I took the decision last week to leave the Liberal Democrats and join the Labour party in support of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership.
Whilst I had been considering this move since Corbyn's victory, the final pushes for me were the proceedings of the Lib Dem conference, where Tim Farron took the opportunity to attack Corbyn's anti-austerity economics as 'fantasy' and 'not credible', and to defend the Coalition's record on the economy. This came as a bit of a shock, given that Farron is on record as giving the coalition 2/10 for performance, and that he had only a few days ago stated he would be happy to work in coalition with Corbyn.
Now Tim Farron is a decent guy and we share many values; however, it seems to me that he has little economic understanding and so ends up parroting neoliberal Tory rhetoric and claiming it's the centre. But it is not the centre, and there is nothing more dangerous than well-meaning people suggesting otherwise. It is meaningless to espouse progressive social values if you cannot back it up with an economic policy that can deliver a progressive society.
In a piece for a left-leaning Liberal Democrat blog (Socialliberalforum.org) written after the General Election, I made the argument that unless progressives stop ceding the ground on austerity, the Tories will always capitalise on economic fear. The Right have an unfair advantage when it comes to economics, because they are prepared to play fast and loose with the truth. Rather than face the electorate with some tortured proposals for what might help the economy at a particular time, the Right are happy to put out a mixture of economic fallacies and fairy tales which have the great political selling point of being easy to follow.
Since the financial crash we have been obsessing in this country over various proxies of the health of our domestic economy: in-year budget deficits and the liability side of the national balance sheet. Having dragged our attention to these and these alone, the Coalition government aggressively pushed an agenda based on the premise that the only way to reduce deficit and debt is to cut state expenditure, and cut again. Together these ideas form the rhetoric of austerity: the country is not living within its budget; national debt is holding us back; best thing to do is to hold down wages of the low paid and slash the welfare budget.
I argued, in the stomach wrenching first few days after the election, that the simplicity of this story gave it enormous power: "The rhetoric of austerity rises above every other political concern, so that even those who feared for the NHS, for the state of crumbling school buildings and for businesses struggling under shoddy infrastructure, at the last moment chose what they understood to be the only viable, sensible option to avoid economic disaster. They bought into the argument that wealth and income taxes are somehow "anti-business"; that government expenditure is anti-business; that a confident, healthy, educated, housed and well-paid workforce is anti-business."
A reasonably balanced budget is a sign of a healthy economy, but you cannot manipulate that sign in order to achieve a healthy economy. A causal understanding of the determinants of budget deficits demonstrates that, ironically, attempts to shrink budget deficits through cutting government expenditure only serve to increase those deficits when they hold back employment and pay across the economy. This is because government expenditure is an effective lever when it comes to determining the health of the economy. The IMF and the OBR both underestimated this power of government expenditure on the economy when they underestimated the negative multiplier effect of cutting capital expenditure at the beginning of the last parliament, and they both have since acknowledged this fact.
As a councillor, I am very much aware of the consequences of austerity on local government, which has borne the brunt of budget cuts. Somewhat unintuitively, Richmond has been in a relatively less-difficult position compared to other local councils, due to the fact the central government grants form a smaller proportion of its overall income, meaning that cuts in those grants are felt less than in boroughs such as Tower Hamlets. But even here, we are at the point of facing truly horrible decisions regarding frontline services.
Corbyn won the Labour leadership arguing for more public investment, an end to depressed wages and a commitment to progressive, intelligent taxation. This is clearly all very much in line with my own views. But there is also something else to Corbyn which has played a large factor in my decision: Corbyn is a liberal in the sense that is important to me. He has stood up on many of the issues I have been concerned with over the last 10 years - the Iraq War, Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition. He oozes authenticity and political courage; Labour members have responded to this, and I very much believe the wider public will do so if he is given more time and more support. I want to be part of that journey. It could not be more important.
Jennifer Churchill was formerly the Lib Dem councillor for Teddington, and is currently undertaking a PhD in economics and teaching at Kingston University