Liberal Distraction

The economy had been rather sidelined in the election campaign over the last week or so, as the media obsessed over the prospect of a hung parliament and speculated about the possible makeup of potential coalitions. A cynical observer (like me) might conclude that the attention given to Nick Clegg and the unlikely rise of the Liberal Democrats has been designed to distract us from the fact that all the main parties have essentially the same prescription for reducing the deficit, one that involves sharp cuts in public spending.

The intensity of the coming pain was hinted at in a report released today by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which predicts a return to the sort of austerity not seen since the 70’s, or, in the case of the Tories’ plans, since the war, and notes that all the leading parties have been less than forthcoming on where the axe is going to fall.

The whole thing is rather dispiriting, though I guess it’s just about possible to imagine something good coming out of it all eventually. If the opinion polls are accurate and the election result is inconclusive, then one or other of Labour or the Tories will have to court the Lib Dems, who are likely to demand electoral reform as the price of their support, and a fairer voting system will give left parties more of a chance.

The austerity measures, when they come, are bound to generate some sort of public reaction, as we’re seeing in Greece. If we can do some work now to establish the framework of a left-led anti-cuts campaign, we could be in a position to make an advance when the next election comes, which might be sooner rather than later if past experience with hung parliaments in the UK is anything to go by.

So Nick Clegg might end up being an agent of real change after all, in ways he never intended.

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