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Four austerity parties, what is to be done?

tweedledumdeedumdum2The Election in May will be the first since 1929 when there will be no clear two party choice. While the rise of UKIP and the SNP affect the Labour Party in different ways, there is an underlying consensus in England and Wales, that the four main parties likely to get seats will be pro-austerity parties. For Labour being in this consensus has massive implications, especially in Scotland. The key issue is not any particular party or part of the UK but the policies dominating the Westminster and media bubble – the ‘austerity consensus’ and how to burst the bubble it inhabits.

Working to undermine the austerity consensus will not affect the outcome of the election, but will affect the post election scene. On present policies whoever wins the outcome will be to destroy the welfare state through austerity, health perhaps excepted. While a Labour government is still the priority, it is a necessary but not sufficient condition for progress. A Labour government not faced by a wider rejection of austerity would simply entrench neo-liberalism. What is to be done to prevent this disaster?

The big picture, as Peter Mandelson once said of New Labour is that “We are all Thatcherites now”. The last twenty five years have been dominated by this, with any hopes of even social democracy destroyed in 1992 by the Tory posters on Labour’s alleged “double whammy” and the viscious media campaign against the alleged higher taxes of John Smith’s shadow budget. Since then Labour politicians have been terrified to argue for funding the welfare state, with Chuka Umunna stating recently he did not come into politics to increase taxes – so the priority is low taxes, not the welfare state. And this now dominant view means that even modest Keynsianism is a no no for the media and political classes. As Thatcher put it, There Is No Alternative.

This is the key fact of modern politics. Arguing for alternative policies is futile in a climate where the shadow cabinet believe defending public services makes for electoral disaster. It is even stranger when the Labour  elite, who see Westminster privelege as the objective they wish to achieve, fail to achieve even that. The Blairites believe that 1997 was the paradigm shift, the moment when they achieved the formula to achieve their dreams. The reality is that Labour has gone downhill ever since.

In Scotland, a country which never turned away from social democracy, the party could lose not only the election, but the union as well – and the prospect of winning at Westminster for the future. New Labour is not only ideologically dogmatic, it is also incompetent. Whether Labour can hold Scottish seats is something we all hope will happen. But the last month has made it more difficult.

Against this big picture, one factor should dominate activity for the future. The recent poll showing 60% of the population against further cuts and 10% undecided – who can be won over – puts ending austerity on the political agenda. Its now a question of how to mobilise the majority. Its not about the left struggle, and indeed an anti-austerity alliance would have to reach the parts that Labour does not reach,which is difficult but possible. This morning I had a petition from the Network of Community Councils against their cutbacks from DEFRA. The councils were set up by Lloyd George in 1920 to regenerate Rural Councils. The objective of the austerity movement is to destroy everything that Lloyd George and the political consensus that we have known for the last 90 years. A co-ordinated response can defeat the political objective of the neo-liberals to set up a new anti state consensus.

So why is it not happening? The Labour Party cannot be changed in the near future. It has embarked as New Labour on a Titanic style voyage into the ice field, at high speed. Labour is part of the problem, not part of the solution. It is time to look for lifeboats. The solution has to be a people’s movement against austerity. The existing work of the People’s Assembly has to be boosted. Labour of course will deserve tactical support over the next four months, but the future does not lie with them. It lies with an ‘Anti Austerity Movement’.

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9 Comments

  1. John reid says:

    Clear no theis party choice 1983′ saw the ?Liberals SDP ahead of labour in the run up, had the election gone in a week later we would have come third, at one stage, in 2010it looked like we were going to come third too.

  2. Paul says:

    With respect, I disagree with the idea that Labour is an austerity party, and in particular that “The Labour Party cannot be changed in the near future.”

    Yes, it is true that Labour is seeking to portray itself as a party committed to ‘fiscal discipline’ and such. I think this is misguided, but it is too late to change that messaging pre-election – to that extent the author is correct about “the near future”.

    But behind the scenes it is quite different. Labour HQ have calculators, and they know perfectly well that they cannot make the cuts that the current profile suggests without collapsing parts of essential public services, and they know that this will cost them electorally, because the cuts will have to affect those beyond the vulnerable (e.g. social care eligibility) who suffer worse than other when their comparatively expensive needs are not met, but whoonly vote once so have been a calculated write-off for the Coalition.

    So behind the scenes Labour is planning to sustain provision by borrowing/investing “off-balance sheet”, through mechanisms like the British Investment Bank with a NS&I deposit, which Labour’s Tott report makes clear is aimed at public services as well as SMEs, and through the development of ‘internal borrowing’ from e.g. Pension Funds (of course this is how normal borrowing is done, through PFs and other domestic organisations buying bonds, so the result financially is largely the same, but stays of national accounts).

    I have written about this in more detail at http://thoughcowardsflinch.com/2014/09/23/how-labour-will-borrow/ if anyone wants a look, and am ‘crowdfunding’ more extensive research, including a quantification of how far these new mechansisms will fill a more traditional borrowing gap, for a report in late March, should anyone be really keen (register and give your free points at https://www.contributoria.com/issue/2015-03/54afc86a6d7f231a43000049/proposal say I in totally shameless plug. FWIW I think there will still be a gap, but these routes will provide enough breathing space for Labour to develop an anti-deflation argument for fresh borrowing, as Europe-wide deflation starts to change the game in 2016 (or even later this year).

    I don’t expect this response to change minds here. There is a strong narrative on the left that Labour is going to betray us all on the welfare state, and as noted that is Labour’s fault for going down what it considers the safe, squeeze-over-the-line route, but the idea that nothing can be achieved in the way of rescuing the welfare state as and when Labour come to power is, happily, not correct.

