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The Cruddas review doesn’t undermine Corbyn – it shows an anti-cuts, pro-growth message can win

Jon CruddasOur appetite for cuts is abstract. Ask the median voter if they support ‘balancing the books’, and of course – as Jon Cruddas’ independent review into Labour’s election loss points out – the answer will be a resounding ‘yes.’ The intuitive analogy of household budget and national economy has been honed by the Conservatives for decades, and no-one wants ‘too much debt’; especially as we all agree the banking crisis was caused in some sense by debt – whether we’re attributing it to cheap credit, Consolidated Debt Obligations, or the vulnerability of public finances.

Ask the median voter if they want their local library closed, nurses sacked at the hospital or the council to leave their bins an extra few days and their response will be very different; even when it comes to benefits and even including lobby groups like Keep Britain Tidy, hardly tribunes of the proletarian revolution. So much so that the Health Service Journal says we need a ‘reality check on public expectations.’

On one hand is the received wisdom on the economy handed down from Conservative policymakers and their Blairite fellow-travellers, mediated by the press and chiming with a householder’s common sense. On the other is the common sense of what works locally (and the political utility of the latter is that an effective grassroots machine can drum up support for say, maintaining the local Sure Start centre, far more than one can mobilise for austerity in the abstract.)

The contradiction is often bridged with an equally abstract notion of ‘government waste’, fuelled by entirely fair concerns about MPs expenses, highly-paid senior government staff or local government bosses and the kind of individual departmental failures that we all love to mock.

The contradiction might be bridged with ‘soft’ cuts. But austerity leaves no place for that. Skimming around the edges will not fix the deficit anyway, and austerity is about hard cuts. Those who do not sign up to a ritualised slash-and-burn agenda do not, quite literally, make the cut.

Jon Cruddas’ interpretation of his review showing that the Conservatives won for being pro-austerity elides that contradiction.

The first hard truth is that the Tories didn’t win despite austerity, they won because of it. Voters did not reject Labour because they saw it as austerity lite. Voters rejected Labour because they perceived the Party as anti-austerity lite.

As Jeremy Corbyn rightly points out, the word ‘austerity’ is not mentioned by the survey. I suspect that many voters still have no idea what it really means. ‘Austere’, after all, is not a word much used in everyday conversation. The framing is ‘we must live within our means so cutting the deficit is the top priority’. There goes that household formulation again.

Quite obviously voters said that. There was no reason not to. The ‘structural deficit’ became the shibboleth of British politics shortly after the banking crisis while Labour vacillated – even though the notion that Labour failed to ‘fix the roof while the sun was shining’ is silly.

‘Deficit’ and ‘debt’ were conflated, often in lurid arguments such as those that pointed out the tens of thousands of pounds that every individual household apparently owes, through an odd use of statistics. Other economic indicators just as important as the deficit – such as the trade deficit or declining living standards– were written out (because the budget deficit is the only figure that justifies swinging the axe at public services.) And between 2010 and 2015, Conservative message discipline was ruthless and absolute. By the winter of 2012 Labour was agreeing not to reverse many Conservative cuts, to adopt a pay freeze and to conduct a zero-based review, at the same time as it made oppositional noises over the benefit cap. In the face of what was meant to be triangulation but looked like incoherence, it is entirely unsurprising that Labour was not ‘trusted on the economy.’

This Sheffield study reaffirms that the public believe austerity is necessary – but also that a majority believe it is a) unfair, b) being done too quickly and c) having an impact on their life. Its author concludes, fairly, that one must therefore accept austerity or adopt a radical critique. Acceptance, though, is Sisyphian. Because accepting the cuts means accepting not just an economic framework but a Puritan conception of the good in tackling the profligate state, a confessional catharsis of past mistakes for Labour and of course, bringing the deficit down rapidly. The more the left accepts cuts, the more that will be demanded of it. The more ground it cedes to the opposition, the more the opposition can dictate the questions.

The electorate voted for fiscal responsibility. But as the statement on wealth distribution reveals the electorate also holds radical opinions on the economy.

Labour ‘not being trusted on the economy’ and ‘spending too much’ usually come as a couplet. I suspect one can be divorced from the other. The reaction of some of Cruddas’ respondents is interesting – “[Labour] had no real message except ‘spend, spend, spend.” In short, Labour failed to develop a comprehensive alternative argument. The most common complaint against Labour was that Ed was weak. Are we certain that was just due to him being a bit dorky, or more down to the perception that Labour collectively wasn’t offering anything strong?

What the left was saying all along has been vindicated. Labour accepted the fundamentals of austerity. So did the Tories. With no-one of prominence communicating something other than the need for austerity, it became received wisdom – the biggest possible gift to the Conservatives.

Cruddas may have interpreted his review in a specific (and in my opinion, mistaken) way, but unlike many of Corbyn’s opponents he has not been intentionally disingenuous. He has made clear that the majority of respondents want a society that redistributes wealth, and believe the current system favours powerful interests – the latter holding true across the political spectrum.

