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?

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