England & Wales

Our politicians need to get real and follow the example of local government

The start of the campaign was characterised by one “C” word – cuts. For a couple of weeks Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg all talked tough on public spending reductions. The Government delivered a tough-ish PBR, David Cameron promised “swingeing cuts” and Nick Clegg promised to do for Trident.

This “C” word, however, has since receded from view. It has been consigned to the semantic dustbin along with a couple of inconvenient “D” words like “Deficit”, “Default” and “DearGodThatsALotofMoneyWeOwe”. Jonathan Lanchester has a good piece on this admission of responsibility here.

In the past couple of weeks another “C” word has bubbled to the surface – coalition. Again, however, the politicians have attempted to duck a difficult issue. They have resorted to threatening voters with the dire consequences of a hung Parliament in the hope of securing an overall majority.

The electoral maths and public finance sums, however, are non-negotiable realities. The simple fact is that a new Chancellor will be required to set out unpopular measures to rein in public spending within months of taking office. These cuts will probably need to be agreed with some kind of cross-party support.

From a local government point of view, of course, squeamishness about cuts and coalitions looks a bit indulgent. Making tough choices in an era of three party politics is already a reality for many Councillors. As Andy has pointed out previously:

There are many very effective formal and informal power sharing agreements in place in local authorities. These arrangements prove surprisingly durable in local government, often lasting over a four year political cycle, as in the high profile examples in Birmingham and Leeds since 2006.

These councils are already taking tough choices to ensure that they are prepared for an era of cuts of up to 20 per cent. Birmingham City Council, the country’s largest local authority, drew up plans in February to make up to 2000 workers redundant.

The gap between this pragmatism, and the unreality of the national election debate, is extraordinary.