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The worst thing about Osborne’s budget isn’t the cuts – it’s their popularity

Cameron and OsborneOnce George Osborne delivered the first Tory budget since 1996 the British Left predictably took to the internet – and in some cases to the streets – to protest against what was a vicious attack on living standards, the unemployed and disabled people by a government less than a quarter of people voted for and made up of Eton-educated millionaires. But while this perspective might dominate the Facebook timelines and the Twitter feeds of left-wingers like myself, the more sober view (I daren’t call it ‘analysis’) from Labour’s Blairites and the crowing Tories is for once worth heeding to – like it or not, this budget was popular.

YouGov’s initial polling indicated majority support for almost every significant policy Osborne announced. That horrible two-child limit to tax credits that one Labour MP referred to as from the days of Mao and King Herod? 67% supported it. Only 20% didn’t. The draconian and totally arbitrary reduction in the benefits cap that will drive thousands of people into poverty and homelessness? The same results – 67% in favour, 20% against. What of the cruel robbery of housing benefits from the under-21s? Exactly half of people supported you losing your right to living independently. 

Even the millionaire’s giveaways – the raising of the inheritance tax and the cutting of corporation tax – enjoyed 54% and 40% public approval against 32% and 33% against.

Remarkably, the only two policies that did not meet strong public approval were transfer of student maintenance grants into loans, which will make university more expensive if your family’s income is low (because you will have more debt to repay), and the 1% cap on public sector pay rises. Seemingly, large sections of the public still felt ‘hardworking people’ could aspire to university and a decent pay cheque at the end of the month. Tory politicians may be heartless and vindictive, but their voters aren’t – entirely.

Osborne’s popular appeal is not new – every budget he has delivered since 2010, with the exception of the ‘Omnishambles’ of 2012 (pasty tax, anyone?) has been judged to have been more fair than not by YouGov polling. Each year for the last Parliament, Osborne has convinced enough of the electorate that he is doing what is necessary, right and most importantly, fair in the interests of our imagined national community.

This is  what the Tories have always done, in one form or another. In his excellent book, In Place of Fear, Nye Bevan asked, “How can wealth persuade poverty to use its political freedom to keep wealth in power? Here lies the whole art of Conservative politics in the twentieth century.” Hence it was a Conservative party under Disraeli which expanded the franchise in 1867, stealing the clothes of the Liberals and brilliantly rejecting all of their amendments to make the bill their own. In the 1945 manifesto Mr Churchill’s Declaration of Policy to the Electors, the Tories outlined a comprehensive health service, full employment, and mass house-building. Throughout the 1940s, Tory Party conferences passed motions to approve many of Labour’s policies in government. The result? They won the next election.

Robert Halfon’s call for the Tories to rebrand as the ‘the workers’ party is the latest presentation of this. By appearing to stand up for those who are struggling on low pay in work, through Osborne’s ‘national living wage’ policy, he has stolen Labour’s clothes. George Eaton noted this too with the welfare cap, arguing it was “less a serious act of policy than a political weapon designed to trap Labour (“the welfare party”) on the wrong side of the argument”.

Of course the Labour leadership might take some blame for the prevalence of this common sense. By using their media time and press coverage to accept the Tories’ basic economic assumptions, and their division of the working class into a ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving poor’, Labour have given them space for attacks on benefit claimants and large public sector cuts. The previous Labour government are complicit too, as Cameron is not just building on New Labour’s welfare policies, but their rhetoric as well, of an excluded strata of benefit claimants in need of redemption through sanction-backed ‘work’ programmes and a disciplined Labour force. He has even hired New Labour minister Alan Milburn as a ‘social mobility’ guru to talk tough on welfare. It is not just Ian Duncan Smith who has treated unemployment as a ‘choice’.

By abdicating the usual responsibility of Her Majesty’s Opposition, which funnily enough, involves actually opposing what the government say and do, Labour have left the anti-austerity case to be made by much more marginal forces. It is not unreasonable to say that the most well-known public figure in opposing austerity over the last five years, whether in print, online or on TV, has been Owen Jones, a journalist at a paper read by almost no-one who votes Tory or UKIP, rather than any party leader in the Commons.

Despite the trade unions, the People’s Assembly and Labour Left MPs, along with the wider British Left, have proved incapable of crafting a sufficiently popular counter-narrative in the face of Osbornomics – mainly because of the Tories’ ideological cover provided by Labour’s leaders. On May 7th, voters had no choice but to opt for one of two degrees of austerity, and so the fringes of Labour’s support stayed at home.

