With little evidence of how the parties will pay for their vague policy pledges, the big numbers being bandied about on NHS funding may come back to bite us elsewhere in the public spending economy
Things haven’t greatly improved since we surveyed the election scene together last week, have they?
I cannot remember a campaign in which the disdain of experts such as Paul Johnson, the near ubiquitous director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, was so loud and devoid of diplomatic euphemism when addressing the major parties’ tax and spending policies on the NHS.
‘Ministers are promising to eliminate the budget deficit and cut taxes’
Though more polite in tone than the IFS, the King’s Fund fits into the pattern of technocratic commentary from think tanks - some more disinterested than others - which are an increasing part of the policy arbitrating scene. “There has been no wholesale privatisation of the NHS,” it recently ruled (correctly).
It won’t stop Labour and other coalition critics shroud waving on the road to 7 May.
This development comes as public faith in Whitehall expertise wanes alongside civil servants’ own self-belief after decades of battering by politicians impatient for public services which deliver more for less.
Half baked reforms anyone?
- White: So far the campaign trail is lined with hollow promises
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Real or unreal terms?
Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, is also an influential technocrat and policy driver, albeit one who has kept his head down after laying out his five year plan, inviting politicians to fill the £8bn a year gap by 2020-21.
As we all heard at the weekend, George Osborne stepped up to the plate and matched rival offers. He sort of promised “a minimum real terms increase in NHS funding in the next five years”.
‘The Conservatives promptly went spraying around costly pledges’
But the IFS’s Mr Johnson was quick to point out - “deeply depressing”, he called it - that the chancellor failed to explain how he will finance it.
All this at a time when ministers are also promising to eliminate the budget deficit, cut taxes and give many voters 24/7 running hot and cold access to GPs and midwives.
Or was the midwives promise Labour’s? I do not mean to suggest there are not important differences between the main parties.
By instinct, David Cameron is a moderate Tory, pulled to the right by UKIP and his election guru, Lynton “dog whistle” Crosby, until they noticed that personal negativity (“he stabbed his brother in the back”) against Ed “I am ready” Miliband wasn’t breaking the polling stalemate.
They promptly went spraying around costly pledges on home ownership, train fares and, of course, the NHS. For the Tories this represents what immigration and excess spending are to Labour: an Achilles heel.
Laudable but alarming
Doing better than expected (from a low base) the Labour leader’s instincts are high minded and left wing: admirable in their ambition to create a fairer society; a bit scary in their application.
‘All parties promise to find money for the NHS, but as Paul Johnson says, “They make the figures up”’
We shouldn’t take too much notice of squeals from rich foreign non-doms and those (mostly much less rich) who own mansion taxable homes. One idiotic London estate agent calls Osborne “the most anti-property chancellor in history”, offensively to Lloyd George, who humbled the House of Lords, and to Osborne, whose latest inheritance tax wheeze further aids property owners at the expense of working taxpayers.
But we should take some notice of entrepreneurial and investor sentiment - they and the taxes they pay matter. All parties promise to find money for the NHS by squeezing tax avoidance (legal) and evasion (illegal), but as Mr Johnson says: “They make the figures up.”
Rich people have better accountants than the average Scottish nationalist, but the SNP ignores its experts and makes up stuff too.
Thus the Tory manifesto is forcing housing associations to follow councils and sell their best property cheaply to tenants. In the long run it will mostly benefit buy to let landlords and damage the health of the poorest at a cost to the NHS. Deplorable, but it might still work for Lynton.
Michael White writes about politics for The Guardian