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Political parties and elections

There’s more on the table at this election than Brexit and security – it’s time we had a proper debate


This is clearly a very different sort of general election campaign. Conducted in advance of a Brexit process that will profoundly reshape Britain, the focus is on the nature of the deal and the leadership qualities of those vying to negotiate it. The tragic and horrific events in Manchester last week have understandably shifted the debate to terrorism and security.

Naturally, these issues are central, but there’s a risk we will miss out on serious discussion of the economic challenges facing voters and the country. The key themes are noticeable only by their absence. In 2010 and 2015, a leadership hopeful scarcely breathed without mentioning living standards or the deficit. Few voters will be feeling nostalgic for such over-trodden ground, but it’s high time we went back over it.

The shift away from living standards as an election-defining issue might be because on the fundamental question of whether families will be better or worse off in the coming years, the outlook is disastrous. We’re facing down a parliament containing the toxic combination of stagnant incomes overall, falling incomes for the poorer half of the population and the biggest increase in inequality since Thatcher.

Voters are heading to the polling booths with their pay packets shrinking for only the third time since the Second World War. Politicians love to talk about the sunny uplands of the coming years. Instead, faced with the grim prospect of millions of families getting poorer, we’ve decided to file living standards away in the ‘too depressing to deal with’ folder.

What’s happening to family budgets matters far more to people now than talk of article 50. Of course, some elements of the forthcoming squeeze are linked to the decision to leave the EU, such as the rising cost of imports driving up the prices we pay in shops. But far from all of them are related to this.

There are real, non-Brexit related choices on how to weather the coming living standards storm, but there is worryingly little to differentiate the main parties’ approaches. The vast majority of huge Conservative welfare cuts announced in the last parliament will be rolled out in the next one, cuts that will make the poorest third of households worse off by more than £1,000 per year. Labour, the party that exists to represent the families that are due to suffer most, plans to keep more than three-quarters of them in place.

The return of the squeeze on living standards will be the issue that voters feel most acutely in the coming years. Economists talk of little else and it’s time politicians spoke up.

On the other election buzz-theme of old – state spending and the deficit – you could be forgiven for thinking that there is a similar lack of choice in terms of what the main parties have to offer. Theresa May’s belief that the state can and should be a force for good marks a significant move away from Thatcherism. Labour, clearly wanting to demonstrate its fiscal credibility, has costed to the billion each of its current spending commitments and funded them through tax-raising measures, rather than borrowing. You can question whether their sums will add up and what will happen if they don’t. But we should credit their candidness in being up front on tax rises, something that chancellors have tended to tell voters about only after elections have taken place.

Despite these shifts, there is an ocean of clear water between the Labour and Conservative views on levels of public spending and how they should change. Labour’s suite of tax increases would raise government receipts relative to GDP to their highest level since the mid-1980s. This means significantly more money to spend on public services in an expansive programme of nationalisations and investment in health, schools, higher education and childcare. In contrast, the Conservatives plan to carry on along the road of spending cuts that we’ve been on for the past seven years. They’re the only party committed to ending the deficit, albeit 10 years later than they originally said.

As well as the maths of spending plans, there are big questions around delivery. The Conservatives want to trim further fat off a public sector that’s been aggressively stripped in recent years. And this is a public sector staffed by workers deflated by years of capped pay, raising real quality risks. Labour wants to bring a host of our key utilities back under the control of a government machine already creaking under the strain of the technical, diplomatic and political challenge of bringing about Brexit. Neither approach looks at all straightforward.

The point is that on both the vision and its delivery, there is a genuine choice between the two main parties in terms of how big we want the state to be and what we want it to do. It’s time this choice is clearly articulated and debated. Don’t let anyone tell you that they’re all the same.

As well as the two key economic themes of previous elections, a new one deserves more airtime – the longer-term living standards concern of fairness between the generations.

Both parties have taken on the rhetoric of intergenerational fairness with gusto. Theresa May has identified it as one of the country’s five giant challenges. Jeremy Corbyn’s plan to build a Britain that works for the many has a strong intergenerational flavour. And they are both singing from a similar hymn sheet on the key intergenerational issue of housing, where each acknowledges the need for both a stronger government hand in housebuilding and more stability for those renting privately.

But, as with the deficit, there are big differences between each party’s approach to intergenerational equity. The Conservatives want to reduce pensioner benefits slightly and harness older people’s estates, rather than working people’s taxes, to fund their social care plans. Labour is making a big play on tuition fees and school spending. There are merits to both approaches from an intergenerational perspective and we should have a proper debate about what the best package for repairing the intergenerational contract looks like. This also means discussing supposedly ‘off-limits’ issues such as the right balance between income and wealth taxation for meeting the needs of an ageing society.

The big picture is that on both the old and new economic questions there are either real differences between the two main parties that we should be debating or a lack of choice that we should be challenging when it comes to the living standards squeeze that’s weighing heavily on voters. The backdrop of leaving the EU to go it alone in a less secure world shouldn’t preclude these debates. After all, these are the issues that will determine what it actually feels like to live in post-Brexit Britain.

This article originally appeared in The Observer