LONDON (Reuters) – The stark choice faced by Britons in May’s national election is summed up nowhere more clearly than by the two men vying to be finance minister. One wants more austerity to erase the deficit, the other says it is time to talk about living standards.
The Conservatives’ George Osborne, 43, and Labour’s Ed Balls, 48, have helped define what their parties stand for. Now each is betting that the other has miscalculated the public mood as they bid to oversee the world’s sixth-largest economy – now growing again after years of painful budget cuts.
“We are getting a genuinely significant choice,” said Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a non-partisan think tank. “Voters will be choosing between two different economic visions.”
Osborne is seeking another five years to finish the challenge of wiping out what remains of one of the world’s biggest budget deficits. Balls says Britain should focus more on boosting growth and living standards, and argues Osborne’s strategy masks an ideological crusade to shrink the state.
Both want to reduce government borrowing. But Osborne aims to get rid of the deficit altogether in order to cut Britain’s debt pile faster, while Balls is happy to borrow modestly to fund long-term investment and boost growth.
It is the biggest difference between the parties since 1992 or even before, believes Johnson.
Opinion polls put the two parties neck-and-neck but show the Conservatives are more trusted to run the economy than Labour. However the Conservatives are also widely regarded as less fair, having cut welfare benefits while lowering the tax rate for Britain’s highest earners.
“When you want people to do a job, it’s the Conservatives people turn to. But they do have an Achilles’ heel, and that is fairness,” said Joe Twyman, an analyst at polling firm YouGov.
But whoever is finance minister after May might have to rework at least some of their plans. With voters drifting away from the two major parties, neither looks likely to win outright and may need to do a coalition deal with either the centrist Liberal Democrats, who favour slower deficit reduction, or the Scottish nationalists who are hostile to austerity.
The two men also present different personalities to the public.
Osborne favours appearances at factories and construction sites, wearing a hard hat and hi-vis jacket in an attempt to demonstrate a recent pick-up in wages and growth. He is gambling that this will count for more with voters than the fact that many are worse off than in 2010, and convince them that his tough spending cuts are working.
Though Balls talks of fairer policies he has a reputation as a political bruiser after years spent advising former prime minister Gordon Brown.