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Resumption of war

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The Liberal Democrats’ party conference has triggered a resumption of political war in Britain. All three parties have started an eight-month general election campaign. Personal insults, epic half-truths and part-evolved policies have been lobbed about as a foretaste of what lies ahead.

We have seen a remarkable turnaround within national politics. The government’s attempt to create a dividing line between ‘Labour investment and Tory cuts’ has been abandoned. Not only has the prime minister used the word ‘cuts’, but ministers are now locked into a Dutch auction with their opponents. Ministers and opposition spokespeople now attempt to sound tougher than each other about their desire to chop chunks off the state.

Thus, in the early hours of this week’s Lib Dem conference, Nick Clegg was promising “savage” cuts so as to bring down public borrowing. Vince Cable has suggestedmeans-testing child benefits and freezing public sector pay  as elements in his party’s approach. On Monday, Mr Cable also proposed a 0.5% property tax on people living in £1m homes, to contribute to the cost of taking lower earners out of tax. Mr Cable has, it would appear, proposed taking over a part of the local tax base to fund an Exchequer-determined tax cut at the national level.

Not only has the prime minister used the word ‘cuts’, but ministers are now locked into a Dutch auction with their opponents

Tony Travers is director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

The Conservatives, until recently the most hawkish of the three parties, have said they would protect only the NHS. Anything else could, potentially, be cut. Wading into the taxation debate at the weekend, George Osborne was much criticised for claiming Labour had an unannounced plan to raise income tax, even though the figure upon which he was basing his argument had been openly published by the Treasury. Lord Mandelson was not kind in his comments.

For Labour, children’s secretary Ed Balls said on Sunday the government could save £2bn within education by, for example, encouraging schools to come together to share heads and deputies. Federating institutions in this way might be more efficient for the schools themselves, but it would not inevitably save the government any money.  Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) is paid to councils on a per pupil basis, so unless the government made an across-the-board reduction in the DSG total, a move to encourage federations might have little impact on the Exchequer. Would local government be blamed if this happened?

All three parties are struggling to come up with a package of spending reductions and/or tax increases they can sell to a disenchanted electorate.  Ministers and their shadows will spend the next few months publicising new policies to curb government borrowing and debt.  Councils risk being caught in the middle of this struggle.  National politicians must be monitored. When they make announcements about ‘cuts’ or ‘tax’, the impact on local authorities must be analysed.  We live in a centrally-controlled country, so the government should take responsibility for unpopular cuts and tax increases. Blame, too, must be appropriately centralised.

Tony Travers is director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics


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