The long general election campaign has begun – and the heart sinks at the narrowness of the battleground being staked out by Labour and the Conservatives. Yesterday the Chancellor, Alistair Darling, presented a dossier which, he claimed, identified £45bn of Tory tax cutting and spending commitments, the bulk of which are unfunded. The shortfall, he said, pointed to tax rises or deeper spending cuts should the Conservatives come to power after the next election.
Meanwhile we had a "draft election manifesto" launch from David Cameron at which the Conservative leader hammered home his commitment to protect the £120bn a year health budget and even claimed that greater financial resources will be devoted to deprived parts of the country. What these early skirmishes indicate is that the prospects of an honest, mature debate on Britain's future in the run-up to polling day are remote.
Mr Darling might be justified in pointing out that the Tories have not funded all their fiscal commitments. But the problem is that Mr Darling has not done so either. The Chancellor will present a bill to parliament today which will enshrine in law the Government's commitment to halve the deficit in four years time. The ends are clear; but the means are anything but.
Last month's pre-Budget report did not lay out where the economies will be found on a department by department basis. There will be no comprehensive spending review until after the general election. Meanwhile, the Education Secretary, Ed Balls, was happily boasting yesterday that spending on schools will rise "every year, year on year". It is not just the Conservatives' sums which do not add up.
The truth is neither Labour nor the Tories have yet laid out a plausible plan of how they would reduce the deficit in the coming years while also meeting their various spending commitments. Both parties say that health funding is sacrosanct. The Conservatives have also "ring-fenced" the Department for International Development. But the price of leaving these budgets untouched will be deep cuts for other every other department of state, from transport, to defence, to welfare. That will mean reductions in public services and job losses. At the moment, Labour and the Tories are only telling voters half of the story.
An exercise in branding
It is not hard to fathom their respective calculations. Both parties are engaged in what might be termed a "branding" exercise at the moment. The Tories want to present themselves to the electorate as a reformed party which cares about public services, after so many years of being perceived as hostile to the NHS, while painting Labour as the party of fiscal irresponsibility. The Government, for its part, is keen to show Labour as the party of sustained public investment and to portray the Tories as heartless neo-Thatcherite cutters. Neither sees any advantage in scaring the electorate with detailed proposals on where they would reduce public spending.
Politics has, of course, always been about branding and exaggeration to some extent. It would be naive to expect politicians to make their case in the manner of balanced academics. And this is especially true in an election campaign. But this phoney war on cutting the deficit does a disservice to the electorate. The idea that every penny in the health and education budgets is efficiently spent is incredible. The silence from both parties on where the economies will come is also pernicious. It is not unreasonable for voters to demand a clear outline from both parties on where they would bring down the axe if elected, as Britain's £180bn annual deficit would clearly compel them to.
Other important questions about Britain's future also seem unlikely to be addressed by Labour or the Tories in this campaign. Our dependence on the financial services sector to drive economic growth has been brutally exposed by the present recession. Yet neither party, for all their outrage over bankers' bonuses, is willing to talk in detail about long-term alternatives to the City of London for national economic expansion.
And then there is Britain's role in the wider world. Some 9,000 British troops are, at present, involved in a strategically significant and dangerous military commitment in Afghanistan. Labour and the Tories are wholly aligned on the necessity of this mission. The unfortunate likely result is that Afghanistan and the global struggle against Islamist terrorism will barely be touched upon in this campaign.
Whoever wins the general election will have to confront these wider issues. But neither the Tories nor Labour seems willing to debate then over the coming months. That needs to change. General election campaigns are vital moments in our national democratic life. When they come around, we need to talk about the things that matter.Reuse content