Comment: Why Jeremy Corbyn must look beyond the politics of austerity

Labour’s electoral strategy must be much broader than mere opposition to the worst excesses of austerity


Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour party largely on the back of his promises to fight austerity. And given the groundswell of support that Corbyn has managed to gin up, the left could be forgiven for assuming that robust opposition to austerity can similarly serve as a silver bullet to return Labour to power.

Such a conclusion, however, would be wishful thinking: it will be the Conservatives, not Labour, who benefit from making the next election a referendum on austerity alone.

Many Corbynistas find it difficult to comprehend that austerity is actually popular among certain segments of the electorate. But this cognitive impairment does nothing to change the reality that, as Jon Cruddas’s inquiry into the 2015 election unearthed, a clear majority of the British public believes that “We must live within our means, so cutting the deficit is the top priority”. Indeed, only a paltry 16 per cent of respondents refused to endorse this sentiment.

Of even greater significance, Cruddas’s survey revealed that austerity is more popular among Conservative voters than it is unpopular among Labour voters: 84 per cent of those who voted Tory in 2015 agreed with the importance of deficit-reduction, while Labour’s voters were almost evenly split on the question – 32 per cent agreed that cutting the deficit was paramount against 34 per cent who expressed disagreement.

This means that anti-austerity politics cannot save the Labour party for a simple but important reason: whereas the Conservative party’s electoral coalition is firmly united in favour of austerity, Labour’s ranks are badly divided on the question.

In other words, austerity is a ‘wedge issue’ that rallies right-leaning voters to the Tory banner but divides those on the left. For Labour, to choose to fight on such uneven ground would be electoral suicide.

The Conservatives know this. It’s why George Osborne feels comfortable pressing ahead with his ‘Budget surplus law’, despite criticism from impartial experts and left-wing detractors alike; and why Iain Duncan Smith will never back away from massive cuts to public spending no matter how many thousands of protestors take to the streets.

All that matters to them is that the people they rely on for power – that is, their voters – are on the same page, which they almost invariably are (along with a sizable chunk of Labour’s supposed base).

It’s no use pointing to the examples of Syriza and Podemos for clues as to how the politics of being anti-austerity might bring about the government’s downfall. In recent years, not one of Europe’s anti-austerity parties has won enough votes to govern alone. Syriza has come the closest, twice benefiting from an electoral system that gifts an additional 50 seats to the party that gets the most votes. But even Syriza was forced to enlist a right-wing coalition partner in order to pull together a parliamentary majority.

Britain’s electoral system won’t make it so easy for Labour. First-past-the-post is a cruel and unforgiving system designed to reward parties that can reach out beyond their heartlands and punish those that cater narrowly to a sectional – or geographically concentrated – group of interests. Fractured parties are bound to fail, as are those with limited appeal; only broad-based, united parties can have a chance of gaining power. And for Labour, going up against the pointy end of a wedge issue like austerity will bring neither breadth nor unity.

The point is not that Labour should ditch its opposition to austerity altogether. Not only would such a strategy be unconscionable given the very real human costs of what has been packaged under the label of austerity, but it would also be impracticable given the party’s new leadership. A Corbyn-led Labour party will never out-Tory the Tories, and nor should it try to do so.

Even so, Labour’s overall electoral strategy must be much broader than mere opposition to the worst excesses of austerity. In fact, Labour must shift the terms of the debate away from the cynosure of austerity altogether if the party is to stand a chance in 2020. Because as tempting as it might be to harangue the governmen – not to mention the recalcitrant electorate – about the inhumanity of fiscal restraint, doing so will only enhance the Conservatives’ electoral fortunes and highlight Labour’s shortcomings in the eyes of the electorate.

Anti-austerity measures can be a part of that platform – and might well prove popular in some parts of the country, especially Scotland, a consideration that party strategists certainly ought not overlook – but the available evidence suggests that such positions should not be allowed to define the party in its entirety.

In her maiden speech to the House of Commons earlier this year, Mhairi Black invoked Tony Benn to say that “in politics there are weather-cocks and signposts”. Her point was that politicians (and her comments were pointedly directed at those sitting on the Labour benches) should be firm in their convictions instead of eager to follow the trends.

