Free Your Mind. Vote for What You Believe In and Don’t Let Cod Economics Cloud Your Judgement

Politicians tell us that elections are about the economy. Incumbents ask us to judge them on their record, challengers on promises that they will make things better.

In truth, most of any government’s economic choices are about how it spends the money it raises in taxes, how much it raises and from whom. Those decisions are generally political rather than economic. And when economics does have a bearing on choices, the room for manoeuvre for any government tends to be fairly limited.

The reality is that most of the heavy lifting when it comes to management of the UK’s £1.9 trillion economy is done by the central bank, the Bank of England. Chancellors have to balance the books, but they do that by taking from Peter to give to Paul - and those are mostly political choices.

What we are voting on are political choices based on values

Which is why it’s surprising that this and almost every other election campaign is infused with so much economic lingo. Economics - probably because it makes use of numbers and complicated formulas - is used to give political choices a rigour, respectability and sense of inevitability they wouldn't otherwise have.

And yet voters are being asked to decide on who they vote for based on a judgement on who makes the most sense on the economy.

In strict economic terms, there is very little in it. What we are voting on are political choices based on values. So, if  you hold dear having universal public services, you don't mind paying our share of taxes and believe in fairness over choice, you would probably vote for one of the parties on the left. If you value individual liberty above most other things, believe the government should be as small as needed or you're concerned about immigration, you’d probably put your “x” in one of the boxes that represent parties on the right.

One of the biggest decisions of the last parliament, presented with an air of economic inevitability that made opposing it very difficult, was George Osborne’s so-called “emergency budget” in June 2010. With the enthusiastic support of the Liberal Democrats, Osborne used the crisis in Greece to say that Britain would suffer a similar fate unless there was a rapid retrenchment of government spending.

we shouldn't let one party scare us into thinking that another party is going to damage the economy

Osborne outlined plans to pare back the size of the state to where it had been before Gordon Brown started expanding it as chancellor. Osborne said it was to avert a crisis, but he could have chosen to close the budget gap by raising more in tax rather than putting most of the emphasis on cuts. Those were overwhelmingly political choices, not economic ones.

Had they been economic decisions, Osborne wouldn't have eased those austerity plans two years later. Neither would he have agreed to cut the starting rate of income tax, which - taken together over the last Parliament - has been the biggest tax cut in history. Neither would he have cut the 50p tax rate for the very richest.

If the priority had been to avert an economic crisis, he would have stuck to his guns and focused on reducing the budget deficit. Instead, he cut taxes and continued to reduce the size of the state. Those are political choices, just as Labour’s decision to expand the NHS after 2001 was a political choice.

So, as we go into the voting booths, we shouldn't let one party scare us into thinking that another party is going to damage the economy. Our economy is huge, and a billion here or there spent on one thing or another will make very little difference in the long run.

Who we vote for will make a difference because it will shape the kind of society we live in, it will set the tone for the kind of country we are and for the things we value.

We would never dream of telling you how to vote. But the one thing we would say to Cameron, Miliband and the others is that it’s not about the economy, stupid.

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About the author

Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.

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