Belfast Telegraph

When politics is penniless, we're really feeling the pinch

By Mary Anne Sieghart

I'm afraid there's no money left, the note read. It was written, only half in jest, by the outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne. But it could have been addressed to almost any government or individual in the developed world.

As America wrestles with debt, the eurozone struggles with its members' insolvency and the rest of us try to cope with falling incomes and rising prices, a dearth of money is forcing us all to see ourselves through a different lens.

Five years ago, at the height of the absurd debt-fuelled boom, you couldn't open a magazine without reading about 'must-have' handbags costing £1,000 or more. Now people are questioning what they genuinely must have.

When food and housing take up such a large slice of their income, do they really need a car, let alone a pointless pair of designer heels? The excesses of the past look pretty sick now that we're living in what our parents might call 'reduced circumstances'.

It's not fun being poorer, but there's at least a certain satisfaction to be had in making money go further. You can now download an app that tells you not just where your nearest petrol station is, but how much it charges per litre.

The trouble is, the decline in household spending, which is necessary for people to pay off debts, is disastrous for the economy.

After the previous three recessions, in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, it was our consumer spending that dragged the economy back to growth. This time, household spending fell sharply in the first year of the downturn and has barely picked up since.

It's not surprising. Real household disposable income has been falling for two-and-a-half years, faster than at any time since the data was introduced in 1955.

At the beginning of this year, we were £8bn poorer than we were at the end of 2008. Worse may be to come. The public sector cuts have barely begun to be felt and interest rates are still artificially low. What's more, we entered the recession with lower savings and higher personal debt than in previous downturns.

Americans are facing the same problems. Like us, they lived for too long on borrowed money - both individually and as a nation.

What will this do to America's image of itself? George Bush started two wars, which have so far cost his country the equivalent of £2.4tn. Expect a lot of questioning about whether America can remain a superpower if there's no money left.

Political parties on both sides of the Atlantic are having to reassess their thinking, too. The two easiest routes to party-political popularity for Left and Right - spending and tax-cuts respectively - have been blocked by debt. No wonder people are complaining that there are no new ideas coming out of Labour. Most new policies cost money. There are a few - such as moving the clocks an hour forward, or decriminalising drugs - that might add to the happiness of the nation while actually saving money, but they're thin on the ground.

The one thing government can still do is change the rules. Ed Miliband has recently come up with some interesting ideas on responsibility, but they haven't yet coalesced into a political programme.

It's probably time for us to change our expectations of politics. We still want our politicians to do stuff and haven't quite accepted that doing stuff generally costs money.

Just as we are having to get used to austerity at home, we also need to lower our horizons as voters. If we keep demanding more from our leaders, the only reasonable response they can give is: 'I'm afraid there's no money left'.

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