Election campaigns in the United Kingdom are relatively quick, cheap, dirty affairs compared with the remorseless electoral spending sprees that pass for democracy in the United States. However, when it comes to gimmickry, the U.K. might just have the edge. For instance, just a few days before the U.K. general election, Labour leader Ed Miliband unveiled a giant stone slab with six of his policy pledges inscribed on it and announced he would erect this eyesore in the garden of 10 Downing Street if elected.
One senior Labour apparatchik was soon backpedaling under questioning from an unimpressed BBC journalist. “I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that the fact [Miliband] has carved [his promises] into stone means he’s absolutely, you know, not going to break them or anything like that,” she told him.
The emptiness of Miliband’s grand slab is symbolic of a bigger shift in British society: The previously unshakable pillars of U.K. politics — including the faith that its politicians put in economic austerity — have crumbled. Britain is at long last a truly plural multiparty democracy, brought about mainly by the astounding rise of the Scottish National Party, which is predicted to win 40 to 50 seats after tacking to the left to run as an anti-austerity party. (In the last elections, in 2010, it won a mere six seats.)
The many foibles and discrepancies of the political union of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland once seemed irrelevant, but now that large numbers of Scottish seats will no longer be controlled from party HQ in England, these quirks of the union are absolutely central to political debate.
The dispute over who has the right to rule will be as much about what kind of politics count as legitimate in the U.K. right now as it will be about the fine points of constitutional procedure. Beneath the din of self-serving canards flying back and forth, there has been a surprising and highly significant shift in the terms of political debate in the U.K.: Austerity is out, and some observers are beginning to notice.
Since the economic crash of 2008, austerity was the dogma that underpinned British politics. The brutal cuts to welfare and social services in the first years of the last Parliament were implemented without much serious debate. But the improbable notion that cutting government spending is the best way to encourage economic growth is once again a question to be argued about rather than a consensus stretched right across the political class. These may go down as the elections in which the U.K. at last shook itself out of what economist Paul Krugman recently called “the austerity delusion.”
Austerity is widely loathed among ordinary people across the U.K., many of whom have watched in horror for the past five years as a government led by a cabal of wealthy, loutish aristocrats have vandalized a social fabric knit together painstakingly over generations. The chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, who wept openly at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, has been utterly remorseless in cutting services that provide essential support to the most vulnerable people in our society. And even then, Osborne failed by a distance to meet his own targets on reducing the deficit and saw U.K. government bonds downgraded in 2013, after the harshest years of cuts.
Yet somehow, when the election campaigning began, austerity was still considered a vote winner. Mainly this was because supporting austerity was presented as being an expression of bog-standard economic competence. The Conservatives campaigned for yet more austerity under their much-parroted “long term economic plan,” while Labour offered voters a kind of austerity lite with its “better plan.” (Please stop me if these slogans are too inspiring.)
As time passed, deficit talk has given way, quite unexpectedly, to something else. It’s no longer wacky to propose old-fashioned meat-and-potatoes social democratic policies, like more free child care (the Conservatives) or upping funding for the unshakably popular National Health Service (the Liberal Democrats). These were the sorts of obviously popular and worthwhile policies that were scarcely ever discussed amid the unremitting miserabilism of austerity politics.
To a large extent, this shift appears to have been prompted by the challenge to the politics of austerity that was put forward in the TV leaders’ debate over a month ago. All three women on the platform that night — Nicola Sturgeon (SNP), Natalie Bennett (Green) and the former probation officer Leanne Wood (Plaid Cymru) — rejected the assumptions about austerity that had gone unchallenged in the Westminster echo chamber for so long.
Sturgeon repeated the SNP manifesto’s commitment to bring about “an end to austerity” and was widely acclaimed as the winner of the debate — in England as well as Scotland. Two of the most-searched-for questions on Google during the debate were “What is austerity?” and “Can I vote for the SNP?” The appeal of the SNP and Plaid Cymru’s anti-austerity pitch cut across regional lines, and it became painfully clear that voters in England had only the tiny Green Party to vote for should they wish to oppose the Tory government on fundamental economic questions. The next morning, the right-wing press was foaming at the mouth. The front page of the hard-right Daily Mail, the U.K.’s biggest-selling newspaper, announced Sturgeon “the most dangerous woman in Britain.”
The Conservatives reacted by stoking nationalist feeling in England — the right wing has long been in fear of what terrors (such as increasing the minimum wage and reducing child poverty) might be wreaked on unsuspecting English voters by the so-called Tartan Stalinists. But 10 days after the debate, the Conservatives announced plans to increase free child care for working parents of toddlers to 30 hours per week, five more than Labour was promising.
They wouldn’t admit it, but the TV debate had changed the mood. Quite simply, people once again want to hear how government can make their lives better.
Whichever party heads the next government, it seems certain that the cult of austerity has run its course in the U.K., even though neoliberal thinking certainly hasn’t gone away. Proponents of what political scientist Adolph Reed described as a “concrete program for intensified upward redistribution” of wealth will have to find new ways of making their case compelling, in a political language that doesn’t rely on the austerity jargon that proved so persuasive in recent years.