How do you campaign against austerity?

It's not the economics, stupid.

For something which affects so many people, economic policy is frequently far from popular discussion. The outcomes of economic decisions are what win and lose elections; but even though it's "the economy, stupid", politicians are forced to run on their record, not their plans. It's easy to hold someone accountable for failing to "fix the economy", but it's much harder for your average voter to tell whether a politician will be able to fix the economy in the future.

Earlier today, I spoke to Ricken Patel, the executive director of Avaaz.org, about the difficulty of campaigning for progressive economic policy. He told me that the organisation, which does traditional "clicktivism" campaigns, but also more nuanced activism involving identifying and winning over key policymakers. The key problem for carrying out a similar strategy in economic policy is that people tend to view it as a technocratic area. They are concerned that campaigning about a specific economic policy is like campaigning for your doctor to do a specific surgery—you should just leave it to the experts to do what they think is best.

On top of that, when Avaaz has campaigned on specific areas, like austerity, they've had trouble taking on the credit card analogy, which makes intuitive sense to people. The problem, he said, was that the left needs a credible response to the issue of public sector debt, and pointing out that the public sector isn't like a household because you can print money just doesn't sound realistic.

It's true that the credit card analogy is difficult to counter—though I did try just that earlier this week. But my concern is that, even though it's actually surprisingly easy to subvert and make the case for specific borrowing, there are too many basic truths in macroeconomics which simply have no analogy to a situation which people are familiar with. Perhaps the most obvious of those is the paradox of thrift: Keynes' famous explanation of how the individually rational response to a recession—to scrimp and save, reducing your personal expenditure in order to make it through a tricky time—would lead to a greater dip in output than if people were individually irrational.

Any time the economy is simplified down to terms which make it seem equivalent to personal finances, it makes it harder to convince people of the ways in which it isn't equivalent to them, which makes the entire quality of debate worse-off. That's the reason the analogy is so pernicious, and why it's dangerous for people to use it even if in the short-term it helps them—whether they're left or right.

Avaaz does have experience of carrying out campaigns aimed at more nebulous, long-term goals—a good example being their attempt to change the conversation around the War on Drugs, which was never going to win overnight—but even for them, a worldwide attempt to tell people "economic policy is not easily reducible to explanations which work in analogy with personal finance" might be a bit much.

Luckily, Avaaz has another suggestion. Alice Jay, a Campaign Director for the organisation, says that one area of economic policy it has had success in is, bluntly, banker-bashing.

Campaigning against high bonuses in the financial sector, and campaigning for "bankers behind bars"—personal responsibility for financial wrongdoing—has been, generally, successful.

Is this one way out of the bind? If tricky economic problems can be rephrased to be about questions of personal responsibility, that may be a more successful angle of attack. If they can be rephrased to be about questions of bankers responsibility, that's even better.

It suggests to me that the way to win the economic argument—and it pains me to say this, because it's so completely against what I feel comfortable with—is to downplay the economics entirely. Use and abuse of terrible, "common sense" arguments has rendered public discussion of economics intellectually vacuous. Instead, focus on whose fault austerity is, and who is taking the hit for its implementation. In other words, maybe the argument that "we're paying for their mistakes" is the one most likely to promote a popular, worldwide campaign against austerity.

It has always rankled that, even if one accepts that the debt needs to be brought down, the people whose actions caused it to rise in the first place are back in profit, still in their jobs, and being rewarded with a cut in their income tax. If Avaaz's experience is generalisable, then Krugmanite arguments about the self-defeating nature of austerity may be surplus to requirements. Not that I'm going to stop making them.

A campaign on Avaaz.org

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496