Why Austerity Hurts The Left

The debate over austerity should an open goal for the political Left, so why can’t they score?

Asked what the stand out word or expression of this parliament is, and ‘austerity’ will be a pretty good contender for top spot…along with Ollyshambles, obviously.
Words like this matter because it is around words and ideas that debate coalesce and narratives form; all sides pick a story, with that word as the central character, good or bad.

And at first glance you’d imagine austerity would be a natural boon for the Left, coming as it does with connotations of a cruel, poor hating government, the evils of capitalism, and sense that some nebulous ‘community’ is lacking.

But for some reason, the Centre Left across Europe have failed to capitalise on the prevalent economic climate. (I’m not counting France because the UMT are just as fond of statism as the Socialists. For all intents and purpose there is no Centre Right in France)

Several factors have conspired to make life difficult for the Centre Left and their traditional messages and remedies.

Firstly, when times are hard people think with their hearts and not their heads. Or to be more accurate, when faith in grey technocrats is shaken, people fall back on beliefs and what they ‘know’ to be right. Welfare fraud, for example, makes up a fraction of the total bill, yet because every man and his dog know somebody fiddling the system, that becomes the norm. The average punter is simply not going to read reports from think tanks about immigration, because they know somebody who can’t find a job in construction.
We politicos roll our eyes when people use anecdotes as evidence, but this is how an awful lot people form an awful lot of their opinions.

This propensity to go with your gut increases during tough times because, to be brutal, people get a bit more selfish. This isn’t because they’re hard hearted, or because Thatcher somebody magically made them that way, but because they have to be. Real wages haven’t kept up with inflation, and many of those who lost their jobs soon after the crash have only picked up part time or lower paying jobs since. This matters for the Left because their pet causes tend to come with big bills attached. And although it’s not strictly accurate to equate a household’s budget with that of the government, it doesn’t stop people doing it. Most households have had to cut costs and extravagances and thus expect the State to do the same. And like it or not people see environmental issues, international aid, help for immigrants and even help for Brits as luxuries. Arguably George Osborne’s greatest achievement has been to set the national narrative that govt is too big and spending too high, and that Labour and the Left are addicted to spending and govt growth.

So if the Left can’t shake the spendaholic label, and can’t get people to think past their immediate experiences, surely they can whip up a storm about capitalism and unfettered free markets? Well, no, because real people don’t talk like that. Predistribution and phrase like it don’t mean anything outside Westminster and political blogs, and that’s a lesson the Left and libertarians never quite learn. You resonant with people buy talking with them in terms that mean something to them, not by talking at them with impenetrable jargon.

Energy bills is one of the few examples of what can happen when real world issues are approached in a way real world people can identify with. And some modest success has been had with regards tax havens, but mainly because of support from the Tories who are partly salivating over possible tax revenue, and partly keen to keep up the rebranding effort.

This comes at a particularly rough time for Left in general, as economics and demographics tag team against them. Having lost heavy industry and mining, the trade union movements is now just a public sector rump seen as little more than an over indulged lobbying group. And as the population ages, social conservatism sets in. And with the Lib Dem becoming part of the Establishment, the populist anti-politics baton has been passed to the unashamedly Right Wing UKIP.

The traditional Left and its message of social justice can still be relevant, but they need to evolve and stop pretending that the solutions of thirty years ago can be applied today.


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