None of the three main parties are willing to say much about how they will slow the growth in spending after next May – and given the electoral perils of doing so, they can scarcely be blamed for keeping mum. Voters may say they want they MPs to tell them the truth. But they would take fright were any party leader or finance spokesman to spell out the detail of the spending reductions to come.
None the less, one aspect of what will happen is very clear. George Osborne wants a two-year benefits freeze for people of working age. Ed Balls wishes to extend the one per cent cap on child benefit rises to 2017. By contrast, Nick Clegg has pledged to protect the pensions triple lock – and so has David Cameron and Ed Miliband. The parties are falling over each other to promise protection for health spending.
You get the picture. Older people will be better insulated from the effects of the spending scaleback than younger ones. The latter already have a less favourable deal than the former did at the same age. If they go to University, they pay tuition fees. If they want to buy a home, they will have to wait longer. If they want a defined benefit pension scheme, they will have to look very hard to find one.
Sooner or later, a government of one colour or another will have to look again at the protection of health and pensions spending – probably through an Affordability Commission of the kind that this site supports, or a plan as close to it as to make no difference. But in the meantime, there is action that a future Conservative Government could take – even though the potential saving would be small by some measures.
It was reported earlier this year that David Cameron is “minded” to protect pensioner benefits – free bus passes, the winter fuel allowance, free TV licences. A pledge to keep them will probably be wrung out of him. But that is not quite the end of the story. For example, the age at which older people are entitled to them could be raised – which would make sense, since older pensioners are often the poorest.
It will be argued that the Conservatives need to protect their voter base (which is true enough). But the lopsided nature of the reductions to come is ultimately unsustainable. Furthermore, the Party must expand its voter base to thrive: a third or so of the vote is not enough. And then there is social justice to consider – at least, if we really are “all in this together”.