A Dead Economic Theory for a Dead Political Class
“Do you suffer from long-term memory loss – I can’t remember.” Chumbawamba
Just how bad are voters memories?
Scottish citizens of yesteryear might have been forgiven for voting Labour in UK General Elections, with the feint notion of a different political platform and a different economics in mind. In fact the urge to vote Labour and ‘protect Scotland from the Tories’ has echoed down the land for decades. But for people involved in the referendum it was a transformative moment of understanding about how power lies and how unionist politicians work. The ‘only Labour can beat the Tories’ myth has been well and truly tested and found wanting: from the Feeble Fifty to Blair’s Iraq adventure to Gordon’s PFI disaster.
Polly Toynbee is the latest to trot out the line (‘Ignore the flaws. For only Labour can beat the Tories’.) She is at least right about one thing, the cuts promised by Osborne will lock the country into permanent austerity. She writes:
“His cuts would keep the state permanently at the size it was in the 1930s – 35% of GDP – with councils stripped bare of all but basic functions. Local elections would be empty: it won’t matter who runs rump services. An unthinkable £12bn is to be cut from benefits, all from working-age families, most in work, making food banks a fixture.”
The cuts arriving will transform our society, that much is true.
What she misses out is that as recently as September Ed Balls was promising just the very same. Labour has already promised a ‘binding fiscal commitment’ to match Tory spending plans – a continuation of austerity. Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls used their autumn conference to spell out what that means; for example, freezing (in other words cutting) Child Benefit, Winter Fuel Allowance, and increasing the retirement age, a huge blow to the living standards of millions.
None of this is concealed.
Labour have been quite clear about their intentions.
They’ve pledged to introduce laws to enforce “tough” fiscal rules if they win the election in 2015.
Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls aims to replicate the anti-democratic measures imposed on countries such as Greece by the European Union, where massive spending cuts have been made legally binding.
Balls told the Fabian Society earlier in the year that a future Labour government would legislate within its first year to introduce a debt brake, progress which would be overseen by the Office for Budget Responsibility.
This means Labour is now fully committed to permanent austerity, as it matches the Tories step-for-step. The Conservatives have already stated they will bring the current account into surplus by 2019, based on more than £150 billion worth of cuts. Central to this is reducing public spending from 46 percent of GDP when it took office to less than 37 percent. Even so, Chancellor George Osborne has said that a further £25 billion of cuts will be necessary in addition to those already outlined.
The social implication of such moves is a uniform commitment by Britain’s political class to the impoverishment of the most vulnerable. For Scots to vote for a party committed openly to such measures would be extraordinary when we are presented with an opportunity to make common cause with Plaid Cymru and the Green Party on a range of alternatives.
Toynbee’s analysis is oddball.
First we have: “I’m sure we’d agree a score of issues where Labour policies look pusillanimous, hesitant or downright cowardly” before urging voters in a desultory voice that: “we are stuck with a rotten electoral system which, despite growing alienation from the old parties, demands cynical tactical voting to keep out the worst” and then, finally: “Too close to call, Labour stands a good chance of winning by a whisker. This is no time to quit, but to come to the aid of the party with donations.”
To summarise, there’s nothing to inspire you and they have no alternative, but give them your money anyway. It’s not exactly an inspiring vision for the post-Yes citizenry is it?
Nor do I think she is right in arguing that: ‘He (Miliband) won the leadership partly because he rejected the Iraq war.’ Sadly a more brutal reality likely stopped the comrades electing the former Foreign Secretary.
But if you think Toynbee is just a tired old Labour functionary blurting out the same failed trope, and simply unaware of alternatives from throughout the wider ‘United Kingdom’, think again. Her vision has a hinterland, or at least, a backwater. As she wrote in 2000:
“Scotland, Wales and Ireland have all moulded themselves a comfortable identity out of their victimhood, all having suffered slaughter at the hands of the ‘English’ (however defined). This has been embellished with dollops of ersatz folklore, most of it Victorian or later inventions – kilts, druids, eisteddfods, bagpipes, harps, shamrocks and by imposing dead languages on wretched children who should be learning live ones. But if that’s what they want, so be it. As subjugated people, if this is what it takes to restore their self-confidence, far be it from the English to snigger.”
Snigger away Polly. But you’ll forgive us if we don’t warm to your vision of a Labour future?
This kind of dire British nihilism should be rejected for what is it worth, a pale imitation of a failed neo-liberal agenda, faithfully regurgitated with Labour spin. If anyone’s language is dead it’s the language of austerity that Labour clings to this dark winter.