Yesterday, around 150,000 people marched through central London to protest against austerity and job cuts. Similar marches took place in Glasgow and Cardiff. In almost every respect, the marchers represented everything that is decent about Britain; people cutting through the political and media narratives and responding to the reality of austerity and the direct effect it has on people’s lives. Many of them would have been public sector workers, forced to implement austerity every day while working desperately against mounting pressures to protect the dignity and wellbeing of those they serve.
And yet, at the heart of the event, there was a morass of conflict and inconsistency that showed clearly how British democracy has lost its way. The most obvious was of course Labour leader Ed Miliband addressing the rally; leader of a Party that has promised not only to keep all the coalition’s cuts in place after 2015 but to make additional cuts of its own. Miliband’s presence was of course a symbol of the relationship between the TUC, who organised the march, and the Labour Party. The strangeness of this event is not so much the fact that Labour looks increasingly like an echo-chamber for the coalition’s neoliberalism, but that Labour remains largely funded by unions whose members appear to oppose the neoliberal consensus of which Labour is an integral (and, on the basis of Ed Balls’ recent pronouncements, enthusiastic) part. The relationship between Labour and the unions looks increasingly like a dysfunctional marriage in which the maintenance of appearances and patterns of behaviour has long superseded any sense of common purpose; without that troubled relationship Miliband addressing yesterday’s rally is about as likely a spectacle as Margaret Thatcher addressing a symposium on the benefits of free school milk.
None of this would be so puzzling if there were not a nuanced, evidenced case against austerity economics; indeed, if austerity economics were not failing in its own terms. As many of us predicted at the outset, cuts and austerity are not reducing the deficit but increasing it; a slower version of what is happening in Greece and Spain is happening here, and all Labour’s economic policies are set to do is to speed the process. Much of the austerity narrative is astoundingly economically illiterate; every time a Coalition politician solemnly intones banalities about paying down the nation’s credit card, or talking about Labour’s profligate legacy, they are showing their inability to grasp – or at least to articulate – the most basic economics.
A fine example of that illiteracy can be found in comments by Hove MP Mike Weatherley, who was reported a while ago celebrating benefit cuts of £10 million in Brighton and Hove without apparently the slightest inkling that this was £10 million taken out of the local economy – hitting businesses both large and small (although the small ones do not have access to the cheap labour of workfare, pioneered by Labour and implemented with zeal by Tories.
And also note in that piece how Tories continue to press the lie that housing benefits are paid to those on benefits rather than lining the pockets of landlords, and repeats the lie that those who receive benefits are not working, when that is simpy not the case. These lies continue to gain traction, and not only do they build on the rhetoric of Labour in office but continue to inform its public positioning. It’s not as if the language is quite the same as that of the Tory party – which at its recent conference often appeared to be only two gin-and-tonics from labelling the recipients of benefits as “useless eaters” – but is couched in terms of that insidious dog-whistle phrase “hard working families”. Labour’s rhetoric on benefits is almost a dictionary definition of moral cowardice.
And the technical understanding of how shifts in public expenditure affects economies is increasingly undermining the case for austerity. One of the stranger aspects of yesterday’s events was a Labour leader addressing a TUC rally from a position that appears to be substantially to the right of the IMF.
The dysfunction we saw yesterday was that of tens of thousands of decent people – people who know that there is an alternative that is better, fairer, more efficient, more grounded – being betrayed and abandoned by the Westminster elite; and by a Labour leadership that really has nothing to offer beyond more of the same. Yes, Labour politicians do make all sorts of noises about fairness and justice; but they simply appear incapable of understanding that fairness in society depends above all on economic justice, and on reversing the transfer of resources from the poor and vulnerable to the wealthy and owners of property – a transfer that Labour presided over in office, which the Coalition has accelerated and which, rather than the deficit, looks like the rationale for austerity and cuts. Labour’s leadership looks like nothing so much as a First World War general, straight out of Blackadder, whipping up enthusiasm for the big push while the poor bloody infantry try to rationalise away their anticipation of the likely reality.
The real debate in Britain – and elsewhere in the rich world – is not between political parties in the establishment, but between a political establishment that is united around a neoliberal programme and the people who understand and experience the realities of austerity – who see their livelihoods destroyed, their experience devalued, their votes ignored. Five million people have walked away from Labour since 1997; quite a lot more will walk away from the Liberal Democrats in 2015. But the anti-austerity case is not necessarily a left-wing one; its advocates include people like Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, former Clinton advisers and no socialists; the authors of the Spirit Level, whose programme looks like a traditional centrist social democracy; increasingly the IMF appears to be accepting the anti-austerity logic.
I have written here many times before that a political system based on a main-party consensus that does not reflect wider opinion cannot be a healthy democracy. Yesterday, in Hyde Park, accompanied by all the accoutrements of the traditional Labour-TUC link, that conflict was manifested in a very obvious way. There is a very strong, evidenced and clear case against austerity economics, based on fairness and economic justice. The people who marched yesterday understand that case. Labour lacks the intellectual and moral courage to articulate it. Those who want real social and economic justice in Britain need to look elsewhere.