As far too few of us have noted, the victory for the Tories wasn’t just Labour’s failure – the wider Left failed to popularise its anti-austerity message. Michael Chessum has pointed out that for the first time since 1931 the Tories, and more rightwing parties, won the popular vote. A to B marches, symbolic one-day strikes and 38 degrees petitions just didn’t quite cut it. As Michael put it, we haven’t yet found a way to “meaningfully resist”, but worse than that, most people are not even in agreement with us.

Whatever happens with Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for Labour leader, the Left has to recognise that as a political strategy, the Tories’ use of ‘common sense’ austerity measures in Osborne’s budget, in a perceived national interest, is working. The cries, issued at every anti-austerity demo, that ‘the fightback starts here’, are going to fall deaf on the ears of working-class Tories for as long as they believe George Osborne is on their side, and that we are not. Ideology is a powerful thing, and our anger alone is insufficient to tame it. We need to regroup, reform and most importantly rethink our strategies if we are to wake up on the other side of this storm at some point in the next decade.


  1. gerry says:

    Excellent article – and since 1979 it has been the votes of working class Tories (esp C2s and older working class voters) which has time and time again won their party power. Britain is – without doubt – a small c conservative country.

    This truth must be acknowledged by all of us on the Left – it does not mean that some sort of New Labour rehash is the only way ever to stop permanent right-wing rule, but it does mean that we have to focus all of our efforts and energies on putting the economic alternatives to Thatcherism, neoliberalism, call it what you will, and – somehow – win over all those working class right-wing voters. The electoral near-future looks really grim….

  2. David Ellis says:

    There is no doubt that the welfare state has accumulated endless crazy and irresolvable contradictions that have conspired to make it unpopular. Not surprising. A welfare superstructure on a slave based economic system is contradictory. It offers very little welfare anyway and should not be the height of ambition for any labour movement. We don’t want a bourgeois welfare state we want a workers’ state. We want full employment by sharing the available work with each paid the minimum of a trades union living wage with proper provision made for those who cannot work or need help to do so. We need workers’ democracy and social ownership of the means of production. No more private appropriations of the social product with a few crumbs thrown the way of the actual wealth creators.

    1. Robert says:

      Well we are not going to get it are we, not with labour now abstaining so not to upset Tory voters.
      labour does not want the swing voters to see it as socialist or labour, so they will not take part in a vote.

      If that is so where do we go from here, me I’m not much interested labour Tory, Tory labour the colour is blue, the ideology concentrative.

      And if that’s true then best to vote for the real thing then the copy.

  3. David Pavett says:

    Ideology is a powerful thing, and our anger alone is insufficient to tame it. We need to regroup, reform and most importantly rethink our strategies if we are to wake up on the other side of this storm at some point in the next decade.

    It is certainly true that anger is not enough. I am not so sure, though, that “rethinking our strategies” is really what is needed. I think that what is needed is much greater economic understanding.

    Generally the left is a economically illiterate as the right. What is needed is an effort to understand different economic theories about austerity. The hand-waving stuff might pass muster in speeches at political meetings but it will not suffice. We need clear analyses of why austerity is wrong and we need the alternative to be explained in some detail. Without that effort the charge of economic incompetence is going to sound uncomfortably true.

  4. Sue says:

    The powers that be in Labour party just have not offered an alternative. In fact they seem to have spent hours agreeing with them?! The welfare cap is a prime example. So people who are not really politically aware will of course think there is no alternative if even Labour agree with Osborne “all the time”. For people on the street the case has to be painted in broad strokes. Labour has to say “from each according to their ability and to each according to need”. Labour has to say “we refuse to create a country where people live in fear of illness or disability, divorce or unemployment” etc. They have to say “the rich are robbing us blind!”

  5. Arsene Elbow says:

    The Labour party is done. The only way forward is with PR and a rump left party supporting one of two centre parties (Tories and a new SDP/New Labour/ Lib dem concoction). There will never be a democratic left government, live with it. Set up a party of the left, establish some red lines and work with the bastards, it’s the only way

  6. Mukkinese says:

    The Labour front bench just will not get it. I think that they are incapable of seeing the trap that they themselves have built.

    We all knew damn well that the war on benefits initiated by Ed Balls would be taken up with enthusiastic glee by the Tories, but Labour would not listen.

    Most of us know that “Osbornomics” are nonsense, but the front bench have bought into it hook, line and sinker.

