afraid of the electoral consequences of spelling out where public spending will be cut and which taxes will increase after the election. All saw how the Tories’ ratings dipped in the opinion polls after their flirtation with ‘Age of Austerity’ rhetoric late last year and have concluded that, in a tight election, they cannot afford to tell the public the truth. Instead, they have, predictably, chosen to emphasise spending commitments (e.g. to the National Health Service), tax reductions (e.g. for married couples) or other positive stories (e.g. abolishing university tuition fees).
As a result, there has been far too much debate about whether it is a good idea to cut public spending by an additional £6 billion in 2010/11 and far too little about where up to £60 billion of cuts will come from in subsequent years.
In truth, the argument about the £6 billion of cuts was fought to a stalemate even before the election was called. Some economists say that it would take demand out of the economy at a time when the recovery was fragile; others suggested it would boost confidence and, thus, private spending. Whichever side is right – and I side with those who think cutting spending now is an unnecessary risk - the far more important issue is the make-up of the bigger spending cuts and tax increases that will inevitably follow.
This is not just a question of a democratic deficit – how can the electorate choose which party it wants to govern for the next five years if none of the parties will reveal its approach to the biggest issue that will face the government in the next parliament?
It is a problem for the parties too. Whether the election results in a majority Conservative Government, a minority Conservative Government or some sort of coalition or partnership (which, two days before the polls open, seem to be the three possible outcomes), the next government will have to implement unpopular measures on taxation and public spending, not just in its first few months in office but in every one of the next four or five years. And it will have to do so without having secured the support of the public for those measures. This will make it extremely unpopular. Indeed, Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, is reported to think whichever party wins this election will not subsequently win another one for a generation.
Economists will recognise this situation as a classic game theory problem. If all the parties had cooperated and agreed to be totally open and honest about their spending and tax plans before the election, then the winner would be in a better position to implement its plans in the next parliament. But there was no such cooperation and no single party was willing to break ranks and be the first to set out its plans, for fear that the other two would not follow its lead and that it would lose support. Consequently, none acted and the result is a sub-optimal outcome for all concerned.
The consequence of this failure will haunt the next government every time it announces a tax increase or a cut in spending on public services.
This piece was first published on Left Foot Forward