General Election 2024: Five things the main parties aren't talking about this election

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) says there's a conspiracy of silence at this election - that all of the major political parties aren't being honest enough about their fiscal plans.

And it has a point. Most obviously (and this is the main thing the IFS is complaining about) none of the major manifestos - from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative parties - have been clear about how they will fill an impending black hole in the government's spending plans.

No need to go into all the gritty details, but the overarching point is that all government spending plans include some broad assumptions about how much spending (and for that matter, taxes and economic growth) will grow in the coming years. Economists call this the "baseline".

But there's a problem with this baseline - it assumes quite a slow increase in overall government spending in the next four years, an average of about 1 per cent a year after accounting for inflation. Which doesn't sound too bad - except that we all know from experience that NHS spending always grows more quickly than that, and that 1% needs to accommodate all sorts of other promises, like increasing schools and defence spending and so on.

If all those bits of government are going to consume quite a lot of that extra money (far more than a 1% increase, certainly) then other bits of government won't get as much. In fact, the IFS reckons those other bits of government - from the Home Office to the legal system - will face annual cuts of 3.5 per cent. In other words, it's austerity all over again.

But here's the genius thing (for the politicians, at least). While they have to set a baseline, to make all their other sums add up, the dysfunctional nature of the way government sets its spending budgets means it only has to fill in the small print about which department gets what when it does a spending review. And that spending review isn't due until after the election.

The upshot is all the parties can pretend they've signed up to the baseline even when it's patently obvious that more money will be needed for those unprotected departments (or else it's a return to austerity).

So yes, the IFS is right: the numbers in each manifesto, including Labour's, are massively overshadowed by this other bigger conspiracy of silence.

But I would argue that actually the conspiracy of silence goes even deeper. Because it's not just fiscal baselines we're not talking about enough. Consider five other issues none of the major parties are confronting (when I say major parties, in this case I'm talking about the Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem manifestos - to some extent the Green and Reform manifestos are somewhat less guilty of these particular sins, even if they commit others).

Taxes going up

First, for all their promises not to raise any of the major tax rates (something Labour, the Conservatives and Lib Dems have all committed to) the reality is taxes are going up. We will all be paying more in taxes by the end of the parliament compared with today.

Indeed, we'll all be paying more income tax. Except that we'll be paying more of it because we'll be paying tax on more of our income - that's the inexorable logic of freezing the thresholds at which you start paying certain rates of tax (which is what this government has done - and none of the other parties say they'll reverse).

Second, the main parties might say they believe in different things, but they all seem to believe in one particular offbeat religion: the magic tax avoidance money tree. All three of these manifestos assume they will make enormous sums - more, actually, than from any single other money-raising measure - from tightening up tax avoidance rules.

While it's perfectly plausible that you could raise at least some money from clamping down on tax avoidance, it's hardly a slam-dunk. That this is the centrepiece of each party's money-raising efforts says a lot. And, another thing that's often glossed over: raising more money this way will also raise the tax burden.

Third is another thing all the parties agree on and are desperate not to question: the fiscal rules. The government has a set of rules requiring it to keep borrowing and (more importantly given where the numbers are right now) total debt down to a certain level.

But here's the thing. These rules are not god-given. They are not necessarily even all that good. The debt rule is utterly gameable. It hasn't stopped the Conservatives from raising the national debt to the highest level in decades. And it's not altogether clear the particular measure of debt being used (net debt excluding Bank of England interventions) is even the right one.

Which raises another micro-conspiracy. Of all the parties at this election, the only one talking about whether the Bank of England should really be paying large sums in interest to banks as it winds up its quantitative easing programme is the Reform Party. This policy, first posited by a left-wing thinktank (the New Economics Foundation), is something many economists are discussing. It's something the Labour Party will quite plausibly carry out to raise some extra money if it gets elected. But no one wants to discuss it. Odd.

Brexit impact

Anyway, the fourth issue everyone seems to have agreed not to discuss is, you've guessed it, Brexit. While the 2019 election was all about Brexit, this one, by contrast, has barely featured the B word. Perhaps you're relieved. For a lot of people we've talked so much about Brexit over the past decade or so that, frankly, we need a bit of a break. That's certainly what the main parties seem to have concluded.

But while the impact of leaving the European Union is often overstated (no, it's not responsible for every one of our economic problems) it's far from irrelevant to our economic plight. And where we go with our economic neighbours is a non-trivial issue in the future.

Anyway, this brings us to the fifth and final thing no one is talking about. The fact that pretty much all the guff spouted on the campaign trail is completely dwarfed by bigger international issues they seem reluctant or ill-equipped to discuss. Take the example of China and electric cars.

Just recently, both the US and European Union have announced large tariffs on the import of Chinese EVs. Now, in America's case those tariffs are primarily performative (the country imports only a tiny quantity of Chinese EVs). But in Europe's case, Chinese EVs are a very substantial part of the market - same for the UK.

Raising the question: what is the UK going to do? You could make a strong case for saying Britain should be emulating the EU and US, in an effort to protect the domestic car market. After all, failing to impose tariffs will mean this country will have a tidal wave of cars coming from China (especially since they can no longer go to the rest of the continent without facing tariffs) which will make it even harder for domestic carmakers to compete. And they're already struggling to compete.

By the same token, imposing tariffs will mean the cost of those cheap Chinese-made cars (think: MGs, most Teslas and all those newfangled BYDs and so on) will go up. A lot. Is this really the right moment to impose those extra costs on consumers?

In short, this is quite a big issue. Yet it hasn't come up as a big issue in this campaign - which is madness. But then you could say the same thing about, say, the broader race for minerals, about net zero policy more widely and about how we're going to go about tightening up sanctions on Russia to make them more effective.

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Parochial election

Elections are always parochial but given the scale of these big, international issues (and there are many more), this one feels especially parochial.

So in short: yes, there have been lots of gaps. Enormous gaps. The "conspiracy of silence" goes way, way beyond the stuff the IFS has talked about.

But 'twas ever thus.

Read more:
Why the US is imposing 100% tariff on Chinese electric cars
Rapid steps needed for Britain to compete in green revolution

Think back to the last time a political party actually confronted some long-standing issues no one wanted to talk about in their manifesto. I'm talking about the 2017 Conservative manifesto, which pledged to resolve the mess of social care in this country, once and for all.

It sought to confront a big social issue, intergenerational inequality, in so doing ensuring younger people wouldn't have to subsidise the elderly.

The manifesto was an absolute, abject, electoral disaster. It was largely responsible for Theresa May's slide in the polls from a 20-point lead to a hung parliament.

And while most people don't talk about that manifesto anymore, make no mistake: today's political strategists won't forget it in a hurry. Hence why this year's campaign and this year's major manifestos are so thin.

Elections are rarely won on policy proposals. But they are sometimes lost on them.