An end to recessionomics

Across Europe, governments of all political hues imposing austerity on voters struggling through the economic crisis are losing popularity and being turfed out of office. Since 2009 we have seen it in the UK, Ireland, Spain, Greece, France and the next could be Germany. The highest profile casualties this year have been the socialist George Papandreou in Greece and Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy in France – demonstrating how this has afflicted both those on the left and the right.

But it is worth reflecting on the left governments who have lost power. Labour lost office here in the UK in May 2010, the Spanish Socialist government in November 2011 and Greece’s governing PASOK, who polled 44% to win the 2009 election, crashed to third place in the May 2012 election and dropped back further in the repeat election a month later, taking only 13%, after imposing repeated rounds of austerity. The austerity agenda has meant the same thing in every country across Europe, spending cuts in government departments are transferred into fewer available jobs, public sector pay cuts, reduced social security payments, infrastructure spending drying up.

But why is it that parties of the left are attacking the institutions they have successfully built up over the past sixty years? What is clear from the past few years is that across Europe, the neo-liberal right has been successful in framing the terms of the debate and directing the economic course of governments regardless of their political persuasion.

The right has turned the economic crisis into one of public spending and determined the default response of any government is to impose austerity. It is no surprise therefore that social democrat governments, can make no headway in attempting to prettify spending cuts that harm their core electoral base of those on lower incomes and, increasingly, the unemployed. The social democratic left has so far failed to mount an effective challenge or map out an alternative economic agenda.

It is therefore no surprise either that social democrats propelled into office as a response to austerity, rapidly lose favour if they fail to offer a serious alternative. In Ireland, the Labour Party have signed up to an austerity coalition as the junior partners to Fine Gael, while Francois Hollande who rode to power on the back of a strong anti-austerity campaign in May this year is already plummeting in the polls as he rows back from his manifesto commitments, particularly his pledge to rip up the EU Fiscal Treaty. Both will have to change direction if they have any hope of reversing their decline in support.

The clearest challenge has been from political parties to the left of social democracy, Syriza in Greece and Parti de Gauche in France – and now the trade unions are increasing their co-ordination, following the strikes and protests on the 14th November Europe-wide day of action.

As with Syriza, a new generation of left leaders are emerging in Latin America which point the direction Europe’s left should take.

Across Latin America, governments are investing public funds in developing better public services for their citizens. Housing and health in Venezuela, in the environment in Bolivia. Ecuador recently announced it would increase taxes on bank profits to fund welfare payments to the poor.

And with that investment has come renewed support. Since the start of the economic crisis, left leaders in Latin America have been re-elected. Rafeal Correa was re-elected in April 2009 with a massive increase in his vote, Evo Morales was re-elected in April 2009, Dilma Rousseff won for Brazil’s Workers Party in 2010, Christina Kirchner won in Argentina in October 2011, and Hugo Chavez was re-elected in 2012.

In Britain, without another significant left political force, Labour is riding high in the polls just two years after losing the election, such is the unpopularity of the coalition – particularly the Lib Dems who had campaigned for an alternative to austerity but who have backed George Osborne’s so-called medicine as the Tories coalition partner.

But Labour’s support is so far based on increasing disillusionment with the government, not any enthusiasm for Labour’s muddled message of ‘austerity-lite’. An impressive six parliamentary by-election wins on the trot, with a number of Labour candidates scoring over 60%, has obscured the derisory turnout as voters stay at home.

There are some welcome signs of fight with Ed Miliband suggesting he will oppose the latest round of benefit cuts announced by the Chancellor in the Autumn Statement. It is vital that this represents not just a one-off challenge, but a rethinking of austerity and Labour’s economic approach that will make a bolder challenge.

Labour cannot win with middle England alone and it cannot take its working class electoral base for granted – it’s already done that for far too long. Labour needs to offer a clear vision with the jobs and pay and conditions that match the scale of the crisis, based on government planning long-term investment. This must include boosting pay and pensions, tackling tax avoidance, directing nationalised banks to cut bonuses and invest in infrastructure like schools, hospitals and new homes. Only then can it inspire and mobilise the army of voters struggling under austerity.


An apathetic generation?

With disproportionately low voter turnout among young people in elections, it is easy to claim that our generation is apathetic. It is true that young people are less likely not only to vote, but also to be a member of a political party than the rest of the population. However, to claim that young people don’t care about politics is totally wrong. Polling and recent events have shown young people care greatly about politics and parties need to reengage with them.

Looking at the student demonstrations from 2010 over tuition fee hikes and the abolition of Educational Maintenance allowance it is clear to see that young people are not apathetic. In the winter of 2010 young people brought London to a halt numerous times in fighting not to be saddled with debt. Furthermore the demonstrators were not just ‘middle class kids’ demanding free degrees, their ranks were swelled by pupils from low-income households attending schools and sixth forms who would be hit by the cut in Educational Maintenance Allowance.

