At the weekend Gordon Brown appealed to everyday British people when setting out his stall for the election. Most people in this country are fed up with dishonest politicians. Despite a recent thaw politicians of both parties are still skating on ice, not taking the plunge of proposing what to do with the £178 billion hole in the public finances. This Government is running a big deficit in the polls as well as in the public finances, and it can’t tackle the former without being more honest about tackling the latter.

Gordon Brown said that unlike the Tories, Labour was the Party that fought for “not a wealthy few; but teachers, taxi drivers, plumbers – you!” Forgive me, Mr Brown, but most teachers, taxi drivers and plumbers probably think of most politicians as some assortment of the following; ‘bickering,’ ‘dishonest,’ ‘spin-merchants,’ ‘on the gravy train’ and are probably wholly disinterested in politics. And who can blame them: This year Government is spending £4 for every £3 it receives, running at a deficit of £178 billion and these same everyday Britons will have to pay this off. But ‘tough choices’ were nothing more than a footnote in Brown’s speech.

This Government has announced (and legislated) that it will halve this deficit in the space of four years, and estimates that 60 billion of this will come from cuts in public spending. This equates to 10 times the amount it currently spends on both the Job Seekers Allowance and Sure Start put together. Instead of honesty about how it will stack this up, the Government expects us to believe that, to take one example, the £600 million cuts in universities are purely the “efficiency savings” that the Pre-Budget Report described. The Government is already running its Operational Efficiency Programme, and the National Audit Office’s audit of these savings suggests that departments struggle to find the 2% efficiency savings that it requires. So when will the Government get real about cuts?

More to the point why isn’t it interested in doing so? The attendees at the Fabian Society conference toasted off the day with a rousing approval of a campaign that focuses on the unphotogenic face, regal upbringing and middle names of George Osborne. Labour needs a big change to overcome the Conservatives’ poll lead. Capturing a couple of hundred gullible swing voters from cheap shots at the Tories isn’t going to get them very far. What might really get large numbers of people (crucially) voting, and voting Labour, is if George Osborne is forced in to showing his hand on how he would cut the deficit. Surely George Osborne, when on the election trail, presents himself as the future Chancellor he’ll be trying to hide more than an aristocratic middle name and a Bullingdon Club past. The think-tank Reform proposes scrapping child and working tax credits and statutory maternity pay. The increasingly influential TaxPayers Alliance went even further proposing to abolish Sure Start, freezing pensions and making students pay interest on their loans. Uncovering Conservative support for these and many more proposals would get Labour more votes than cheap anti-elitist jibes, especially coming from a party that has done very little to extend political participation beyond the chattering classes.

Instead, it was a trade unionist and a Liberal Democrat that presented some serious options for reducing the deficit. Nigel Stanley of the TUC recognised that public sector pay was going to be a lot tougher, and that Labour should protect the middle Britain in the sense of the median salary earner, and not the ‘Middle Britain’ who Mandelson was courting by “favouring… for the top rate to come down”. Indeed, why increase NIC on salaries over £20,000 instead of means testing the Winter Fuels Allowances and the free transport passes that is given universally to over 60s? Vince Cable suggested that the only way to buy the public in to the major changes needed is to run a series of public consultations forcing citizens to see the protection of their pensions in terms of taking from their grandchilden. 

On the path we are on, the Conservatives with barely a quarter of the popular vote will enact swinging cuts on public services and bringing about a new generation in an already unequal country with no prospect of filling the aspirations Gordon Brown talked about. There is a debate to be had, let’s make this the centrepiece of the election.

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