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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