    Last year the OBR published a report declaring that in their opinion the major factor in bringing the recovery that Osborne inherited to a halt and gave us eighteen months of costly flatlining was Osborne’s austerity policies.

    This was a gift to Labour with which to attack Osborne relentlessly, but it has barely even been mentioned.

    I swear, it is almost as if they want to lose…

    1. Tim Barlow says:

      …almost as if they’re 5th columnists tasked with bringing the party down through incompetence and omission of an obvious argument…

  7. James Martin says:

    The real issue here is that the Labour right not only start from the basis of what current beliefs are, but the end there too, so they naturally will always try and adapt to the reactionary Sun or Mail view of the world.

    But socialists do not view ideas as static, if we did we would never have had a situation like the creation of the welfare state and NHS in the first place which didn’t come out of nowhere but from decades of hard ideological battles by socialists inside and outside the Party about what needed to change in society to make it better.

    The problem with Ed Miliband was that he saw some of the social problems but was unable to work out a narrative in terms of challenging the ideas that had created them, so even the best parts of our manifesto became artificial wish-lists rather than organic concepts that could tackle the widespread false conciousness of things like poor people created the financial crisis or immigrants created unemployment and lack of affordable housing. In other words we have failed to argue enough for truth to replace lies, and so have then adapted and accepted the lies, as Harman and many of our MPs have disgracefully done over the Tory welfare bill that seeks to further victimise the poorest members of our communities.

    1. gerry says:

      Again, James, you make some good points about ideas not being static, but you just don’t get the historical truth the author of this article is pointing out to you: which is that the Conservatives themselves adapted brilliantly to universal suffrage and found messages which appealed to millions of working class voters in the UK – read the Tory 1945 election manifesto as the article says! And both socialists AND Liberals created the welfare state – remember Beveridge and also Lloyd George who created the old age pension (initially in the teeth of opposition from the Tories)? But by 1945 Tories adapted, and just 2 years after the creation of the NHS, they cleaned up electorally, as the great Nye Bevan noted. Only Tony Blair and Harold Wilson blunted their appeal – for a few years.

      Once you understand the history – that millions of working class voters have ALWAYS been inclined to vote Tory (or Alliance or now UKIP) and then did so with devastating effect for Labour all through the 50s, 80s, 1992, and now in 2015, then you know exactly what you are up against….these voters, if you ask them, really do like Tory messages of self-help, individualism, low taxes, patriotism, all the old deserving and undeserving poor stuff: they know the left analysis pretty well – and they near!y always reject it.

  8. Barry Ewart says:

    Pessism rules! Perhaps if we are finished our last hope should be to borrow from history – apparently probably 90% of people in 1850 supported boys climbing down chimney pots,90% were for Workhouses, 87% supported kids crawling amongst factory machines (although there was some collateral damage and some kids had to be sustained by opium) but profits soared!
    Doctors bleeding patients was also popular (all the 19thC Neo-Liberals today know) and public executions were pretty popular (could get broadcasters to tender to televise these)?
    But then again we could abolish the bedroom tax and compensate all those who have suffered from this. We could have windfall taxes on big business (to get our share of the legally nicked surplus labour back), have taxes on the rich & land and a financial transaction tax. More democratic public ownership with staff electing boards, communities having a say – pharmaceutical industry (cheap/free drugs, save NHS billions – and to give those severe conditions extra years of life and not priced out by the market),public ownership some airlines (less seats, more comfort passengers, crèches in the sky), mail and rail, public utilities (and pay community dividend to customers which could also address fuel poverty), some banks (better and more local loans), free public transport (help the transport poor, more efficient, helps the environment) and then state-led public investment (private sector would pour in behind) and the Left in every country in World campaigning for same things so like capital and globalisation we are international.
    Plus more global investment in solar power (harnessing the free energy of the sun and helping the environment) and all to meet global human need and to generate a global feel good factor.
    And a 3 day working week with good pay and earlier retirement to free time poor working humanity.
    The greatest achievement of Neo-Liberalism has been to stop some of the Left from dreaming – but not all of us.

  9. Chris says:

    The right undoubtedly posses an advantage in a conservative culture when it comes to stealing the lefts clothes, but the truth is that the left seem unwilling to return the favour. Much could be made of the language of ‘dependency’, ‘entitlement’ and ‘state handout’ etc to switch the spotlight back onto unaccountable privilege of the rich. Even ‘austerity’ is a word that has been purloined from the time when the welfare state was being created. In time this will pay electoral dividends.

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