It cannot be said that young people are apathetic, despite their electoral turnout. Polls and focus groups back this up. The evidence shows that most young people are, in fact, interested in politics and indeed express willingness to do campaigning. Furthermore, it is clear that most young people do, in fact, discuss politics and take an interest in it. Therefore the idea that young people simply do not care about politics is totally false.

However, though it is certainly not the case that Fukuyama was at all right in his assertions of “The end of history”, it is the case that our generation still is particularly badly affected by the 1989 “post-ideological” disease that gripped much of the world throughout the 1990s but is only just ebbing away with the 2008 financial crash and the resulting offensive of austerity. For instance, from my experience in student activism, I notice a disengagement from parties and traditional political models. Much activism among students is directed through charities, NGOs such as Amnesty and “ethical” campaign groups such as Student HUBs. Many who would make brilliant political party activists instead focus on these organisations.

As a student of politics, on more than one occasion lecturers have asked “who in this hall is a member of a political party”, and roughly one-tenth of the students present would raise their hand. It seems even students of politics are not sufficiently enthused by parties to join them. Indeed even the global Occupy movement could be criticised for lacking in ideological and political direction. Speaking to politically engaged students, identification with concepts of left or right seems remarkably low, let alone ideology, let alone political parties. It seems that not only is our generation alienated from electoral politics, it is also alienated from political ideas.

Ultimately I think this lack of ideological or class-based politics among this group of young politics students and activists can be attributed to the defeats suffered by the left in the 1980s which were cemented before our generation came to political maturity. Throughout that decade the labour movement suffered defeats at the hands of a global neoliberal offensive, culminating in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall with commentators remarking that the ideological and class conflicts were now finished.

In Britain, this trend was manifested in New Labour’s acceptance of neoliberal economics and the “third way” with Blair naively declaring that “we’re all middle class now”. I would be the first one to challenge the assertions that ideology died in 1989, but the idea was so hegemonic at the time that it practically became the truth as social-democratic parties across Europe embraced the free market.

With our generation growing up in such a political climate, where ideology and class were dirty words and political parties attempted to shed much of their footings in these concepts, it is no wonder then that young people are not only unenthused by electoral politics and parties, but also are alienated from political and ideological concepts such as class.

However I feel that this post-ideological trend among young people is fast coming to an end. With the financial crisis of 2008 and resulting high unemployment it is clear that the victory of the free market and neoliberalism in 1989 was a hollow one and ideology has palpably not come to an end as the onslaught of austerity (and resistance to it) rages across Europe.

Indeed a new generation of young activists is now engaged in the resistance to this neoliberal offensive, from the young people who rallied behind Melenchon and Hollande in the French election to the youth on the demonstrations in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland against austerity and indeed to the student protests against tuition fees and EMA cuts in Britain. Across Latin America, with the rise of the “pink tide” of left wing governments, young people are highly engaged in the social movements mobilising in poor urban neighbourhoods.

Nonetheless, despite this apparent interest and indeed commitment to politics, there still exists the fact that young people do not turn out to vote in anything like numbers that they should. There is clearly a gap between their apparent political engagement with politics generally and their engagement with electoral politics specifically.

There can be no doubt that one of the reasons for this disengagement from electoral politics is down to the lifestyles of young people. The differences in turnout between young and old can be attributed to the relative stake that they feel they have in society. Young people are likely to be relatively less secure in terms of housing, employment (if indeed they have a job) and more generally less well-off and more vulnerable. This leads many young people to feel alienated from society, making them less likely to identify with electoral politics and be disengaged from most mainstream political activity. It is the case that, for Britain’s youth, all that is solid does indeed melt into air which leaves them feeling like they are not really part of society.

Indeed under the coalition these problems facing young people are going to get worse as the Tories preside over rocketing youth unemployment, attacks on rights in the workplace and savage cuts to housing benefit making young people ever more vulnerable; eroding society and further alienating people from their communities.

Further polling suggests that many young people in Britain feel that politics is just not “aimed” at them. Further empirical studies find that parties fail connect with young voters and simply do not register with their political agenda. Ultimately this is the fault of the political parties. All too often parties will target specific groups of voters who they know will turn out and ignore groups who will not. As young voters’ unlikeliness to turn out makes them more ignored by parties, being ignored makes them less likely to turn out and therefore they get locked in a vicious cycle of political disengagement.

From the Labour Party’s point of view, this ignoring of young voters cannot go on. In 2010 Labour lost the election as so many of its voters had been disenchanted by a decade of neoliberal economics and a failure to tackle inequality and so didn’t turn out. Winning back these people who have been disengaged from politics must be at the core of the Labour Party’s strategy and winning over young voters has to be an integral part of this. Already Ed Miliband has made welcome steps in putting distance between himself and this, ultimately electorally damaging, political approach of New Labour by attempting to better emulate European social democracy and treat inequality and unemployment seriously.

