Voters in British election (and in US) deserve details about deficit cuts

Remarkably, candidates in the British election agree on a time frame to cut a record deficit. But, as in the US, they're sketchy on details about deficit cuts.

Britain’s national election looks remarkably like the American political scene.

For the first time, the leading candidates took part in televised debates. Conservative challenger David Cameron even adopted the “hope” and “change” slogans of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

The British don’t feel particularly hopeful. Last year, they suffered the largest drop in economic output since the 1920s. Recovery is fragile. Voters also feel cynical toward politicians (a scandal over expenses by members of Parliament last year tainted all parties). Labour has been in power for 13 years, most of them under Tony Blair.

Like the famous and growing independent voters of the United States, the British have become “much less tribal” in party loyalty, as the BBC puts it. The election may result in a hung parliament, where no single party wins a majority. Because of the lack of fealty, the traditional underdogs, the Liberal Democrats, have enjoyed a surge.

As in the US, the economy is the top issue in Britain, where people also worry about the budget deficit. At nearly 12 percent of economic output, it’s the country’s highest peacetime deficit.

But here’s a departure that America’s politicians should note: All three major parties in Britain agree that they must radically reduce the deficit by the end of the next Parliament. And they say it will take a combination of tax increases and spending cuts – emphasis on cuts.

And yet even this very general agreement on a timeline and approach (allowing for rhetorical and some substantive differences) is sorely lacking in Washington. Disappointingly, the Senate could not even approve a debt commission to recommend binding deficit reductions. Instead, Mr. Obama had to come up with his own bipartisan panel – one without teeth. The group will not make recommendations until after the November elections, putting no politicians on the line.

When Moody’s credit raters warn both the US and Britain of a possible downgrade in their ratings because of high debt and deficits, it’s time to get serious about deficit reduction. The International Monetary Fund, too, has warned that the world’s advanced economies should begin to rein in spending soon – like next year.

While Britain’s competing parties might share broad fiscal goals, they haven’t shared many details with the public on how to reach them. What they’ve talked about are small steps – the Conservatives would make some immediate spending cuts this year and Labour would raise the national social welfare tax slightly. But none of these measures comes even close to filling the budget gap. And none of the candidates is owning up to the scale of the sacrifices needed, or seeking voter buy-in for the tough choices that lie ahead.

Campaigns based on sacrifice are considered politically harmful. But voters in both countries may be in front of the politicians this time. They’re watching the financial markets punish Greece for its overspending and they’re expressing concern about deficits at home.

Whether in Britain or the US, voters deserve the details on how political candidates plan to tackle pressing fiscal imbalances. They are owed an informed choice so that they may hold their leaders accountable.

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