What's at stake?

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Party conference season is over again for another year and those of us who have to go to all three breathe a long sigh of relief. But it is worth pausing to consider what is at stake at the election when it comes to public spending.

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Vidhya Alakeson

Each of the parties has a different goal for deficit reduction. The Tories are committed to closing the deficit and achieving a surplus by 2018-19 and want to include all types of Government spending in their calculations. Labour is committed to balancing the books, not creating a surplus, and will do so 'as soon as possible' in the next parliament and exclude capital spending from its considerations. The Lib Dems fall somewhere between the two, intending to balance the budget by 2017-18 and exclude some forms of investment spending.

From all of this technical detail, some very different implications emerge. If the Tories stick to their plans, they will need to find £37bn worth of new cuts to Government spending in addition to the £9bn that are already planned for 2015-16. The Chancellor announced this would all be done without tax rises, which means major cuts to spending on benefits, tax credits and departmental budgets, even before they find £7bn for the tax cuts they plan to offer. Education spending will not be protected.

In the case of Labour, a lot rests on how they define 'as soon as possible'. If this turns out to be the last year of the parliament, they need many fewer cuts. On top of the £9bn in 2015-16 they have committed to, there would only be a further £4bn or so to find. The Lib Dems have said they would not expect spending cuts to do all the work to close the deficit and promised to protect early years and schools funding.

It matters who wins the next election. For early education and childcare, another major round of cuts will put untenable pressure on children's centres and keep funding for the free entitlement flat. Further cuts to tax credits will mean less in the pockets of parents to spend on childcare. The only saving grace may be that the economy recovers more strongly than expected and these bleak scenarios prove to be a little less grey.

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