The response to austerity can't be on the terms which led us into it

The only effective response must be to repudiate the debt, writes Molly Scott Cato

It is disappointing that the response from the Left in Britain to the politics of austerity has been so limp. The brilliant coup from the interests of capital to paint the economic crisis as a crisis of government debt and public spending—and therefore the basis for an attack on the ideology of the left—has seen little in the way of aggressive intellectual response.

The simple explanation for this is that the left is divided. The line taken by the socialist and labour left has largely been one of denial. This is not a high level of debt, they argue. By historical standards, we have survived much higher levels of debt. Why, after the last war we faced debts on a far greater scale and yet that is when we established the health service.

I think this is a mistaken approach to the politics of austerity. For one thing, it will not wash. Citizens have a sense of there having been a vast amount of cash floating around during the Labour years. They also know that consumption, individual and national, was based on untrammelled credit. This is their sense of how life was, and they are not wrong.

Secondly, the parallel between our economy now and in the 1950s does not hold up to scrutiny. At that time we were an imperial nation and the workshop of the world, if a somewhat scruffy one making rather unfashionable products. We could use our empire as a vast ‘internal’ market, sucking in resources and finding compliant customers for our products. We could repay our debts through hard, productive labour—and we did. Now what do we have to offer the world as justification for the debts we have incurred? Our favourite offering of financial services is finding considerably less favour than five years ago.

But most importantly we should reject this line of argument because it is morally wrong. We should not have to live through the 1950s again, working hard to return interest to those who loaned us money. Back then it was US and Canadian capitalists who, through lend-lease, had ensured that the value created by British workers would flow back to them. We would not have won the war without US productive capacity, but we would not have lost the peace as spectacularly as we did had they not insisted that we continue to pay for it right up to 2006, just two years before the credit crisis.

Rather than arguing about how we should pay it back we should be repudiating the debt.

This is what has been happening in other European countries, where Citizens’ Audit have been established, inspired by the examples of the Latin American countries who refused to pay their debts during the last decade. Why should we pay back money loaned to us by financial institutions who have the power to create money by electronic fiat, they asked. And we should be asking the same question. By the time we had paid our wartime debts—the debts we incurred for defeating Hitler and protecting European democracy—we had paid our ‘allies’ the US and Canada, or rather US and Canadian capitalists and financiers, twice what we had borrowed. This iniquitous use of the power of money to extract value should be the real target of the left.

Earlier this week Portugal’s citizens’ audit campaign published a preliminary technical report: ‘Understand the debt to get out of the trap’; the Spanish campaign is called ‘Who owes whom?’ and is part of the work of the indignados. The Irish citizens audit, supported by UNITE as well as debt campaign groups, challenged circular nature of Irish debt-holding, with the government guaranteeing banks which, in turn, hold its debt. It found that Irish debt had been transformed from a safe and boring investment to a vehicle of speculative interest. Its authors used Kissinger’s term of “constructive ambiguity” to describe the deliberate use of recondite language to undermine the citizen’s power to understand the actions of their politicians.

The real purpose of a citizens’ audit is precisely to challenge this “constructive ambiguity”. Most people never question whether it is right that they should pay interest to a bank for the privilege of buying their home, although they will pay around twice the cost of the house by the term of the mortgage. Whether this is just depends on how the bank acquired the money and in these days when the corrupt dealings of banks are becoming revealed in more egregious detail every day, an audit into how our debt was acquired, who owns it, and who will receive the money that we are paying in return for our borrowings is urgently overdue.

Photograph: Getty Images

Molly Scott Cato is Green MEP for the southwest of England, elected in May 2014. She has published widely, particularly on issues related to green economics. Molly was formerly Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton.

Photo: Getty
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The future of the left: The path ahead is full of challenges

Be in no doubt: the left faces a struggle for survival.

There are plenty of grounds for pessimism about the left’s prospects and they are well rehearsed.  Across Europe, social democrats are out of power and when they do manage to enter government, it is under the skirts of dominant centre-right parties or at the helm of fragile coalitions. Ageing western societies have become more conservative, immigration has driven a cultural wedge into the cross-class coalitions that once undergirded centre-left voting blocs, and austerity has ushered in a politics of security, not reform. Only those who have borne the brunt of the financial crisis and its aftermath, like the unemployed youth and evicted homeowners of Southern Europe, have swung decisively to the left, joined by relatively protected but angry older middle class liberals of Northern Europe. Even in Latin America, where the left swept the board at the turn of the century, politics is shifting to the right. Bright spots, such as municipal experimentalism in Spanish cities, or energetic liberalism in Canada and Italy, illuminate the gloom. But mostly, darkness is visible.

Is this condition terminal? Inequality, stagnant living standards and the turbulence of global capitalism generate profound political discontent. They give oxygen to progressive protest movements as well as populist reactionaries, as the convulsions in US politics show. But only a facile determinism reads off political progress from economic crisis. There is nothing to guarantee that revulsion at political and economic elites will give birth to a new egalitarianism. The left needs a clearer headed view of the political terrain that it will face in the 2020s.

Demographic change is a given. Advanced democracies like Britain will get older and the weight of older voters in elections will increase, not diminish. The gap in turnout rates between young and old is unlikely to close, tilting politics even further towards the cultural concerns and economic interests of the over fifties. Leadership credentials and economic competence matter for these voters more than abstract appeals to equality. But a generation of young people will also enter middle age in the 2020s having endured the worst of the age of austerity, with lower wages, stymied home ownership aspirations and stunted career progression to show for it. So just as 20th century catch-all parties built cross-class electoral alliances, successful political movements in the coming decades will need to secure inter-generational voting blocs. Stitching these together will foreground the politics of family and focus policy attention on transfers of wealth and opportunity across multiple generations. 

Ageing will also ratchet up fiscal pressures on the state, as costs mount for the NHS, care of the elderly and pensions. But Britain’s tax base has been weakened by low productivity, corporate tax avoidance and expensive personal allowance giveaways. In the 2020s, this crunch will loom large over fiscal policy and force hard choices over priorities. Just as in the 1990s, we can expect public disquiet at the run-down of investment in public services to mount, but this time there won’t be the same spending headroom to respond to it. The political debate currently underway in Scotland about raising income tax is therefore a harbinger of the future for the rest of the UK.

Fiscal constraints will also force the left to take seriously the agenda of economic reform opened up under the ungainly title of “pre-distribution”. Without an account of how to generate and share prosperity more equitably within the market economy, social democracy is purposeless. But it will need a far more robust and plausible political strategy for achieving these ambitions than anything that has been on offer hitherto. Technological change will not usher in a new economy of its own accord, and without the solid base of an organised working class to ground its politics, the left needs to be open to a wide set of alliances with businesses, big and small. Combining economic radicalism with credibility and popular appeal, particularly to voters who still blame it for the financial crisis, is the hardest challenge the left faces, but there is no getting away from it.

On a note of optimism, the left is currently strong in cities, from which it can build out. Diversity is a strength in major urban centres, not a weakness, and powerful city leaders endow progressive politics with governing authority. Cities are the places where new social movements are most active and much of the energy of contemporary politics can be found, even if elections are fought on wider terrain. The task is to combine a propensity to decentralise and devolve with clear national political direction. The same holds with party reform: the mass political parties of the 20th century are dead, but networks can’t fight elections, so combining openness and democratic engagement, with discipline and national purpose, is vital. 

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research.