Monday, 10 August 2015

Is Austerity Unpopular?

I spent almost all of my young adult life hating Thatcherism.

Mrs T came to power just before my twenty first birthday and departed only after I had turned thirty two.

From start to finish she was incredibly unpopular with me and with just about everybody else I knew.

And we didn't bother to hide our disapproval of just about everything she did: the sale of council houses; the attack on Trade Union rights; the privatisation of basic public services; the emasculation of local government; the tax cuts for the rich; the abolition of exchange controls; the cold warmongering; the mealy mouthed attitude to Apartheid South Africa; Cruise Missiles; the imperial governing of Scotland; the destruction of deep coal mining................and that's just the start. Every single one of these things was an outrage, something up with which "the people" would not put.

And against each and every one I protested, I campaigned, I threatened an electoral reckoning. And that's just the examples which come most easily to hand. Not only was I against all this, millions of us were. These policies were incredibly unpopular.

And so they were. With a minority.

For it slowly dawned, following election defeat after election defeat, defeat even after the lady herself had departed the stage and we faced only her mini-me successor, that our problem with Mrs Thatcher and her philosophy was not that it was unpopular but rather that it was actually very popular indeed. So popular that it kept winning elections and actually almost split my own Party over whether it was necessary to reach some sort of accommodation.

Sometimes (actually always) you lose elections not because of the malign influence of the Tory press tricking the working class into a false consciousness as to their objective interests but rather simply because the other side's policy offer is more attractive than your own. That, rather than any more Machiavellian explanation, is really why Mrs T roared up record majorities in 1983 and 87. It's also why the Tories held on in 1992. More people supported the Tory Manifesto (in the broadest sense) than those who supported our own. That's all. The rest was just process.

The fact that our side were outraged about this, much more outraged than we'd ever been about Harold McMillan or Ted Heath* counted for literally nothing. There are no extra votes in being "really, really" opposed to the Tories.

And I wonder if we are making the same mistake over "austerity". "Everybody" is apparently opposed to austerity. Well actually, not everybody. Certainly not those who voted Tory: probably most of those who stood by the Liberal Democrats and certainly not those who voted UKIP in the belief that the Tories were too left wing.**

But what actually is austerity? In the proper sense it is neither left wing or right wing. It is not for nothing that Attlee's second chancellor was known as "austerity" Cripps. Austerity per se is simply an economic strategy based on living within your means. That can be done by lower government expenditure (Osborne austerity) or higher taxation (Cripps austerity). And living within the Country's means is the responsibility of every government.*** If you don't you do end up like Greece, or Argentina before it.

And some of even Osborne's austerity is presumably supported by the left. The reduced Defence expenditure; the de facto widening of the 40% tax band; the limited targeting of Child Benefit.

No, what in reality is meant by the shorthand condemnation of "austerity", is condemnation of two specific aspects of how Osborne proposes to balance the budget: Firstly, by cutting the benefits received, and placing increased conditionality of their receipt at all, by the long term unemployed**** and, secondly, by attacking the wages and conditions of public service workers.

Now, these two things are incredibly unpopular with those affected. But, and this involves some hard reality, are they really unpopular with everybody else?

Well, actually, no.

The "benefit cap" is really a Housing Benefit cap. And, do you know, do I think that lots of taxpayers are happy to subsidise the rent that allows others to live in parts of the country where the self same taxpayers could not possibly afford to live themselves? Somehow I doubt it. Actually I don't doubt it. The polling is clear. Just as it is equally clear that, excepting those who have made that choice themselves, virtually nobody supports unemployment at public expense as being a legitimate lifestyle choice.

And, while I know that some, even most, public sector workers work very hard for little reward, do even I think that is anything like a unanimous condition? Or that outrage, on the part of the self same public sector workers, to a freeze on unnecessary recruitment or restrictions on annual increments provokes widespread sympathy with their outrage? To be honest, I suspect it provokes rather a reverse outrage as to why unnecessary recruitment was being contemplated in the first place or indeed why anybody, in this day and age, gets a guaranteed pay rise for doing nothing more than serving time at their work, irrespective of their performance in the job or of the ability of their employer to pay

The Labour Party for good and historic reasons attracts into its membership those more naturally concerned for the condition of the poor. And the pattern of decline of industrial Trade Unionism is such that those working in the public sector are now hugely disproportionate among our affiliated membership. So, for obvious reasons both "wings" of our movement are self selecting when it comes to opposition to this "austerity". If we were in office and did not have to worry about getting re-elected these things would not be happening. Since some attempt would be needed to get the deficit under control I suspect other pretty unpalatable things would be happening but it wouldn't be these things. Actually, I suspect that internally within the Party there would be a majority for solving the problem by an increase in general taxation. There remains however a dim realisation that this would be electorally toxic. So we are left with the only option of pretending that increased and indefinite borrowing is not equally electorally toxic because "everybody" is opposed to "austerity". Unfortunately that's not true. No matter how much we would like it to be. The polling on that is equally clear. Day to day living is equally clear.

Now, it is possible to build an impressive rainbow coalition of the angry, around bleeding heart liberal professionals and (insofar as they vote) their clients; around public sector trade unionists and around that small part of the youth vote with any interest at all in politics. The problem is that this rainbow is several colours short of the full spectrum necessary to win an election. And that the priorities of its limited membership are positively repellent to any other refracted light.

That's the realisation that seems lost on those swept up in Corbynmania. They cannot grasp that what is unpopular with them is not what is unpopular with the Country. That just because it is very unpopular with them and (some of it at least)  only half heartedly popular elsewhere (and then only still) with people NOT REALLY INTERESTED IN POLITICS AT ALL! or ONLY INTERESTED IN THEIR OWN POCKET! or INDIFFERENT TO THE MISERY OF OTHERS! that this really makes any difference at all. Everybody only has one vote. Our job is to attract it, not to write it off. That's democracy.

So let's be clear. It may be that fighting "austerity" is morally the right thing for Labour to do, that's almost a different argument.  But anybody who thinks that this will be popular with the voters we need to attract to actually get elected is to confuse the views of these voters with the views of those arguing with them.

And would you vote for someone who starts off  wanting to argue with you?


*Actually, I was quite outraged at Ted. I'd probably have been outraged at McMillan as well but I was only three at the time.

**I appreciate that's not the totality of the UKIP vote but it's a fair chunk.

***Even Keynes thought it necessary to balance the budget over an economic cycle. Even Syriza do. They just think (probably correctly) that, starting from here and without default,  this is impossible for Greece to do without debt relief.

****Cutting benefits for the working poor is a different matter entirely in the popularity stakes. As the Tories may learn to their cost in due course.


  1. Why not start balancing the budget and getting the deficit under control by scrapping Trident , criminalising corporate tax evaders and clawing back , a major curtailment of Royalty , non funding of illegal wars etc. etc. etc..

    Your piece is a Red Tory rationalisation and an insult to socialism , and an especial insult to youth.

    Of course we have to argue. Maintain and persuade by reasoning. Isn't that what you are attempting in your article ?

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