We all have our horror stories of the victims of deficit reduction. Mine is the sick feeling in my stomach last October, as Cameron made his Compassionate Conservative speech last autumn. This just days after he stated that tax credit cuts to savage the lives of millions of the working poor would go ahead.
Worse was the thought that, barring a miracle, these callous cynics could be running our country for another twenty years or more.
I’m sure many in the anti-austerity movement have a similar horror. So why don’t I count myself among them?
Back in 2010, I took a taxi in Cambridge. As I usually do, I started chatting with my driver, and it turned out he was a Labour supporter.
I was curious as to what he really thought, so, rather than telling him I was a Lib Dem, I just asked what he thought about the deficit. Should the government hold off on reducing it until the recovery was more established, or should it cut it as quickly as possible?
He didn’t hesitate. “Cut it all at once,” he said.
I may have been a supporter of the Coalition, but I understand enough about economics to think he was mistaken. Keynes was right in the 1930s and Hayek was wrong. Cutting it all at once would have been a disaster.
However, that taxi ride has stayed with me over the six years since, reinforced by many conversations while canvassing. The average voter, especially the average small business owner, worries a lot about government profligacy. They think it lunacy that the government could run its finances so that for every four pounds it takes in income, it borrows a pound.
Many economists would disagree with them, but not all. I remember, in 2010, leftwing economists saying, “you can’t grow out of a deficit this large.”
Six years have passed, and memories have faded. But that period of financial danger has left a deep impression on many voters. For years, they have heard the Conservatives saying, if we don’t sort out the nation’s finances, this country will go down the plug-hole. What they’ve heard from the left is angry screams against austerity.
Who did the public believe? Look at the results of the last election. The Tories may have only received 37% of the vote, but if you combine it with UKIP, it’s 49.5%. That’s nearly a majority for rightwing parties.
If we look further afield there are few sources of comfort. The news for social democracy across Western Europe is grim. Have a look at this chart.
If we want to understand why people are rejecting social democracy, we have to start listening to them.
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of canvassing of voters who are going to vote Tory. If they tell me why, I listen. But do those on the anti-austerity left?
It’s not the Tory voters who are rich millionaires who shock me. It’s those who are clearly low earners, struggling to pay their bills, who gain enormously from the NHS and other public services.
When they say, “If I ran my cleaning business like you politicians run the country, I’d go bankrupt,” we need to listen.
Perhaps we think the government should allow more spending on social housing. I certainly do. Indeed that’s Lib Dem policy. But if we want to make that case and the people to listen to us, we need to show that we’ve been listening to them.
To leftwing progressives, who spend their time socialising with leftwing progressives, the term anti-austerity sounds like common sense. All their friends think the same, all the commentators whose articles they read agree with them. As for anyone who disagrees, it’s easy to dismiss them as rightwing sell-outs. Red Tories, Orange Tories, Bitterites, Blairite war-mongers, ConDems. But just imagine, just possibly, that you might be misunderstanding the voters, and they might be misunderstanding you.
I think the root of the problem is this word “austerity”. To the anti-austerity movement, the word means ideological Tory cuts, which undermine the recovery and hurt the poor. But to others, austerity just means “If you’re putting the rent on the credit card month after month, things need to change”. Denounce that last sentence if you like, but it wasn’t David Cameron, it was John McDonnell.
I keep hearing supporters of the anti-austerity movement quote Paul Krugman. But they never seem to listen when Paul Krugman says, “give me an economic recovery, I’ll become a fiscal hawk, but not now”.
Think about the implications of that. A fiscal hawk during a recovery is still a fiscal hawk. That’ll mean public sector wage restraint while private sector wages are booming. It’ll mean spending shortages in the NHS, cutbacks in capital programmes, and angry demonstrations against the government.
Not an easy thought, is it?
That taxi driver I spoke to in 2010 had similar thoughts, so do many ordinary voters. If progressives want to convince them not to vote Conservative, we’ve got to start listening to them, and understanding where they’re coming from.
Which brings me back to this phrase “anti-austerity”.
To you, maybe, anti-austerity means making the rich pay their fair share, stimulating the economy by building houses, being open-minded to policies that will allow the economy to grow.
But to many in the UK, “anti-austerity” means failing to follow the warnings of Mr Micawber. Spending for today, and ignoring ruination tomorrow.
If progressives want a hearing, we need to speak the same language.
Perhaps a slower rate of deficit reduction is a good idea. Perhaps now is the right time for a massive increase in capital spending. But if ordinary people are going to trust us on that, we need to start using language they understand.