Thom Brooks: Voters can't be blamed for not wanting to go to the circus when all they see are clowns

Durham University professor of law and government Thom Brooks on George Osborne's budget and the message it sends

Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire George Osborne
George Osborne

Maybe two farces are worse than one. Danny Alexander was accused of engaging in a petty publicity stunt in presenting the Liberal Democrats’ alternative budget. A speech so forgettable that not even Nick Clegg could last to hear the end. Clegg and Alexander are Cabinet members and so must support the government’s budget. The alternative budget was more like an alternative reality far from serious politics.

But then there’s the real budget delivered by George Osborne the previous day. Or was it? It offered a five-year plan for a Parliament to be dissolved in a little more than five days.

Suppose it can be difficult getting days and years mixed up when there is the national economy to look after. Or so I might be told in the alternative reality these plans inhabit.

Osborne’s plan was important not for what it would do, but what it says. The election has all but kicked off. In Westminster politics it is a case of spin or get spun. We saw so much government spin our planet’s rotation nearly began to tilt.

Let’s explode some myths. The coalition has said for five years that Labour was alone to blame for the financial crises. But ask yourself: would things be worse under the Tories? We’re told that Labour stands for regulations (or what most people call standards) while Tories defend something less. And less regulation would only make a bad situation even worse. Only believe someone would have got things right if they could have. ‘But it wasn’t us in power’ is not evidence Tories wouldn’t have had even bigger problems.

Another myth is that there is no plan B. The only long term economic plan this government has is to make it up as it goes along and pretend it was planned. Forget that we’re all in this together. Except when it comes to our being taken for a ride.

Listen to David Cameron and you’d be led to believe the national debt is on the way down. But in fact the debt is higher than in 2010 and over 80% of national income. And it would still be over 80% next year if the new budget remains intact. Yes, this is all higher than the government said it’d be five years ago.

And the cuts to come are eye-watering. The Office of Budget Responsibility projects real or inflation-adjusted cuts in public services over 5% through to 2018. This is more than double the cuts we’ve seen at their height over the last five years. Doesn’t sound like a very responsible budget to me.

There was much said about issues missing in Ed Miliband’s party conference speech. But nothing said at all about the government’s forgetting to mention the NHS in its budget. Makes you think Miliband is right to warn big cuts await the NHS if the Tories win the election.

But maybe some budgets are made to be broken. Or never be believed. An interesting fact of coalition government is its being a politics of compromise, of give and take.

There is something attractive about this for a public that wants less finger pointing and more cooperation on all sides in the national interest

A problem with coalitions is their budgets before an election. Osborne’s budget was neither Tory nor Lib Dem although some might think fishy and foul. If sending a message to voters days before an election, then what message is it and what are we supposed to hear?

It is increasingly clear to me that the public is interested in these debates about policy, but increasingly cynical and for many good reasons. Punch and Judy politics might be good theatre for some, but I think people want something more

This election our parties need to give the public something to believe in. Something credible and tangible. Promises are as easy to make as they are to break. What we need is not a reason against, but a reason for.

People need to see the stake they have in elections. The outcome will matter whatever its result.

My worry is silly stunts like half baked budgets more about their messages than their real impact are insulting. Voters can hardly be blamed for not wanting to attend a circus when all they see are clowns.

If the government were more serious about the common good and treating citizens more like partners than pawns, then it could foster much greater respect and mutual trust. But that would require leaving their alternative reality. A step too far?

Thom Brooks is Professor of Law and Government at Durham University.

@thom_brooks

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