Those of you who follow this blog will have waded through 000’s of words on the National Insurance cut, and the efficiency savings (I won’t bother linking). What I failed to say early enough was that this is chickenfeed compared to the issues at stake. Consider: the row about an NI threshold change – a penny on the rate! – and the savings to fund it – are actually about a smaller amount of money than just turned up when Darling found that he was borrowing £11bn less than expected. In other words, they are drawing dividing lines within the margins for error.
It is also worth observing that we have not just had a fiscal crisis, but a profoundly troubling economic crisis. Will Hutton scores some valuable points in today’s Observer Column, arguing that there are far bigger issues to do with our capacity to grow in future*. This election ought to be the perfect opportunity to air these issues – to give them the future ‘manifesto mandate’ to say “we warned you” – even if the warning is only about questions and not answers (see Rawnsley about the (non)importance of manifestos).
Compare to what the Irish have had to go through. Such a comparison highlights that both Labour and the Tories are backing the same horse; a gradual rebalancing.
So what do we get? Rows about £150. This is what Parris calls the Tories’ Trump card – £150 per year (note: not week, thanks Alex below)! Either as a reward for keeping a wife at home (well done you!) or if you fall into the right band for the NI threshold change. Wow. It’s not exactly Marx versus Hayek. As Hopi writes (see link above) of the marriage policy, “this is a bad policy, but in its defence it’s also a pretty inconsequential one. This £150 tax allowance is another example of the recent Tory trend for policies that are not so much talismanic as metaphysical.”
Some might argue that the fiscal situation has squeezed all possible life out of economic debates. The next Perm Sec of the Treasury will have to strain every sinew to hit the targets that either Darling or Osborne or Cable wants to set for future Budgets. Unless you are one of those Tory expats droning on about how obvious and easy cutting spending is, you may have noticed that this pace of cutting has never been achieved short of a general demobilization. I have certainly been in this camp at times: going on about the war on arithmetic from those denying the need for any spending restraint at all. And I can understand the political logic that goes against making your plans specific. This is why the differences are so small; as James writes, ‘perceptions are so much more important than policies’.
The other reason is that the election campaign has been going on since September, and the first right-wiggle of the Tories’ left-right-left approach to the fiscal deficit. The blaze of PR around their election plans is unlikely to add much more fuel to a debate that has been going on for months anyway – one explanation for why all the fuss I missed in the last week has not shifted the polls from their margins for error either.
So. It is my job to write about the economics issues thrown up by this once-a-generation election. And so far there are none that are worth talking about – just a few pounds per week gestures, special interest pleadings from various groups, and spin spin spin. In 2 years’ time there will be some real gnashing of teeth about this conspiracy of dullness and silence. For now, there is just dullness.
*I can’t be bothered to start with you Nef-ites who think you are making such a useful or interesting or original point in claiming that we need to find some post-growth future. Try telling it to the bondholders, for now, then come over here.