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      I agree with much of what Paul says but also think Trevor can be forgiven for taking the view he does. The truth is that there is deliberate obfuscation and ambiguity. Balls, like Brown before him (when – perhaps even because – Balls was working for him), probably intends to talk tough but be much more generous on the quiet. The Keynesian within Balls may not be dead, just hiding. I hope so, though how can one be sure? I am confident that Labour would not “betray us all on the welfare state” to the extent that New Labour did, but not at all? I don’t know.

      In any event, this is absolutely the wrong way to do politics. Firstly because it undermines confidence in politics and politicians when they say one thing and do another (even if what they do is better). Secondly, because it fails to make the public argument that changes public attitudes. Had we been consistently arguing against austerity all along, we would be in a stronger position.

      Of course, that ignores the reality that the party – in parliament at least – is divided on austerity. A significant section actually supports austerity. And a significant section – which will be larger in the next parliament – opposes it. That is part – perhaps the largest part – of the explanation for obfuscation and ambiguity. But I suspect that is is also the way Ed Balls (and to a lesser extend Ed Miliband) learnt to do politics.

  3. Paul says:

    Jon, I don’t think we are very far apart on this. I agree Trevor and lots of others can be forgiven for this interpretation, given that it’s the one being pushed by Labour HQ.

    I agree absolutely that there is obfuscation, though the reasons for it are rooted less in Balls’ as devilish agent, more in the bargaining for position that took place in 2011-12. This battle for position was won by Progress et al. (with In the Black Labour as its very eloquent and well-connected front). Neither economic sense nor long-term democratic legitimacy are in keeping with their position, but in 2011-2012 these counted for not enough against a shallow ‘fiscal responsibility’ mantra.

    But the battle is not the war. Behind the scenes post/contra austerity policy is being mustered – that’s not my wishing-it-were-so, it’s in Labour or Labour promoted publications like the IPPR report (esp chapter 10).

    It seems to me that those on the left get these complexities have two choices at the moment – to attack Labour for obfuscating, or to explain what lies behind that obfuscation as a way of generating support for a social movement within and beyond Labour which pushes Labour towards investment post May 2015, because there will still be forces promoting the actual implementation of austerity. I prefer the latter course, not least because the European economic downturn will make it even more necessary (and palatable for elites who have to be seen not th change their mind, but adjust to new circumstance)

    1. Jon Lansman says:

      It would be very helpful, Paul, if you’d write a piece for Left Futures setting out your arguments for what you say in this last paragraph in more detail.

  4. Rod says:

    “The existing work of the People’s Assembly has to be boosted.”

    The People’s Assembly is going nowhere. It receives significant funding from the same unions which have supported Labour’s austerity programme.

    When push comes to shove, Labour Party members only oppose Tory austerity.

    It is the same with opposition to NHS privatisation and opposition to TTIP. Labour Party members go quiet when one confronts them with the details of Labour’s support for NHS privatisation and TTIP.

    If the National Health Action Party and the Greens are the only parties to oppose the pro-corporate lobbyists then we must vote for them as the first step to building an alternative to the Establishment narrative.

  5. David Pavett says:

    Years of work within and for an organisation give a sense of attachment to it which can enable sentiment to dominate reason. That is the thought that comes to mind when I read the responses of Jon and Paul to Trevor’s article.

    Trevor says that Labour is an austerity party beholden to the neo-liberal consensus that defines Westminster politics. Paul, and to some extent Jon, say , in effect, “No, it’s not like that we agree that Labour talks austerity, but we know from inside information that they don’t really mean it”.

    This is taking Labour loyalty too far. It is a Party which has moved continuously to the right for decades. ‘One Nation Labour’ has made no decisive break with ‘New Labour. Its leadership is stuffed full of New Labour politicians who resist even the marginal distancing from their erstwhile policies that One Nation Labour represents.

    This lack of a break is clear as one moves from policy area to policy area. Education is an outstanding case. Can we believe, for example, that Tristram Hunt’s acceptance of the marketised reconstruction of our school system is just for public consumption and that secretly he longs to get back to good schools within the framework of local democracy. I suggest that anyone with whose loyalty could lead them to such a view would have taken leave of their senses.

    So, it really is not enough to say that Trevor can “be forgiven” for his view. He has solid grounds for it and all this talk of what Labour really thinks but dare not say is, in my view, deeply unconvincing.

    1. Robert says:

      Well we will see after all it was labour that brought us welfare reforms, cuts to welfare benefits and ATOS, not sure I agree with any of the comments on here I think labour today is about as right wing as it can get before walking over to the Tories.

      I know the Min Wage £3.20 for the poorest that became the national wage for the rest of the poorest paid. Really wage control labour knew dam well the bigger companies would all jump at the min wage and boy did they, then a pay board set the rises, and now Miliband is offering what is a shameful wage of £8 in five years time, does he mean it, well according to you lot it’s a plan, well I do not think we trust labour to have a plan.

  6. Peter Rowlands says:

    I believe that Trevor and David are wrong on this, and Paul and in particularJon broadly right, Jon rightly emphasising the division within the party, not only the PLP but in my current experience at CLP activist level, and it is this that has I think prevented the development of a more coherent policy position, albeit one that at best could be no more than mildly social democratic. The danger is that substantial numbers of left inclined voters will vote for the Greens, because they do have some clearly defined leftish policies. If this continues it could cost Labour the election, and all that Paul tells us would have happened.

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