Austerity outstays its welcome

9 06 2014

Anyone watching media coverage of the recent spate of elections, or indeed the news more generally, could be forgiven for thinking that austerity never happened. I don’t think the BBC’s coverage of the local elections once mentioned the gutting of local government funding that has taken place since the banking crisis; the results were only to be discussed in terms of national politics – namely, what this means for the general election.

But austerity is a thing. It has been a thing for many years now. And all main political parties are committed to keeping it a thing for many years to come.

The Conservatives have made their position clearest so far. George Osborne has pledged to engineer a budget surplus by 2020 – which hardly anyone believes is possible – and so the welfare system will be dismantled further, local councils will be bled dry, and the NHS will wither on the vine. None of this is news, in any sense of the word.

What did catch my eye was part of the undercard of Lord Ashcroft’s opinion poll a fortnight ago. The headline act in Ashcroft’s weekly polls is always the voting scorecard – Labour v Tories – but this particular edition also featured a question on attitudes to austerity. The response was completely ignored by the media – but not by Lord Ashcroft himself, who understood its significance:

‘… 41% agreed with the statement “the national economy is not yet fully fixed, so we will need to continue with austerity and cuts in government spending over the next five years.” Nearly seven in ten Tories and a majority of Lib Dems thought so, as did one fifth of Labour supporters.

But a quarter of voters overall, including a quarter of those who said they would vote Conservative in an election tomorrow, felt that the medicine – though necessary – has already worked and the treatment can stop. They agreed that “while a period of austerity was needed to fix the national economy, we don’t need another five years of cuts of government spending”.

Meanwhile a further one third of the electorate, including nearly half of Labour voters, believed instead that “austerity and cuts in government spending were never really needed to fix the national economy, it was just used as an excuse to cut public services.” UKIP voters were among the most sceptical or cynical about the government’s deficit reduction policy, with 41% believing austerity was a cover for cuts in public services. Swing voters, too, will need convincing.

More than six in ten thought austerity could end; these were divided evenly between those who thought the policy had served its purpose and those who did not believe it was needed in the first place.’

What does this mean?

The Tories have long feared that economic recovery would undermine the case for further cuts – if headline growth figures are returning to health, why administer more of the “medicine”? Add that to the third of the electorate who always regarded austerity as a scam, and you have a majority against wielding the axe for another five years. Those supporting more cuts make up the biggest single bloc of opinion – but they are ultimately in a minority.

Note also that UKIP supporters are among the most sceptical of all about the need for more austerity. In one sense that’s not surprising – UKIP have the most working class voter base of any party. And let’s not kid ourselves – just because UKIP supporters don’t want more austerity doesn’t mean they don’t back welfare cuts, as these are seen as much in terms of “morality” as fiscal necessity.

But it is striking that at a time when leading politicians are falling over themselves to beat up on immigrants and benefit claimants out of a supposed need to court the UKIP vote, all three main parties will not so much as hint at deviating from the austerity line.

Why is this? Well, for many frontbench politicians, it is simply what they entered politics to do – the Tories to destroy the social state, the Lib Dem “orange bookers” to marketise it, and Labourites to replace it with unregulated charities.

In addition, nobody near the Labour leadership is willing to risk the ire of the markets, the financial sector or the right wing press by facing down the austerity agenda.

On top of that, you have the 41 percent who backed further austerity in Lord Ashcroft’s poll – many of them Tories, likely to be middle class, and likely to be located at least in part in the southern battleground seats that, whilst now largely irrelevant, remain firmly at the root of political calculations. Labour daren’t ditch austerity and sacrifice some quixotic stab at winning Surrey votes. Immigration and welfare, by contrast, are seens as easy targets that unite haters everywhere.

Put all that together and you get the status quo – three parties committed to delivering what most people don’t want.

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