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

Too often, “austerity” is treated as a Westminster buzzword instead of an era.

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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.

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.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.