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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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.