Budget Special: Imprudent turkeys plumping for guns and no brains

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The Independent Online
This ought to be an unpopular budget. "Prudent" income tax cuts and pounds 2bn cut from public spending? An effective cut in education will mean bigger class sizes, when people say they want more spent on schools. Do people want hard-working single parents who struggle to keep their families off social security to lose more than pounds 6 a week. One Parent Benefit? It is not what people say they want. When asked voters say they want more government spending and more taxes - but the Government does not believe them.

So are we a nation of turkeys voting for Christmas? No, we are a nation of turkeys who pretend to vote for Christmas - that, at least, is the spin the Tories are putting on their abysmal showing in the polls: they see voters as a kind of baked Alaska - Labour hot-cake on the outside but underneath they are all really frozen-hearted tax-cutting Tories.

Last week's British Social Attitudes survey revealed that an ever growing number of people - 61 per cent now, compared with only 32 per cent in 1983 - say that they want to spend more on education and health even when it is spelt out explicitly how much more they will each have to pay. Even the rich say they would pay more income tax for the NHS and state schools.

We are a low-tax country - despite all the right-wing rhetoric to the contrary. "Less government" goes unchallenged as a synonym for good government and "less tax" is called prudence rather than slash-and-burn social vandalism. Yet in Europe only the Greeks pay less - and even they have a higher top rate. Germany and France pay 10 per cent more of their gross domestic product. Belgium and Holland pay 15 per cent more. The US and Japan pay less but if you add their private health costs, it comes to the same. This should be no surprise: we look and feel like a low-tax, low-rent nation. We have let ourselves go, we are down at heel, unkempt, uncaring and uncared for - the tramps of Europe. Steady-as-she-goes-on-down-hill was not what we needed yesterday. We needed more taxes.

The education budget is some pounds 2bn short of the proportion of GDP spent on it in 1979. The health budget fared better but there will still be a rough winter as one-third of health authorities have already run out of funds. Social security was cut again, striking savagely at both working and benefit-dependent single mothers, despite new evidence showing that one in three children are born into deep poverty. However, defence was protected and allowed to continue on its rip-roaring procurement spree, spending twice the European average. We will still buy 232 Eurofighters for pounds 16bn, 386 new Challenger tanks for pounds 1.1bn and 64 EH 101 helicopters for pounds 1.5bn. Is that prudence? All guns and no brains.

The Government has a low view of voters as sanctimonious liars mouthing pious sentiments in public but letting greed rip in the polling booth. So Labour is taking no risks. After four defeats, they have abandoned their view of the voter as a decent sort and adopted the Tory model of the voter as selfish, lying bastard. Soon after the last election I talked to a deeply depressed Labour shadow cabinet member who cursed the voters bitterly and concluded: "The only way we can win is to lie and cheat about taxes the way the Tories do." So let us hope that is their secret strategy. But how will we ever persuade people that government is essentially good, healthy and necessary if no reputable politicians ever dare stand up and say so?

What if Labour came clean? Yes, they could say, we will levy some more taxes but we will spend that money well on judicious projects to improve the brain and health of the nation and the fabric of society. They could promise a crime-busting package to target the young in most danger of turning into criminals - programmes such as these:

Intensive high quality nursery education. To improve the chances of deprived children and provide for all three- and four-year-olds, it would cost pounds 1bn - yesterday's 1p off income tax cost pounds 1.5bn.

After-school and homework clubs. The Kids Club Network say pounds 50m would create clubs for a million children, helping them with schoolwork and keeping them out of trouble.

Contraceptive clinics for the young, to guarantee any girl a clinic appointment within 72 hours: pounds 2.5m.

Young offenders. NACRO's motor projects for joy-riders cut local Twoc (taking without consent) rates. Schemes for all 8,000 annual offenders would cost pounds 1.3m

Care leavers and runaways. Save the Children runs drop-in centres with advice on drugs, sex, accommodation, training and jobs. Care leavers account for 25 per cent of prisoners. Each local project costs pounds 250,000 (or two and a half prisoners for a year in jail. Mr Clarke announced pounds 450m more for police and prisons).

Halesowen Community Project. Barnado's support group for families in crisis costs pounds 148,385 to help 210 families on the edge - the same price as taking three children a year into care.

Those are just some random examples of what Labour could do in power. But should they admit now that they will raise taxes to do it? That wise old bird, Bob Worcester of Mori, advises Labour to lie like everyone else. When Gordon Brown gets into office he should open the Treasury books, slam his hands on his face, give a Munch-like scream and announce that due to Tory mismanagement (true), there will need to be higher taxes after all (true). Alas, honesty now will not pay.