Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
20 November 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:56am

“We are beyond austerity now”: Why Chuka Umunna and other politicians don’t get it

By Anoosh Chakelian

On BBC Two’s Politics Live, ex-Labour MP turned Lib Dem candidate Chuka Umunna professed that “We are beyond austerity now”. He was arguing against the “danger in trying to fight the last wars on these things” in election campaigns.

This betrays a view of austerity, shared by many in the Westminster world, as simply a talking-point. A battle line reminiscent of the coalition years that is no longer the buzzword du jour.

What many politicians dismiss when they roll their eyes at talk of austerity, as if it’s simply a passé attack line, is that its impact on this country has only just begun. Austerity is not a fleeting economic agenda that’s over when the chancellor claims it’s over. It’s an era-defining, fundamental reshaping of the state and community.

Even if funding is pumped back into local government, the NHS and the welfare system, it will take a long time to have any impact – and for the millions who have been hit by cuts, it’s already too late. There’s little chance of reversing its effects wholesale.

This misuse of austerity as a buzzword also affects the public. Often, people don’t make the link between the word and what it looks like on the ground. There have been “too many cutbacks”, or the “council haven’t been down here for a while”, or simply “buses are rubbish and the library’s shut and the roads are a state”. But residents are unlikely to use the word itself. Even recently I’ve noticed this when speaking to voters and shadowing politicians doorknocking since the election was called.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Politicians have a responsibility to make that link for voters. The more they treat it as yesterday’s essay question rather than a real-life crisis, the more they are completely detached from the British public.

Content from our partners
The shrinking road to net zero
The tree-planting misconception
Is your business ready for corporate climate reporting?