Would you like to know whether the next government is planning to hire fewer teachers for Britain’s schools? Or perhaps you’re wondering whether the police force or the army is going to face cuts to the front line?
Well with only three months to go before the General Election, of the three major parties that have announced economic plans for the next parliament none — that’s right, not a single party — has yet been willing to tell you where exactly they plan to cut public service spending.
Here’s what the plans currently look like thanks to the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR):
All of those blank boxes across the top of the bars in the table above represent up to £55 billion of implied cuts to the government’s budget over the next parliament that the parties have yet to get around to telling us about. In the case of the Conservative Party, this represents almost as much as all the rest of the announced measures combined.
As NIESR report, in January Chancellor George Osborne told the Royal Economic Society (emphasis added):
“Explaining how that £30 billion [of further consolidation by 2017-18] will be delivered is now an obligation for all political parties as we approach the general election.”
NIESR endorses these sentiments, and indeed suggests that the government budget watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility, be given powers to audit all parties’ fiscal plans in order to oblige them to come forward with this information. (Incidentally, a move that is being resisted by Osborne.)
However, tough talk has yielding very little in the way of action by the government — or indeed from its Coalition partners or the opposition. Without this information it is impossible for voters to gauge the desirability of an individual party’s platform. And this could be crucial given that the Conservatives are planning ‘colossal’ spending cuts that will take total government spending to its lowest level as a proportion of national income since before the last war, according to the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS).
One cannot just look at the scale of implied cuts going forward and say they are unachievable. But it is surely incumbent upon anyone set on taking the size of the state to its smallest in many generations to tell us what that means. How will these cuts be implemented? What will local government, the defence force, the transport system, look like in this world? Is this a fundamental re-imagining of the role of the state?
Those cuts may be necessary. They may even be desirable. But without the visibility to properly analyse them we are left with a line of blank boxes much like those that people will be faced with in the voting booths come May. In the absence of better information, which one they end up putting a cross in might have to come down to a wild guess.
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