Furthermore, for years the Labour Party has denied young members the youth section that they deserve. Young Labour still lacks full constitutional autonomy from the Labour party, denying young members the right to decide how they want the youth section to be run; and Young Labour groups lack access to membership lists, making local organisation highly difficult. I recently attended a European Young Socialist summer camp in July and was amazed at the strong, autonomous youth sections that Labour’s sister parties have which have many enthusiastic young activists with a real voice to affect their party. By emulating this model, Labour can begin to re-engage with young voters and activists.

Collusion with cutters won’t win it for Labour

Sunday’s Observer article, ‘Ed Miliband to wage war on Osborne over benefit cuts, was interesting, in that it revealed some of the darker tendencies of the Blairite right’s apparent collusion with Cameron and Osborne over the continued savaging of the country’s most basic mechanisms of social security. The first I could see to publicly associate themselves with the ‘senior Labour insider’ was former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who outed herself in an article for Progress, ‘The Osborne Trap’, as a member of the pro-cuts ‘caucus’.

Smith’s message, one that veterans of the worst extremities of New Labour’s triangulation strategy will know all too well, is that, whatever our own personal opinions on the policies concerned, what is priority is what the polling says, as therein lies the perpetual nirvana that is an election victory. But ignoring for a moment the technical or strategic reasons why an ‘anti-scrounger’ narrative harms rather than enhances Labour’s electoral chances, let’s just be clear what Smith’s message is saying, the part that I am most uncomfortable with. She says that the Tories want to give off the image of Labour as a party which ‘cares more about those unwilling to work than those struggling in work and who are careless with taxpayers’ money.’ So then, does she offer a compelling exposition as to why this is wholly hypocritical, given the Coalition government’s austerity agenda has kept people out of work and on the dole, costing the Exchequer more in benefit payments? No, she merely concedes that,’This is a nasty way of pitting one set of poor people against another set, but the Tories’ polling will tell them that this is a strong message with voters.’

There has to be more to politics than this ruthless segmentation of the issues on the basis of what chimes well with a focus group and what doesn’t. What is a political movement without values underpinning the existence of it? In the labour movement, we show compassion to those on the lowest incomes, those who genuinely struggle daily. This should be the cornerstone of our values, we should support to right to dignity in and out of work. If our movement doesn’t defend the poorest and most vulnerable, we cannot complain when the Tories continue to champion the concerns of millionaires, bankers and big business. If Labour equivocates on the need to be the chief advocate of the welfare state, which protects both those in employment and the unemployed alike, it only makes it easier for Cameron and Osborne to openly hack away at it until it no longer exists.

The ‘lost five million voters’ narrative is one that has been widely discussed in Labour circles, and certainly deserves a strong hearing in the context of this debate. Jacqui Smith rightly talks about the kind of response she gets on the doorstep. I must confess, I seldom get deficit hawks on the doorstep, but I do often get those who used to be part of the democratic process, usually ex-Labour voters, and have dropped out during the New Labour years, and who we now write-off as non-voters and therefore useless to the game of electoral politics. Or those who were never in the game to begin with, who saw politics as offering nothing for them. These aren’t the kind of people who were disgusted with expenses, or disappointed at the failure to secure electoral reform, these are people who were politicised at a time when a Labour government was seen to be not too dissimilar from the policies of the Thatcher and Major years. We know that’s not true, we know that New Labour did an enormous amount for the lowest paid, but we also know that no amount of grandstanding over the minimum wage or tax credits is enough to fire up even a handful of those five million voters who abandoned the Labour Party and disappeared into the political abyss.

I don’t want to fall into the same kind of thinking as Jacqui Smith by obsessing over the polling implications of support for the welfare state, but it is worth remembering that as long as Labour compromises on the issues closest to its core supporters, the energy and spirit of those most likely to vote Labour is weakened, and the likelihood of a Labour government is less and less assured. The historical certainty of this can be seen in 1951, in 1979 and in 2010, where Labour governments, pulled to the right by the demands of capital, lost power to a more right-wing and ideologically driven Conservative government than the one that preceded it. That Cameron and Osborne are finishing off the last vestiges of the post-war social democratic settlement – the NHS, local government, and the welfare state – is a testament to that.

The kind of politicking that Smith and her pro-cuts caucus endorse is one that is empty of values, and reduces, rather than increases, the likelihood of a mobilised fightback against the Tory government. It will make it harder, not easier, for the Labour Party to present itself as a clear and compelling alternative at the next election. Ed Miliband is right to stand up for the right of the poorest and most vulnerable in society to a basic income that keeps up with the cost of living, and he would be wise to work with the Parliamentary Labour Party to ward off the voices of collusion.


Dan Jeffery is a councillor in Southampton