I make no apology for lifting this straight from the pages of the Guardian today (2 March) because I simply couldn’t rewrite these figures to make the point any clearer. There has been a complete lack of context in the debate over deficit reduction and without a solid factual base, it is impossible to make rational decisions over the action that must be taken. Therefore it is with huge gratitude to Barry Kushner that I replicate his letter here:
Tag Archives: deficit
Imagine the scene. Labour has just about managed to form a government with the Lib Dems, after missing the widest electoral open goal in the history of modern politics. Despite the lack of a clear mandate, the party is paranoid about missing its chance and embarks on a series of upheavals, routinely labelled “the biggest shake-up since 1945”. Building enormous, wide-ranging policy blocks on a flimsy pillar of “it’s all the last lot’s fault”, the new government launches into the following initiatives in its first five months:
1) Cancels Building Schools for the Future, a vital source of income and employment for the private construction sector. In the process of this hurried cancellation, list after list of the schools affected is issued and reissued and within weeks, protesters are marching on Westminister, led by the government’s own MPs.
2) Uses parliamentary protocols usually reserved for emergency terror legislation to rush through a dramatic centralisation of power in education. New “Free Schools” can be established with no local authority control, no requirement to co-operate with existing schools and the ability to implicitly select pupils (through religion or catchment area). So popular are these new schools, accountable only to the Education Secretary, despite being paid for by the tax payer, that the grand total of 16 are approved.
3) Embarks upon the biggest ever top-down reorganisation of the NHS, despite explicitly stating that the new government would not embark on any top-down reorganisations of the NHS. The new policy, which opens the way to a private healthcare system, was not in any manifesto, will cost over £2bn to implement, is attacked by healthcare professionals, industry experts and patients groups as risky, expensive and badly thought-out.
4) Cites Ireland as a shining example of how to tackle a deficit, with savage spending cuts praised as “brave and necessary” by the IMF. This shining light is quickly extinguished, however, when the government notices that because of the excessive austerity measures, Ireland has fallen into a double-dip recession, its deficit remains high, thousands of people are suffering and those gods of the markets, the ratings agencies (“triple A” for a junk US mortgage CDO, anyone?) have downgraded Ireland’s government bonds because of the cuts and the complete lack of growth in the economy.
5) Announces at its annual conference that in order to tackle the deficit, Child Benefit for high earners is to be scrapped. In the haste to launch this policy, no-one considers the blindingly obvious problem of the considerable unfairness of hitting higher paid single earner families with a stay at home parent, versus two working parents on a much higher combined salary.
6) Following uproar amongst its own supporters, the government desperately tries to cover its tracks on Child Benefit by announcing a tax break for married couples, thus completely destroying the argument that the benefit cut was made in order to address the deficit. People search the conference hall for the fag packet on which the policy was devised and senior ministers admit they had no idea the policy was due to be announced.
7) The new PM apologises for not including the Child Benefit cut in its manifesto, but goes ahead and does it anyway. He cites something about new politics and parades his new baby in front of the cameras in a bid to ease the pressure on him and his government.
All this comes before the new government has got round to announcing the biggest cuts in public spending in living memory, while the economy remains desperately fragile and there are five people applying for every job. They have been repeatedly leaking rumours of cuts to the press though – £4bn of cuts to welfare here, a devastation of the armed forces there.
Now imagine, if you will, the press reaction to the Labour government’s actions. The newspapers are frothing at the mouth in anger. “We didn’t vote for this coalition of the incompetent!”, they cry. “Is this the worst start to a government in history?” questions The Times editorial. Sky News is running a clock estimating how long it will be before the government is forced to go back to the country. The Lib Dems are annihilated as a party, support slipping to a historic low.
Have you spotted those headlines (apart from the last one, that one’s true)? No? Funny that, isn’t it.
Much has been written about David Laws’ resignation. Personally, I can’t see it as anything other than another expenses story where the guilty party has accepted responsibility. Resigning was the right thing to do because Laws was in clear breach of the rules and had lost the moral authority his position required. Dragging his sexuality into it was irrelevant and unfortunate. However, there’s no overlap between addressing personal turmoil and breaching the rules on expenses claims. It did Laws himself no credit to try to blur the distinction. It does Nick Clegg less credit to continue to defend him after his sanctimonious whining about expenses throughout the election campaign. Another issue, like tuition fees, PR, nuclear weapons and public service cuts which has been sacrificed to the god of “new politics”.
Laws’ resignation has raised another interesting issue though – his replacement. It is difficult to look at Danny Alexander’s track record and experience and understand why he was chosen for the role of Chief Secretary to the Treasury. While Laws was feted for his banking experience and oft-quoted “double first” in economics, Alexander worked in PR for 11 years before becoming an MP, promoting the Britain in Europe group and latterly the Cairngorms National Park. You could suggest that this gives him six years on David Cameron, who only managed five in PR at Carlton TV, but doesn’t exactly stand him out from the crowd as a natural successor to Laws. However, what he is, is a Lib Dem insider. He is close to Clegg and that’s why the Tories want him there. Quite clearly there are better candidates for the job, but Osborne needs a foil. He must be desperate at the loss of Laws who gave the cuts programme some perceived gravitas. Now we’ve got two thirty-sometimes with no economic qualifications or background in charge of an ideologically driven spending review. Osborne needs someone to share the blame when the inevitable criticisms start to rain in.
I expect Alexander to be considerably more high-profile than Liam Byrne was in the role for Labour. The previous government relied on Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown to present the economic arguments. Cameron will want a degree of distance from the cuts, which could seriously harm his own position, while at the same time ensuring that every closed Sure Start centre, every cut in police numbers, every privatised element of the NHS is presented by a “coalition” team. In two years time (if he makes it that far), Alexander may well be running for the Cairngorms and wishing he’d stuck to real mountains rather than political ones.