Miliband’s left turns played well. The energy and rent price freeze promises were hugely successful. There is an appetite for that kind of populism, one demonstrated by the sheer number of Corbyn policies that the electorate support. Those are areas where Labour can occupy the high ground, and it therefore makes far more sense to push hard in those areas rather than appealing to Conservative notions of fiscal discipline, where in order to outflank Osborne, one has to become Osborne.

It is worth briefly dealing with the review’s other assertions.

‘31 per cent of voters simply don’t know what Labour stands for.’

That is surely an argument against continuity machine politics and for a bold, clear vision – as this Patrick Wintour piece on Labour’s loss also evidences.

The idea of an anti-austerity alliance with the SNP is unacceptable to a majority of English and Welsh voters.

This is also profoundly unsurprising. Lynton Crosby’s spin machine was very clear on this, and the press were duly instructed to produce as many terror-inducing pieces on the SNP as possible. Labour walked straight into the trap set for them – unable to look credible in saying they would refuse to work with the SNP given projected election results, and also without the will to defend their fellow left-wingers. Just as with the argument that austerity is necessary, they provided the support for the ‘SNP is evil’ argument that also proved their undoing.

Labour will need to develop a more federal politics to accommodate the paradoxes of radical and conservative dispositions and our national cultural differences.

If Cruddas here is hinting at the need for separate Labour Parties in the regions then that is entirely fair. Yet in my view one does not ‘accommodate’ a paradox, one attempts to resolve it.

Moreover, while heading up Labour’s policy review, Cruddas was quite rightly a believer in both bold offers and hard evidence-based public policy, as outlined in this excellent piece. Neither of those are effectively captured by a desire to ‘accommodate paradoxes.’

The message I take from our poll findings is that the electorate in England and Wales is both economically radical and fiscally conservative. But first comes fiscal responsibility, then economic reform. On the basis of the data, the public appear to think anti-austerity is a vote loser – we cannot ignore that. We can seek to change the views of the public, but it’s best not to ignore them.

If voters want redistribution and no borrowing then surely the obvious answer is what Corbyn already has mooted – a deficit reduction plan based on modest tax rises/loophole closures, the revenues of higher living standards and the nationalisation of public utilities that will end the bizarre paradox of the state pouring money through the backdoor at increasingly unaffordable private services.

The review makes necessary reading. No-one says that it isn’t important to listen to what the electorate think of parties. But as I wrote a few weeks ago, the electorate is disparate and mutable, and as Cruddas’ review writes, it holds conflicting impulses on the economy. Cruddas himself agrees that an attempt can be made to change the electorate’s mind. (I also noted elsewhere that pitching to the centre is not a viable electoral strategy, and a resurgent Corbynite left that I feel will have few qualms about abandoning Labour should a right-wing programme be adopted further strengthens the notion that the 1-2% of centre-right swing voters are not the biggest or only polling concern for Labour.)

I happen to believe that attempt is better made through a clear, free-standing vision than providing succour to establishment wisdom. Voters do not identify themselves into neat ideological categories (which is part of the problem with the language of a ‘rightward’ or ‘leftward’-leaning public), but where they do, they identify both Labour and the Tories as to their right. This LSE study outlines the above points.

Three things are needed to win a political argument. One is an effective grassroots operation, the second is effective communication and the third is lived experience that enables the voter to relate to the political message in some form.

The Conservatives will provide the last – in the form of a deepening housing crisis, stagnating incomes and the increasingly nakedly ideological interventions in workers’ rights and public services. What the grassroots operation might look like is assisted by the furore around the Corbyn campaign – a mobile, vibrant, diverse and genuinely national movement. Inspiration might also be found in some of the community-organising approach to politics pioneered in Labour (ironically) by Blairite David Miliband, following the very successful building of locally-focussed Liberal Democrat machines.

On the economy, the argument should be a three step one. Being ‘anti-austerity’ is a slogan for campaigning against the right. Campaigning for a socialist future obviously goes above and beyond saying ‘spend more.’ If we talk about the need for cuts and the need to improve public services at the same time in the way Miliband did, ‘spend more’ is all anyone will hear. We need to:

Spend better

Pointing out double standards is not an argument on its own, but it is a good start. The Conservatives have been allowed to maintain their credentials in spite of hugely fiscally irresponsible plans, unfunded spending commitments, and a deficit falling far slower than expected. That is not to say that we should be arguing the Conservatives need to be more Conservative. It does mean pointing out that their approach has failed even on its own terms, and that we could use public finances in a more efficient way. For instance, where the government’s quantitative easing programme has meant printing money and giving it to bankers, any Corbyn-led QE would involve funding the productive sectors, which even the Financial Times seem to agree with.

This is where Corbyn’s views on cutting Trident and closing tax loopholes fit. It would also be the place to point out where one might have spent the £4bn put aside for random unforeseen military action, the millions lost in the botched Royal Mail sell-off, the millions the state still subsidises private railways with, the estimated £3bn cost of Conservative NHS restructuring, and the scale of our payouts to rip-off private landlords through a housing benefit system necessitated by the depletion of social housing stock at below market value. A Labour opposition unencumbered by its previous support for all of the above in some form is best placed to make that argument.

