Friday, 23 September 2011
Austerity, political attitudes and the opposition
Guardian/ICM poll shows that only 32% agree that current government economic policies are "essential to protect Britain's economy".
62% of those polled agree "the cuts are too deep and too fast, they will harm Britain's economy more than they help it". That's a significant majority in opposition to the Tory-led coalition's cuts programme. Despite the backing of both coalition parties and a sympathetic media, the arguments for the 'necessity' of austerity are not convincing most people.
The poll findings are issued against the background of a spiralling crisis in the Eurozone, growing domestic fears of a 'double dip' recession and rising unemployment. It is becoming clear to many people that austerity isn't working, but instead suppresses prospects for economic recovery, and disproportionately and unfairly affects the poorest.
George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, has no solutions. Nor do his European counterparts. Governments across Europe are stuck in repeating the austerity mantra and insisting there is no alternative.
51% of those polled say the coalition government is doing a bad job, compared to only 39% in its favour. It is the first time an ICM poll has registered a negative approval rating for this government.
In this context two things are surely inevitable. One is that Labour will have a clear lead over the Tories. The other is that party leader Ed Miliband and Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls will fare better than their Tory opponents in public attitudes. How could they fail to make political capital out of disenchantment with the government?
But fail they do. Labour has a lead of just 1% over the Tories. For reasons best known to pollsters and psephologists, ICM polls always produce a narrower Labour lead than others like YouGov. But it's worth comparing this with previous ICM polls:
'A year ago this month – immediately after Ed Miliband's election to the leadership – Labour was one point lower than today, the Conservatives two points lower and the Lib Dems four points higher.'
After a year of a growing backlash against cuts, Labour support is barely any better. The approval ratings for Miliband and Balls are still more damning. Miliband has a net personal rating of -14, compared to Cameron's +4. Balls is -18 compared to Osborne's -6, a result utterly at odds with the finding that a majority disagree with the Tories' austerity drive.
The discrepancy can be explained by the defining characteristic of the current Labour leadership: vacillation. Miliband and Balls refuse to step outside the narrow terms of polite debate. They repeatedly miss chances to land blows on their Tory opponents, and fail to articulate a consistent alternative to Tory austerity.
Obsessed with the mythical 'centre ground' of politics, Miliband and Balls try to please everyone and end up pleasing nobody. In public perception, they stand for very little - merely a vague, semi-articulated disapproval of aspects of what the government is doing. And that's about it.
Recall the one time when Labour, briefly, appeared to command the political scene. When the hacking scandal emerged Miliband - after a tentative start - adopted a fierce oppositional stance towards the Murdoch empire and Tory collusion with it. Miliband suddenly appeared a strong leader, willing to confront the Tories and raise demands for a different kind of politics.
It didn't last. On the central issue of our age, Labour's front bench is fatally compromised by its refusal to break from the logic of austerity. Neoliberal ideology is, after 13 years of privatisation and deregulation in office, embedded in the parliamentary Labour party; shadow ministers struggle to think outside its confines.
Worst of all, Labour leaders have equivocated on the issue of pensions and not only distanced themselves from the unions but publicly opposed strike action. Their economic policy ends up looking incoherent. They are determined not to be the political wing of the anti-cuts movement, at a time when that would be a popular move. Vacillation is never persuasive.
It may be tempting for us to leave the political arguments aside - and focus purely on using our side's collective strength in the workplaces, with the prospect of nearly 3 million trade unionists potentially taking strike action. But strike action - and other forms of protest - must be accompanied by engagement in the battle of ideas.
When it comes to cuts, politics runs through everything. There is a close relationship between challenging the dominant austerity myths and people's confidence to resist. If Miliband and Balls won't rally support around consistent anti-cuts arguments and alternatives to austerity, we must create a movement - on the streets and in workplaces - that does just that.
The unfolding European crisis illustrates the urgency of that task - and reminds us of the need for a pan-European political alternative. The creation of a broad movement, with a clear political rejection of all cuts at its core, is required at local, national and international levels.