Assiduous readers will have noted from my (sparse, of late) posts that I do not agree with some other Samizdatistas about UK elections. I do not think political disaster will save us or that small government might arise from the wreck of huge government. Mine is a mitigation strategy.
Just as we have to eat, even when the choices are unappetising, we have no choice but to be governed. Therefore I vote, and am active within the existing political system, in order to to try get the least worst result I can.
Sometimes the least worst is not very good. Politicans in a democracy have an amazing ability to back themselves into impossible corners, even when they don’t have to.
The Conservative party’s promises to “protect” the budgets for the National Health Service and overseas aid may be mad as government, but they do have an electoral logic. They are explicable as strategic decisions to change the image of the party, and appear to have worked as such. Overseas aid is largely symbolic, peanuts compared with the welfare bills. (And few will really care if that promise ends up broken.) Whereas keeping up spending plans on a bloated NHS which absorbs approaching a fifth of the budget and a tenth of the nation’s wealth, supports huge lobby groups and unions, and has been force-fed taxpayers’ money like a Strasbourg goose by the incumbent regime, is a serious commitment it will be hard to row back from. Still, maybe they had to do this to themselves, as the price of power: middle Britain worships the NHS; it is more important than IHS, more established than the Church of England. The Tories were not trusted to keep that faith, and had as a result no more chance of governing than a secular party in Iran. Now they are accepted as orthodox.
But why would you make a promise no-one expects, but that similarly constrains your scope for radical action? No party has promised not to raise VAT rates, despite pressure. No party has directly promised not to make cuts to state wagerolls. And Cameron did just promise a pay cut in the public sector. Sounds good? Oh dear, no. He did so in a way that disastrously locks him in and creates a political bar to the cuts that are really needed.
A 5% cut in ministerial pay, and freezing it for the life of a parliament, is easy populism. “Slashing” the BBC calls it. However, in practice it is trivial; and, much worse, it puts a ceiling on what can be done to tackle the deficit. Ireland has already cut all public sector salaries—by an average of 13.5%. Had he said ministers will be paid a third less, and hinted at serious cuts in other public sector salaries over £60,000 (representing impossible wealth to most voters), then he could have been populist with room for manoeuvre. But now Cameron will be very hard put to do as much as freeze the wage bills of the bureaucracy. Even though ministers are arguably underpaid, getting much less in real terms than their Victorian forebears, it will be impossible now to cut the salary of any signficant public sector interest group by more than 5%. Protecting the NHS forces greater cuts from every other department just to stand still.
A promise to cut just made cutting nearly impossible. That is a terrible mistake.