Four days in, it’s clear that there are two major differences between this election campaign and the last – besides the players involved. The first is the one that everybody acknowledges. In 2010, parliaments weren’t meant to be hung. Now, most of us are anticipating every possible outcome apart from a majority. This results in a campaign full of hypotheticals. Would the SNP work with Labour? Can the Lib Dems get enough seats to join a second coalition? Will any party brave a minority government?
But it’s the second, less acknowledged difference that’s more significant. And it’s this: interested observers now know a lot more about the public finances, in general, and deficit reduction, in particular.
The run-up to the last election was, in many ways, a conspiracy of silence on the part of our politicians. I once wrote a timeline to show how bad it got. It took the Conservatives until June 2009 to use the word “cuts” for the very first time, but that was as nothing compared to Labour. In December, less than half a year away from the election, Alistair Darling was still claiming that his party planned to keep departmental budgets “pretty much flat”. Later that same day, the Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed that the plans were for departmental cuts of 19 per cent over three years.
It all reached a nadir, much like Gordon Brown’s government itself, with the Gillian Duffy incident in April 2010. Before his infamous off-camera remarks, the former Prime Minister made some on-camera ones that were almost as scandalous. Labour had a plan, he claimed to the woman from Rochdale, to “cut the debt by half over the next four years.” What he meant, of course, was the deficit. The debt would keep on rising.
A slip of the tongue? Perhaps. But it was a slip that Brown made frequently – and, with the exception of journalists such as my old boss Fraser Nelson, he was rarely picked up on it. Many people’s senses had been blunted by the years of growth beforehand. They didn’t know the ins and outs of the public finances because, to some extent, they didn’t need to. Comfort breeds complacency.
This is why, even when the parties did speak of deficit reduction, so little of it was committed to Westminster’s collective memory. The most overlooked promise in any of the 2010 manifestos was this one in Labour’s:
“Over the next Parliament the structural deficit will be cut by more than two-thirds.”
It was so overlooked that no-one – with, ahem, some exceptions – really brought it up when Labour started accusing the Coalition of going “too far, too fast” for promising to eliminate the structural deficit over the course of this Parliament. Ed Balls even tried to say that there was no structural deficit under his party. But, Ed, your own manifesto pledged to cut it by more than two-thirds!
Over a year later, in October 2012, Balls did have to concede that Labour ran up a structural deficit. It was a small, tremulous admission that nonetheless said so much about this Parliament. The debt and the deficit have become such a familiar part of our political chatterverse that it’s now much harder to pull a Brown. We know too much to be duped.
It’s hard to measure the exact parameters of this change, but they’re all about us. For instance, the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ Budget events used to be a niche pursuit for fiscally-minded weirdos, but now they’ve had to move into bigger venues to accommodate all the journalists and other assorted heavyweights who want to attend. The numbers that emerge are then repeated on the front pages of newspapers and websites. Folk then chat about the cyclically-adjusted current budget over their cornflakes.
To his credit, George Osborne has done a lot to encourage these developments. Not only are his Budgets much clearer than those written in the Brown years, but they’re also supported by the work of the Office for Budget Responsibility. Those who simply dismiss this body and its often wayward forecasts are wrong to. If you’ll forgive me quoting myself:
“Having an independent forecaster attached to the Treasury is important for one particularly reason: it diminishes the Chancellor’s – any Chancellor’s – capacity to use his political power for ill. I mean, remember Gordon Brown’s fiscal rules? Until the financial crisis became too bad to pretend any different, forecast horizons and borrowing projections were consistently massaged just to make sure these rules weren’t broken. Debt was stuffed behind HMT filing cabinets. It was a charade. Whereas now, if George Osborne is to break his fiscal rules, the OBR will just say so – and already has. There’s less smoke and fewer mirrors.”
Less smoke and fewer mirrors – or, to put it another way, more transparency. It’s actually the OBR that does some of the most incisive numbers-work on each Budget day. They feed the swarm of data bloggers and infographickers that has proliferated during this Parliament.
The upshot is that Osborne has helped create a more difficult atmosphere for himself and for other politicians. He can’t blithely promise an extra £12 billion of welfare cuts, without having journalists query – as Andrew Marr did on Sunday – where those cuts are coming from. But neither can Labour just promise further spending without outlining how it will be funded. The answers may be unsatisfying, but at least the questions are being asked in the first place. It’s one of the big changes of this election campaign, as well as of this whole Parliament.
Now we’ve got to hope that it continues beyond 7th May and even beyond the point when the public finances are in surplus. Democracies have always thrived on knowledge. If we know what they’re up to, then they’re less likely to be up to no good.