The Blog

Labour Should Lift Its Eyes and Embrace the Case Against Austerity

Labour will not thrive again unless it finds the guts to convey a bold message that gives people hope. Aspirants to the leadership should lift their eyes and embrace the case against austerity. There really might be some votes in it.

Conventional wisdom in the higher echelons of the Labour party holds that no candidate can win the leadership election on a platform that doesn't make deficit reduction its central theme. Champions of this theory adduce in its support the 'unelectability' of the only anti-austerity candidate, Jeremy Corbyn - as though there were a straight line between his stance on austerity and the fact that the public would be unlikely to put him into Downing Street. Thus, the choice is presented as one between 'fiscal responsibility' leading to electoral recovery and hard-left profligacy leading to electoral wipeout.

So sensitive are they on the subject of the deficit, Labour's main players think the party's entire programme must be subordinated to it. Little wonder they had kittens when Ed Miliband failed to mention the d-word during his conference speech last year.

Except that conventional wisdom, as so often, is wrong. The obsession with deficit reduction stems from the misplaced belief that the deficit is the cause, rather than a mere symptom, of our travails over recent years and that the path back to prosperity lies in eliminating it as swiftly as possible through deep cuts in public spending. From these delusions flow the argument that a reputation for fiscal rectitude can only be garnered through a strategy that places deficit reduction at its heart.

But such an approach ignores the incontrovertible evidence that austerity, far from hastening a recovery, is the worst possible response to an economic crisis. That evidence has forced a reappraisal by some academics and institutions - including, to a limited degree at least, the IMF and European Central Bank - previously content to let austerity rip. Perhaps it was the realisation that austerity policies had failed abysmally wherever they had been applied that led to their having second thoughts.

Tragically, in Britain, our leaders seem blind to this shift in the landscape. Either that, or they simply lack the backbone to depart from the orthodoxy. But, be it through myopia or cowardice, the failure of the main contenders in the race for the Labour crown to articulate an alternative robs us of a brilliant opportunity to embed the argument against austerity in mainstream debate.

A powerful anti-austerity case that, far from being the preserve of extremists, is coherent, credible and - beyond these islands at least - finding greater traction, is dying to be heard. But simple arguments that ought to be advanced without hesitation by left-of-centre politicians are left in the locker. The argument, for example, that the deficit is reduced most effectively not by making savage cuts, but by maximising tax revenues through increased economic activity. That government, as the only agent with the power to do so, must play a central role in stimulating that activity. That indulgence of the City and obsession with monetary targets, in place of a strategy geared towards revitalising the real economy through full employment, investment and increased competitiveness, have served us appallingly and are the reasons behind our continuing decline. That sustainable growth is most likely to come through government using every instrument at its disposal to manage demand, not through slashing and burning. That only by reasserting the role of government can we ever expect to address the threats to democracy and economic security presented by the internationalisation of capital.

A viable anti-austerity programme, properly and confidently articulated, could not easily be portrayed as 'too left-wing' or 'anti-aspiration'. On the contrary, any strategy that placed growth, investment, strong public services, manufacturing and jobs at its heart would have widespread appeal, from those who run businesses to those who work for them, from the East End of Glasgow to Middle England.

It is baffling that, in the wake of the great recession, just as the debate about the proper role of government in administering the economy has been at its sharpest, and when neo-liberalism has been on the defensive like never before, Labour's leading lights, in banging the drum for rapid deficit reduction above all else, have chosen to take their steer from the likes of Friedman and Osborne rather than luminaries such as Keynes and Krugman.

One might have assumed that the failure of Labour's message on the economy at the general election would persuade its leaders to alter course. Instead, maddeningly, they continue to exhibit precisely the timidity that led them to defeat in the first place - a timidity that manifested itself in three related, and destructive, ways. First, in a crippling reluctance to fight on economic policy at all. Second, in an inexplicable failure to defend its own post-crash record and to allow fatuous talk about 'Labour's recession' to pass without hard rebuttal. And, third, in the passing up of the opportunity to make mincemeat of the coalition government's own economic record: the slowest recovery (such as it is) for a hundred years, the crash in living standards, the huge increase in national debt, the broken promise to wipe out the deficit, the loss of the AAA credit rating, to name but a few failures.

This feebleness meant that, so far as the economy had to be discussed, the objective became one of mimicking the Tories by making deficit reduction - and thereby cuts - the prime goal of economic policy. That any Labour politician seriously believed they could outflank the Tories on this beggars belief. Not surprisingly, the voters rejected the pale imitation and opted for the authentic model. It wasn't that they embraced austerity; it was that nobody presented them with a compelling alternative. After all, why would they choose, as one-time Labour leadership contender Bryan Gould put it, an 'ersatz version of the real thing when they have on offer a Tory party whose heart is really in it'?

Labour will not thrive again unless it finds the guts to convey a bold message that gives people hope. Aspirants to the leadership should lift their eyes and embrace the case against austerity. There really might be some votes in it.