George Osborne’s final Budget of the Parliament is just weeks away, and everyone’s eager to watch him produce a few wallet-enhancing rabbits from the hat. And to do so, if possible, without detracting from the background music: a catchy number called ‘Our Long Term Economic Plan Is Working (But We Need To Finish The Job)’.

Aside from deficit reduction, though, there is another self-imposed financial constraint which all sides, with lesser or greater enthusiasm, have accepted. While the Conservatives’ message on the deficit is ‘leave it to the grown ups’, the support across parties for the ring fencing of departmental budgets is – far more quietly and insidiously – infantilising the national debate. It should be questioned wherever possible before the election.

This isn’t new: the Coalition Agreement included a ‘guarantee that health spending increases in real terms in each year of the Parliament’, interpreted by many as an attempt to detoxify the Tories’ brand on the issue of the NHS. The tactic was continued throughout the Parliament, amidst criticism from both left and right. With an election approaching, however, and mainstream media to be wooed, it’s clear that all sides still regard the approach as good politics. While the NHS bidding war has been revived and continues to escalate, another costly ring fencing commitment, on schools, has resurfaced as an election battleground.

Isn’t this just how politics works? Why does it matter?

The most obvious and well documented reason is the impact of ring fencing such substantial budgets on other areas of government spending. We’ve heard mutterings of rebellion from the so-called National Union of Ministers, misgivings from the Treasury Select Committee, and increasingly stark analysis from the ever-respected Institute for Fiscal Studies. Local government has been particularly badly affected, seeing headline cuts of 37% from 2010 to 2015/16 according to the National Audit Office. To be fair, although it has helped them to shift the blame for cuts, the Government’s early and genuinely localist move to de-ringfence local government grants should be acknowledged. But it’s hardly the stuff that sets manifestos or party political broadcasts alight, and in some ways that’s precisely the problem.

More fundamentally, but perhaps less well discussed outside the political press, a debate on spending levels is almost completely irrelevant without a debate on outcomes. ‘Spending more’ is consistently used as political shorthand both for ‘caring more’ and for ‘doing better’, even though the links are often tenuous or unproven – as this article argues powerfully on the schools question in particular. Yes, we should ask how much money we are spending, but also about what value that gets us. How will the money be spent differently or more effectively than it has been in the past? What are the outcomes we’re trying to achieve? What are the solutions which will help us get there? Might those outcomes and solutions be different in different localities?

A failure to engage with these questions has also pervaded the running battle over NHS funding. In recent months, the arguments have largely been framed by Simon Stevens’ wide-ranging review. The five year NHS plan has quickly provoked an arms race between the parties, who have been vying to write the largest cheque to help meet the £30bn funding gap which, Stevens projects, will emerge by 2020/21. The Lib Dems stepped up with a pledge to inject £8bn, the additional amount Stevens says is needed alongside significant efficiency savings. This was accompanied with a call for a greater focus on mental health treatment as a key preventative tool and a plea for a cross-party review of NHS budgetary pressures. But these subtleties were largely overlooked by all sides in their presentation of the issue. The headline to take away, from the Lib Dem perspective, was simply that the Lib Dems were throwing down the gauntlet to the other parties to dig deeper in the coffers for more taxpayers’ money.

For their part, Labour were quick to cast doubt on how much of this pledge represented ‘new money’. Much like the ‘real terms vs. cash terms’ quibbles which also crop up throughout the spending wars, this is important on its own terms, but again misses the wider point of how the money – new or not – will be invested in securing better outcomes.

If we’re lucky, some kind soul will occasionally translate billions of pounds into thousands of nurses to help us get our little heads around what it all means. But that is no less crass and uninformative a way to fill the vacuum. Crucially, plans from any party to address the bulk of Stevens’ challenges – including the far greater sum of £22bn he identified as needing to be found from efficiencies and new ways of working, such as a shift in emphasis towards preventative care – were nowhere to be seen in the headlines.

This is at the crux of how arguments over ring fencing are damaging politics. Making trade offs – such as between investment in acute and preventative health interventions – is a messy, brave business. It’s also profoundly media-unfriendly. (It also, incidentally, seems likely to work far better when carried out on a comprehensible scale, rather than across a nation of millions.)

It’s far easier to keep throwing money at a problem than to say, ‘We can get better value by being more radical – but that means we might not be able to have our x-thousand nurses after all, and we have to decide collectively if we can live with that.’ It’s far less hassle to announce a ring fence than to say, ‘We’re going to invest heavily in early years provision because the evidence says it’ll make the greatest impact on inequality and productivity. Some of the cash could even come from schools budgets. Let’s have that debate – having a debate doesn’t make us anti-education’.

Unfortunately this brave, messy business is basically the cornerstone of what politics should be about. We need to support and champion those – whether from politics, government, the media or civil society – who are prepared to step up to the challenge of engaging with these issues. It’s only by showing that we are ready for this mature debate that we will get it.

The final Budget before the most unpredictable election in generations is perhaps not the place to look for sophisticated messaging. But as May 7th gets closer and the spending wars get bloodier, the question of how we can turn political energies towards breaking down silos, rather than building up fences, is becoming increasingly pertinent. It’s one that we need to keep asking. 

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