Politicians Lie Because Voters Punish them for Telling the Truth

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Here’s a question: do you fancy some free money?

If your answer was “Yes, please”, then congratulations, you’re a typical British voter.

Ask voters if they would prefer a tax rise or a tax cut, and you don’t have to be Albert Einstein to work out what most people will choose for their own personal finances.

Ask those very same voters if they want more of taxpayers’ money to be spent on vital public services like the NHS, schools, social services, roads, railways, housing – indeed, pretty much anything – and the answer will also be a resounding Yes.

Tax cuts and more spending is what voters want. And so that is usually what politicians tell them they will get.

Which is of course a big fat lie because it is nigh on impossible to do both – certainly not in the long term – and particularly when you’re a government facing a £1.4trillion debt mountain.

And yet our politicians will keep looking us in the eye and telling us that we can get more for less, and we will look right back at them and, like the long-suffering but devoted wife of an interminable adulterer, we will choose to trust them and believe that this time things will be different.

This past couple of days have provided a classic example of this nudge-nudge-wink-wink game that politicians and voters play with each other.

In the wake of George Osborne’s final Budget of this Parliament on Wednesday, both the Tories and Labour are now facing demands for them to be more honest with voters about what they are really planning to do after May 7.

The highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has called on Mr Osborne to spell out precisely how he plans to cut welfare spending by £12billion in the next Parliament so voters know what and who will be hit hardest.

And Labour don’t fare much better as the IFS also criticised them for their plans to tackle the deficit amid suspicion that their “less explicit” plans would actually involve more hefty borrowing (and therefore higher interest costs) than Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls is currently admitting to.

The trouble with spelling out specific cuts – as both Labour and the Tories have learned to their cost in the past – is that, in doing so, you also spell out specific victims of those cuts. And while there is no reward from voters relieved it isn’t them who will be hit hardest, there is an instant penalty from voters who do pay the price.

Do voters deserve more honesty from politicians? Absolutely. But honesty works both ways. If we want our politicians to be honest with us, we need to stop punishing them at the ballot box for telling us the cold harsh truth.

We must stop allowing ourselves to be bought off with pre-election bribes and promises of jam today, with yet more jam tomorrow.

We’re constantly being told that voters have lost trust in politicians because they don’t tell us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

But we’d much rather be told a pack of soft-soaped lies than face up to the fiscal realities of 21st century Britain.

So it’s all very well for economists to call for all the political parties to tell voters their post-election spending plans in full, but is it really any wonder that they don’t? After all, we voters have a very poor record when it comes to rewarding politicians who are honest with us. Indeed, the British electorate has a long and ignoble tradition of punishing the political parties that are.

In the run-up to the last general election, the Tories saw their poll lead crash to single figures in December 2009 after they were honest about their plans for deeper, faster cuts than Labour was planning in a bid to cut the vast national debt.

Despite their honesty, this rare openness about how serious the financial situation really was did not get rewarded by voters. Quite the opposite. Voters deserted the Tories in their droves and it took some time for them to recover their poll lead – and then only after they pretended to backtrack on their plans to slash public spending.

Moments after settling in behind their desks in Whitehall, of course, the Coalition ministers announced that, oh dear, things were much worse than they’d thought and now they would have to instigate all those cuts after all.

And Labour weren’t much better, insisting things weren’t as bad as they really were only for the lie to be exposed when the outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Liam Byrne, penned a handwritten note to his successor, saying: “Dear Chief Secretary, I’m afraid that there is no money. Kind regards and good luck.”

Whoever gets into power after May 7, whether it’s a majority, minority or a coalition government, one thing we can be sure of is that what happens next will have very little to do with what they tell us before polling day.

Why? Because our politicians will have lied to us once again. And once again we will have chosen to believe them. They don’t tell us the truth because, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men, we can’t handle the truth.