The Other Deficit

We’re currently suffering from a democratic deficit, one for which we should be taking to the streets. This is obviously not comparable to the Egyptian situation – we (the UK citizens amongst us) enjoy a broad range of liberal freedoms, of speech, movement, conscience etc. Nevertheless, we too need to take to the streets, our government is illegitimate – and we need new elections.

This seems like a strange observation – we had an election only seven months ago, and, for the first time in 30 years, have a coalition government whose MPs represent more than 50% of the votes cast. This is a major contrast to other recent elections – even in the supposed ‘landslide’ elections Labour received only 43.2% in 1997 and the Conservatives 42.4% in 1983. So in all normal sense of the word, this government is democratically legitimate. Its central economic policy, however, is not.

The central theme of the election was the economy, and the central argument was one of deficit vs growth. This was acknowledged by pretty much all media and commentators The deficit side, represented by the Tories, argued that the growing deficit was the biggest problem facing Britain, and needed to be tackled immediately. The promised to make £6 Billion early spending cuts, and further promised a deficit reduction strategy that was faster and deeper than Labour’s (without ever spelling out exactly what it would be). The growth side of the argument, represented both by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, argued that the biggest problem facing the UK was the recession, and the lack of economic growth. This position prioritised the boosting of growth, via the government putting money into the economy, over deficit reduction, which, both Cable and Darling argued, shouldn’t begin for at least a year, and only once the economy was showing signs of health. It is well-known that Labour took this position, but less well-known that the Liberal Democrats were in pretty much full agreement. While Clegg tried hard to distance himself from Brown, in the chancellor’s debates it was clear that Cable and Darling were aligned together against Osbourne, who they accused of ‘economic illiteracy’.

So who won the argument? At first glance the answer seems unclear. The election produced a hung parliament, with no overall majority for any party. But in fact, when one realises that the economy was the central issue, the results are actually very clear. The deficit side, the Conservatives, received 36.1%. The growth side received 52% (29% Labour, 23% Liberal Democrats).  Even if we add the votes of smaller parties (UKIP and the Ulster Unionists on the deficit side, Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru + the other Northern Irish parties on the growth side) the deficit cutting side had 39.5% and the growth side had 57%. Even despite the distortions of our electoral system, this result translated into 307 seats for the deficit cutting side and 342 for the growth side.

The growth side won comprehensively, both in terms of votes and seats. So why didn’t this translate into a pro-economic growth government, rather than a savagely spending cutting one?

The answer lies, of course, with the Liberal Democrats. At the crucial moment, on the crucial issue, they switched sides. Once the votes had been counted, on the dubious pretext of the figures were worse than they had thought, the Liberals sided with the Tories and sought immediate spending cuts, putting their focus on deficit reduction rather than growth. In the (faux) negotiations with Labour they demanded immediate spending cuts, in direct contradiction to their election pledges, to the astonishment of Mandelson, Balls and co.  There was no new information – Darling’s pre budget report has been widely acknowledged to have been accurate, and in fact the treasury was £6 billion better off than Darling had predicted. The only reasonable inference is that Clegg and the rest of the Liberal Democrat’s centre-right leadership, never believed in the ‘growth’ position, and simply used it for electoral gain. This, rather than just tuition fees, is the real Liberal Democrat betrayal, the total subversion of the votes given to them by the electorate, the sheer disregard for democracy.

Does any of this matter? Since the election, and particularly in regard to tuition fees, a number of commentators (see Julian Glover, Simon Jenkins, Anne McElvoy amongst other) have been critiquing the supposedly ‘naive’ idea that we elect politicians on the basis of the promises they make. To do so is apparently a misunderstanding of the electoral process – what we are actually doing is putting our ‘trust’ in a politician on the basis of character and past behaviour. We cannot expect politicians to implement their manifesto – it is simply a declaration of intent, an indication of what they might do should conditions be favourable.  This philosophy may be many things, realistic, pragmatic, allowing for flexibility. What it is not, is democracy. The denigration of democracy is as brazen as with those calling for Mubarak to stay for the sake of Egyptian ‘stability’.

The centuries long struggle for democracy was not fought so we could choose one set of benevolent autocrats over another, allowing each group, once elected, to exercise discretion over how they run the country. Democracy is as its name suggests – the rule of the many – not the right of the many to be consulted only on minor affairs when the ruling elite feels like it. For a state to term itself a democracy requires nothing less than for the policies pursued by the government to be supported by the majority of the electorate. This is not to necessitate Swiss style referenda on every issue – it is inevitable that issues will arise that were unforeseen at the last election, and that therefore the people have not officially expressed an opinion on. Rather it calls for parties to clearly present a detailed platform on the key issues of the day, for the electorate to decide which platform they prefer, and for that platform to be implemented. This is hardly rocket science.

On many occasions elections lack this kind of clarity. Often they become ‘presidential’ focused on the personalities of the party leaders, rather than on the policies of the parties that they represent. Alternatively, the media’s focus can be drawn to gimmicks, relatively minor issues that leave the key areas of policy underexplored. Examples might range from real distractions such as foxhunting and MP’s expenses to apparently important ones such as education, crime, immigration control.  Those in the latter group are issues that matter, but they are trivial compared to those surrounding the economy. While, for example health and education policies may arouse much contentious debate, the biggest questions are always surrounding how much money the state is prepared to put into public services in general.  Crime and immigration are apparently high on the priority lists of many voters (tabloid headlines may just have had an influence here) but views on these are entirely shaped by how well off we feel and the state of the economy. The key issues of government revolve around tax and spending, the level of income the government is raising (and precisely who it is raising it from) and how it plans to apportion spending. This is where the key decisions lie, where millions are made winners and losers. The rest is, if not exactly irrelevant, a question of managerialism.

The 2010 election did relatively well on this front. Sure, it could have been better; if Labour had explained their financial plans in proper detail, the Tories would have been forced to do the same, and we could have chosen between two actual budgetary programmes. Still, the debate on early cuts was substantial enough to focus on the key divide, and Gordon Brown managed quite successfully to maintain the focus on the economy. There was a real choice, a majority chose one path, but the government that was formed took the other. This represents a serious democratic deficit.

What then should we do about it? Treat this as interesting, but ultimately irrelevant recent history? No, we should call for an immediate general election. The coalition government is desperate to serve a full 5 year term – get the cuts out of the way at the start, then pull out some (middle-class) crowd pleasing tax cuts at the then end of the term, hoping the electorate will have forgotten the bad news and only remember the good. Protesting against the cuts plays in to the hands of the government – who can (falsely) say they are implementing the will of the majority, against an unrepresentative minority, whose civil disobedience is an affront to majoritarianism. A far better strategy is to proclaim the goverment as illegitimate and call for a return to the polls as soon as possible. We need a one-issue election, where the focus is whether spending should be cut, at what rate, and how deficit reduction should be divided between tax increases and spending cuts. Each party should lay out their stall, with detailed figures. There are precedents for this kind of election in Britain, notably the 2 elections in 1910, on the issues of Lloyd George’s redistributive ‘peoples budget’ and on the power of the Lords to block the Commons. A more recent example is 1974 when Edward Heath called an election in response to the miner’s strike on the issue of ‘Who governs Britain?’. Calling for such an election, to choose between divergent economic strategies is the best strategy in campaigning against the current government. We’ve cheered in the Egyptian protestors from the sidelines –  now we need to start copying their methods.

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