Sunday, 12 April 2015

Is Austerity the Real Issue?

Everybody's talking about austerity, but is it the real issue at this election?

After all, the Conservative Party is offering a whole raft of tax cuts for the well off: hardly austerity!
The Labour Party is proposing tax rises for the wealthier, and cracking down on tax evasion: much more "austere".
The Greens and the SNP (among others) want to save billions by scrapping Trident: a good austerity measure if ever there was one!  The Greens also want to put up the top rate of tax: again, pro-austerity.

Surely the issue of this election is not actually about cuts vs. spending; competence vs. chaos; austerity vs. real change.  Actually, it's a much more traditional kind of an election: it's about who you're for.

The Conservatives have backed their horse: the rich.  Perhaps more explicitly than at any election I can recall, the Tories are running a pro-rich election. The pitch to others is "aspiration".  It's been effective enough in the past and could be again: a whole raft of people who will never earn £150,000 a year or need to worry about inheritance tax end up backing a Tory view on these issues because they aspire to "succeed" and they believe that "successful" people are well-off because they've worked hard, not because they've been lucky.  They therefore defer to the interests of the rich.  My sense is that the foundations of such a view are shaking.  I'll return to that theme in a future blog...

The Labour Party find it much harder to firmly back a horse because of two extraordinarily successful pieces of hegemony on the right: the "pro" and "anti" business discourse, and the demonization of people who claim social security.  To come out as being on the side of the poor, a party will be charged as being pro-welfare and ridiculed accordingly.  To come out as being on the side of workers on low and middle incomes is rapidly re-presented as being "anti business". 

However, more so than in any recent election, the Labour Party has come out in favour of the latter group: workers on low and middle incomes and their families, and is currently riding the "anti business" storm.

This does leave two groups without much representation in this election at all: the very poor and the provincial pretty well-off.

The provincial pretty well-off are not so very different from "middle income" workers - the difference is probably more ideological than material - while most of the "very poor" are on low incomes.  As such, if the Labour Party could tap these areas they are probably saying the most for both groups in this election.  However, despite fighting hard on the Bedroom Tax (for example) they have used some rhetoric that has switched off poorer voters.  Those voters are still most likely to not vote or perhaps to cast a protest vote.  The "pretty well-off" are likely to vote Conservative as they aspire to being very well off, or perhaps to vote UKIP who, with a bit more discipline and professionalism, could actually have taken over from the Conservative Party outside its traditional heartlands.  The influx of disillusioned BNPers has probably ended that possibility for them.

It is clear why the discourse is currently about austerity: it helps those who wish to suggest the main parties are "all the same" (they're all "pro-austerity") while it helps the Conservatives to suggest that the election is all about economic competence rather than about values and choices.  It also ties into a clearer European and Eurozone argument which is much more clearly about austerity and anti-austerity.

However, it is probably doing the election campaign a disservice.  It is keeping the discussion very much about technical economics, huge sums of money and tricky concepts like the "structural deficit" rather than what it is really all about: who is the government there to serve and how will it serve them?  The latter discussion is much more likely to engage people and bring this election campaign to life.

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