The 2010 general election was defined by a conspiracy of silence between the main parties. For fear of the electoral consequences, neither Labour nor the Conservatives spelled out to voters what austerity would entail in practice. While vowing to halve the deficit, Gordon Brown never acknowledged the scale of spending cuts that would be needed to meet this pledge. The Tories, who promised to eliminate the structural deficit in a single parliament, were no better. The weekend before the election, David Cameron declared that any future cabinet minister who proposed “front-line reductions” in services would be “sent straight back to their department to go away and think again”. During the campaign, he said that his party had “absolutely no plans” to raise VAT, that he “wouldn’t means-test” child benefit, that Sure Start centres would not be closed and that the Education Maintenance Allowance would remain in place. Each one of these promises was broken before the year was out.
This year has begun with both the Tories and Labour declaring that they are prepared to make the “tough choices” required to reduce the deficit – which the government forecasts will be £111bn this year – in the next parliament. George Osborne has promised to implement £25bn of further spending cuts, including £12bn from welfare, in the two years after the next general election. Ed Balls has announced that Labour will seek to achieve a current budget surplus by the end of the next parliament and will reintroduce the 50p income-tax rate to help with this task. Both men wish to be seen as fiscal disciplinarians, taking difficult but necessary decisions in the national interest. Yet neither can credibly claim this mantle.
There is little that is brave about cutting benefits for the poor or raising taxes on the rich, policies that have the overwhelming support of the public. Voters, unsurprisingly, are most in favour of austerity when it does not affect them. Just 1.5 per cent of taxpayers have earnings above the £150,000 threshold at which the 50p tax rate would be introduced and a similarly small proportion of households is affected by measures such as the benefit cap. For this reason, none of the policies recently announced by Mr Balls and Mr Osborne would make a significant dent in the deficit. Rather, their logic is almost entirely political. The Tories are seeking to frame Labour as the party of welfare, Labour to frame the Tories as the party of the wealthy. One can hardly blame politicians for playing politics but the danger is that this ideological skirmish denies the country the open debate it needs about its fiscal choices.
Despite the return of consistent growth, the scale of austerity required after 2015, owing to the persistence of the structural deficit (which stands at 3.6 per cent of GDP), has not lessened. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that £12bn of further tax rises or welfare cuts will be needed merely to maintain departmental spending cuts at their current level. While Mr Osborne has declared his willingness to make welfare reductions of this size, he has notably refused to specify any beyond the abolition of housing benefit for the under-25s, a measure that would raise at most £1.2bn, and likely less after exemptions for the disabled and other vulnerable groups. Beyond the tax rises announced by Labour, most of which are to fund new spending programmes, Mr Balls has offered to remove winter fuel payments from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners, a cut that would save just £100m.
For the sake of democracy as well as good government, we need a far wider debate about the services the state should fund and the taxes it should levy to pay for them. Both parties should consider significantly deeper cuts to a defence budget that remains the fourth largest in the world. At a time when property values are rising far faster than incomes, they should also look to increase the taxation of high-value estates, including steeper rates of stamp duty and the imposition of capital gains tax on first properties. Other imaginative options include the introduction of a land value tax and a higher rate of VAT on luxury items. But given that it seems the limits of departmental cuts will soon be reached, the parties ultimately may need to discuss openly the possibility of raising the only taxes that reap reliably large revenues: the basic rate of income tax, National Insurance and VAT. That would be a properly “tough choice”.