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Do Voters Even Care About The Deficit? Here's The Graph You Need To See

03/12/2014 16:37 GMT | Updated 02/02/2015 10:59 GMT

Deficit, deficit, deficit.

The political and media elites are obsessed with the D-word. Obsessed, I tell you.

The chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne used the word 13 times in his 50-minute Autumn Statement in the Commons this afternoon. His Labour counterpart, shadow chancellor Ed Balls, made three references each to the deficit and the debt and another 11 to borrowing.

There were around 100 references to the deficit in this morning's national newspapers, ahead of the Autumn Statement.

It is, we are told, time and again, ahead and after every Budget and mini-Budget, the biggest economic issue of them all. The mother of all other economic issues.

As for the proliferation of food banks, zero-hours contracts and low-paid jobs? The most sustained decline in real earnings since the mid-Victorian era? The failure to boost exports? The downgrading of growth forecasts in 2016, 2017 and 2018? 700,000 young people in the UK who have never had a job?

Who cares? 'WHAT'S THE LATEST NEWS ON THE DEFICIT?'

You have to hand it to Osborne and his spinners: they framed the debate on the economy from day one of this parliament as a debate, above all else, about borrowing, debts and deficits.

So, forget for a second the reality that the chancellor in 2010 promised to balance the books by the end of this parliament and yet that commitment is now, as Balls pointed out today, "in tatters". The deficit stands at more than £91bn this year - higher than the £87bn predicted in the budget earlier this year. ("If I was Mr Osborne," wrote Tory-supporting columnist Peter Oborne in the Telegraph, "and had missed as many deficit targets as he has, I might have chosen to keep quiet". Hubristic Osborne isn't Oborne, however.)

Ignore for a minute the way in which the misguided and failed attempts by the chancellor to tackle the deficit stifled, delayed and undermined growth, as his own Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) has pointed out - and as some of us, including Nobel Prize-winning economists such as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Christopher Pissarides, warned back in 2010 and 2011.

Put to one side for a moment the fact that Osborne's fiscal plans for the next parliament, in the words of Oxford University economist and former Bank of England adviser Simon Wren-Lewis, "are illiterate in macroeconomic terms" and "represent a shrinking of the UK state that is unprecedented".

Consider, instead, the much bigger issue: Osborne won when he persuaded Labour to fight the economic debate - and, by extension, the next general election - on his own preferred terrain of austerity, borrowing, debt and, yes, deficit.

Balls, for example, went from being 'Bloomberg Ed' in August 2010, when he savaged growth-choking cuts and called for an urgent fiscal stimulus, to 'Austerity Ed' in September 2014, when he used his Labour Party conference speech in Manchester to rule out, from the next election manifesto, "any new spending paid for by additional borrowing" and pledged to get the "deficit down" six times.

Balls is a tactician: he thinks matching Osborne's spending plans, and talking tough on the deficit, is a way of neutralising Tory attacks on Labour 'profligacy'. (He's wrong on this, by the way.)

But other Labour figures have gone further and, astonishingly, seem to have internalised Osborne's way of looking at the world - both in political and economic terms.

In September 2012, I was invited to be on a panel alongside the then shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy and shadow social care minister Liz Kendall at a Labour conference fringe meeting headlined 'What Does Labour Need To Do To Win In 2015?'

Kendall declared that voters wanted Labour to tackle the deficit in the same way that they reduce their credit card bills (ignoring the fact that the budget deficit is nothing like a credit card bill).

Murphy, meanwhile, claimed that on the eve of the next general election, voters would ask themselves which party they trusted to tackle the deficit.

Members of the audience - Labour activists and delegates, as well as political journalists and commentators - nodded in response to these bizarre, neo-Osbornite claims from two very bright and well-informed frontbenchers.

How, I wondered to myself at the time, could anyone say or believe such complete nonsense?

The truth is that voters aren't all that concerned with the budget deficit, if they even understand what exactly it is and why it (supposedly) matters. You don't tend to find people in the pub on a Friday night debating OBR forecasts for cyclically-adjusted PSNB in 2015-2016, do you?

I have said it before and I will say it again: the size or handling of the deficit isn't going to be the issue that concerns voters most when they come to cast their vote on 7 May 2015 - the NHS, an issue on which Labour leads the Tories, gets that accolade.

Don't believe me? Check out the results (below) of the ICM poll for the Guardian, published in October, which show that a mere 7% of voters cite the deficit as "the single issue that will concern you most when it comes to casting your vote".

The deficit, in fact, is ranked fifth in the list of political and economic issues that will most influence British voters come the next election, behind - among other issues - "jobs, prices and wages" (17%) and, yes, the NHS (24%).

Who'd have guessed, eh? Despite more than four straight years of deficit hysteria, the British public still look like they're a bunch of 'deficit-deniers'.

But don't tell the politicians, especially the Labour politicians, who inhabit the Westminster village. They're still dancing to the chancellor's tune.

Now, about those food banks...