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.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.