Spend for growth

Jeremy Corbyn’s notion that we should be a little more like Germany is hardly especially radical. We all agree on the need for technological jobs, even the Right agree on the need for a ‘Northern powerhouse’ (as long as the minister implementing it can work out what the North actually is), and we should all agree that an economy that remains utterly reliant on a volatile financial sector is too big a risk to bear in good conscience.

So the next argument to win is that spending does not mean hurling money into black holes, it means investing in a decent, sustainable (and cost-neutral!) future, as opposed to removing funding from things of value.

Remind people that it’s about more than spending

Britain as a whole may still have reactionary attitudes towards welfare claimants and migrants. That too, is something that I think principled argument and good communication can challenge. It does not mean that we are an entirely heartless nation, or one that is perfectly comfortable with inequality and suffering (as the Cruddas review’s point on powerful interests shows.)

Having dealt with the concerns about cutting and spending, we can move beyond a dour debate about the Treasury’s coffers to the kind of society we want to live in. That involves breaking the right-wing caricature of a Corbynism that means soaking the rich and nothing else, and starting to talk about what is both idealistic and possible – a society where the public good is put before special interests, where things like decent shelter and food are non-negotiable, and where we have meaningful choices and rights about our education, our working lives and the future of our families and communities.

10 Comments

  1. James Martin says:

    From what I have seen so far of some of the blatantly leading questions to voters by this review it should be binned before we die of laughter reading it.

    Ask people if they believe families should live within their means and almost all will say yes. This survey would then interpret that as massive support for austerity.

    However, ask the same people if due to the need to live within their means that mortgages for more than their annual income should be made illegal meaning that hardly anyone would ever get to own a home and the answers will change significantly as of course most people are relatively comfortable in principle for household debt via things like mortgages to be 3, 5 or more times the family’s annual GDP income.

    And then of course the same survey would reveal that most voters are instinctively Keynes-like in their own habits which rather destroys the pro-austerity ‘common sense’ myth that is still being desperately peddled.

    1. Mervyn Hyde says:

      Thank you for putting so succinctly James.

      “Labour ‘not being trusted on the economy’ and ‘spending too much’ usually come as a couplet. I suspect one can be divorced from the other. The reaction of some of Cruddas’ respondents is interesting – “[Labour] had no real message except ‘spend, spend, spend.” In short, Labour failed to develop a comprehensive alternative argument. The most common complaint against Labour was that Ed was weak. Are we certain that was just due to him being a bit dorky, or more down to the perception that Labour collectively wasn’t offering anything strong”?

      This has been the mantra that right wingers and the media have peddled over the last forty years.

      When do these people think we will turn the corner into the kind of surplus that Thatcher was talking about all those years ago?

      The facts are Thatcher promised that she would use the money from the sale of council houses to build more, it never happened and she lied, the same went for her chancellor who said that if government went into surplus they would spend on public services, in one year they achieved tax returns to the tune of £5 billion, that didn’t happen either.

      It goes without saying these politicians have deceived the public about the real agenda, even New Labour have been duplicitous for the same reasons.

      Lastly the deficit argument is a lie and those that oppose Jeremy should be challenged about it.

      The Bank of England does not have to borrow a penny from anyone or anywhere.

      We have all the money we need for public expenditure, we don’t even have to raise tax to achieve it.

      It really is time people woke up in this country.

      1. Tim Barlow says:

        But they’re too busy “living the dream” and, as George Carlin had it, you have to be asleep to enjoy it. In this context, it’s both the consumerist dream and it’s neo-liberal austerity narrative, which acts as a kind of security blanket, delivering soothing, familiar clichés (Labour’s overspending caused the crash, We must live within our means, There is no alternative to the cuts, etc) to reinforce our country’s advanced-stage, sado-masochistic Stockholm Syndrome.

        1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

          If by that you mean; what a complete load of old cobblers ?

          I couldn’t agree with you more.

          Exactly what planet is this guy living on ?

          1. John P Reid says:

            What guy, Mervyn,or Cruddas

          2. Tim Barlow says:

            I think the “load of old cobblers” is referring to Cruddas. I hope so. Mervyn’s comment was 100% sound, which is why I applauded it (with added reservations about the ridiculously lauded Public Opinion).

  2. John P Reid says:

    Despite the reply, I can’t see one thing that makes JCs leadership anymore credible, based on what we’re told the country wants

    1. Mervyn Hyde says:

      Sadly John, you don’t want to see.

    2. gerry says:

      John – Jeremy’s credibility problem is the same for all of the candidates Liz, Andy, Yvette: the economy, welfare and immigration are the 3 areas where voters have the most negatives about us. I have lost count of the times I have heard people say “Labour let too many people into the country, and we are full up” – and of course New Labour in 2004 did throw open the door to eastern European immigration on a massive scale, causing huge swathes of working class voters to desert first to the BNP, and then to UKIP.

      This negative alone will blow us out of the water in 2020: Jeremy or any of the other three – all of whom back open door immigration – must somehow quickly and systematically neutralise this negative…and then, do the same on the economy and welfare!

      1. John P Reid says:

        I think Yvette will have to accept her backers John Mann,Simon Dankzak,will canvass for A no vote on the EU

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