From this view, the new Labour leader should stand implacably against austerity – loudly, proudly, at all times and in all ways, whether or not anybody else is paying attention.

But Jeremy Corbyn won’t be able to beat a pathway to power by being a motionless, immobile signpost. To win in the country at large he needs to be imaginative, percipient and far-sighted. He needs to move – and he needs to move other people – such that Labour finds itself fighting on favourable ground.

This means being neither weather-cock nor signpost but weather-maker – the only kind of leader with a hope of reversing Labour’s fortunes.

Peter Harris is an assistant professor of political science at Colorado State University

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18 Responses to “Comment: Why Jeremy Corbyn must look beyond the politics of austerity”

  1. Perry525

    I felt and feel that Labour didn’t want
    to win the 2010 election – and their efforts in 2015 were half
    hearted to say the least. They didn’t make any effort to challenge
    the Tory press lies that Labour were responsible for the recession
    and the deficit. Why was that?

    Why don’t Labour fight back? It seems
    the people who voted Conservative believed the lies, believed that
    the Conservatives would make their lives better, Labour could have
    challenged them reminding the voters what the Tory party had done in
    the past, spelling out the damage they had done, countering lies with
    truth – were they too embarrassed by the actions taken by the
    Labour party under Blair who was/is a Conservative capitalist actor
    in disguise? And the damage they had done to their own people and
    their Unions?

    Labour have an uphill struggle, the
    boundary changes, the voter registration, the actual voting. Instead
    of taking their voters for granted, they must make sure that the key
    swing areas voters are encouraged to listen, register and vote.
    Potential labour voters massively outnumber Tory voters, they need to
    be assured that the Labour party actually represent them.

  2. AW1983

    This would be all very well if austerity wasn’t a dangerously stupid idea that harms British competitiveness. If you accept austerity then you accept the ridiculous concept that a nation’s income and expenditure can be kept entirely separate of one another.

    The ‘household analogy’ is actually bunk not just for countries, not just for businesses but for individuals too. How did most British people make most of their money over the past 30 years? They took a massive loan (debt) and bought property (investment) that has increased in value several times over (return).

    Furthermore, countries are more like businesses which must raise debt to invest in infrastructure and grow. They could raise equity if they’re happy to become a limited company and pay out dividends, but often that’s a more expensive way of going about things. They don’t restrict themselves to spending their returns; they’re more ambitious about growth than that. They borrow, they invest, they grow.

    Aiming for structural surpluses just demonstrates Osborne’s lack of understanding of basic business concepts. A surplus is dead money that should never have been raised in tax and could be invested in the economy. Structural deficits make far more sense, with borrowing rising in line with inflation and invested for growth.

  3. Jan Bridget

    I agree: whilst anti-austerity must be a priority, a platform for just anti-austerity is not enough. I believe we need to be Re-evaluating Equality. Most of the racist, sexist, homophobic, laws have been repealed and anti-discrimination laws under the Single Equality Act introduced. Socio-economic status was taken out of the single equality act by the coalition government and, if the tories have their way, we will lose many of our Human Rights laws.

    Whilst laws are important they are only part of the story: we still have racism, sexism, homophobia, disableism, classism, ageism…

    It is time to look again at equality issues and develop a philosophy/strategy which brings together minority/oppressed groups, taking on board multi-oppression (intersectionality), sharing our understanding of how the system works along similar lines against all minority groups (as it has
    done down the centuries) and how the effects are similar – divide and rule and perpetuation of a system that supports the privileged in society. A philosophy/strategy which brings minority groups together to tackle the six main institutions which create and perpetuate oppression: religion, medicine, law, media, education and the family.

    Here is a starter framework:

  4. Neil Wilson

    “a clear majority of the British public believes that “We must live within our means, so cutting the deficit is the top priority”.

    So if a clear majority believes “We must execute blacks because they are devil worshippers” the Labour party should start sharpening their Halberds should they?

    The British public has been mislead by a right wing propaganda campaign and it must be shown the truth.

    The deficit means that people are saving more and borrowing less, and that is a good thing.

  5. Barry Hearth

    Peter your argument is so poor I hardly dare reply.
    Suffice to say that IF you take the agenda as it’s set b y the tories, then yes the Labour party is doomed.
    My hope is that Corbyn will change that agenda.

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