Getty Images
Show Hide image

Conservative splits on austerity are a political gift for Labour

Tories are identifying the problems with austerity but their party is not providing the solutions. 

For nearly a decade the Conservatives have cited the UK’s budget deficit as justification for austerity. But the recent improvement in the public finances (Britain has eliminated its current deficit) has led some to declare victory. “We got there in the end - a remarkable national effort. Thank you,” tweeted austerity’s author, George Osborne. 

This outcome, as Stephen noted last week, has been achieved at no small cost. Homelessness has risen by 169 per cent, the NHS is buckling under the strain of rising demand and child poverty has reached its highest level since 2010.

Over the same period, Britain has voted to leave the EU (in part due to discontent with austerity) and, to Tory dismay, a left-wing Labour Party has eliminated its parliamentary majority. If Osborne believes this is success, what would failure look like?

But the achievement of a current budget surplus (following a deficit of £100bn in 2010) remains a significant landmark (no government has run a current surplus since 2001/02). The Conservatives, however, are divided on how to respond.

For some, this is the moment to finally end austerity. Tory MPs, such as Nick Boles, Heidi Allen, Johnny Mercer and Sarah Wollaston, recognise that public spending cuts contributed to their election failure. Some believe, as Theresa May’s former aide Nick Timothy argues in his Telegraph column today, that the government should abandon the target of an overall budget surplus in order to invest in infrastructure and raise spending on the NHS (an electoral priority) and defence (a Tory priority).

“The government has achieved its surplus,” Timothy writes. “It can invest in the economy for the long term. It can start to increase spending on public services. It can show that the Conservatives are more than just cutters: they have a broader and more ambitious economic mission and a deep sense of social justice. Mr Hammond must declare an end to the Age of Austerity.”

Yet others, including, crucially, Philip Hammond, believe this is no time “to go soft”. They warn that the UK’s national debt remains dangerously high at £1.7trn or 84.1 per cent of GDP, and point to the pressures that Brexit, mediocre growth and an ageing population impose. 

Theresa May has long been sceptical of Hammond’s fiscal conservatism but missed her chance to move the Chancellor when she blew her majority in a needless election (Hammond has since been strengthened by the non-implosion of his Budget).

For Labour, this divide is a political blessing. An increasing number of Tories articulate the problems with austerity but their party is unable to provide the solutions. By contrast, through divided in other areas, Labour is united in its desire to end spending cuts.

The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus. Should they prove incapable of change, the voters may well conclude that they are unworthy of power. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

I'm not going to be General Secretary, but the real fight to change Labour is only just beginning

If Labour gets serious about a new politics, imagine the possibilities.

For a second time, I was longlisted for the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party this week. For a second time, just as in 2011, I was eliminated in the first round. The final shortlist now consists of two veteran trade unionist women leaders, Jennie Formby of the Unite union and Christine Blower - formerly of the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Party. I met them both yesterday at the interviews; I congratulate them, and look forward to hearing more about their ideas for Labour party renewal.

Last week in both the New Statesman and LabourList, I explained why I thought we needed a General Secretary “for the many”. I set out a manifesto of ideas to turn Labour into a twenty-first century campaigning movement, building on my experience with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Momentum, Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and other networked movements and platforms.

I called for a million-member recruitment drive, and the adoption of the new “big organising” techniques which combine digital and face-to-face campaigns, and have been pioneered by the Sanders movement, Momentum, Macron and the National Nurses Union in America. I set out the case for opening up the party machine in a radical but even-handed way, and shared ideas for building a deeper party democracy.

I noted innovations like the Taiwanese government’s use of online deliberation systems for surfacing differences, building consensus and finding practical policy solutions. Finally, I emphasised the importance of keeping Labour as a broad church, fostering more constructive internal discussions, and turning to face outward to the country. I gladly offer these renewing ideas to the next General Secretary of the party, and would be more than happy to team up with them.

Today I am launching, a new digital democracy platform for the Labour movement. It is inspired by experience from Taiwan, from Barcelona and beyond. The platform invites anyone to respond to others’ views and to add their own; then it starts to paint a visual picture of the different groupings within the movement and the relationships between them.

We have begun by asking a couple of simple questions: “What do we feel about the Labour party and movement? What’s good, and what’s more difficult?” Try it for yourself: the process is swift, fun and fascinating. Within a few days, we should have identified which viewpoints command the greatest support in the movement. We will report back regularly on this to the media.

The Labour movement is over 570,000 members, thousands of elected representatives, a dozen affiliated unions and millions of Labour voters. We may disagree on some things; but hopefully, we agree on far more. Labour Democracy is a new, independent and trustworthy platform for all of us to explore our differences more constructively, build common ground, and share ideas for the future. I believe Labour should be the political wing of the British people, as close to the 99 per cent as possible – and it will ultimately only be what we make of it together.

Yesterday I spoke over Skype with Audrey Tang, the hacker and Sunflower Movement leader who is now Digital Minister of Taiwan. Audrey is a transparent politician, so she has since posted a video of our conversation on YouTube. I recommend watching it if you are at all interested in the future of politics. It concludes with her reflections on my favourite Daoist principle, that true leadership leaves the people knowing that they have made change themselves.  

This General Secretary recruitment process has been troubled by significant irregularities, which I hope the party learns from. The story is considerably more complex and difficult than is generally understood. I have spent considerable time in the last week trying to shine greater light on the process in the media and social media, and encouraging the national executive committee, unions and politicians to run a more open and transparent process. I even started a petition to the NEC Officers group, calling for live-streamed debates among the candidates for this crucial and controversial party management role. I very much hope that there is no legal challenge.

Most importantly, the last week has exposed a significant fault line in Labour between the new left and the old left. When Jon Lansman of Momentum entered the contest against the “coronation candidate” Jennie Formby, many people read this as a fight between two factions of the old left. But Jon’s intent was always to open up a more genuine contest, and to encourage other candidates – particularly women – to come forward. Having played the role only he could play, he eventually withdrew with dignity. His public statements through this process have been reflective of the best of the new politics. And despite our very different political journeys, he kindly agreed to be one of my referees.

There has been plenty of the old transactional machine politics going on behind closed doors in the last couple of weeks. But out in the open, the new left movements and platforms have shown their strength and relevance. Momentum emailed all its members encouraging them to apply for the role. On Facebook Live, YouTube and podcasts like All The Best, the Novara Media network has been thoughtfully anatomising the contest and what it means for the future of the left. Even the controversial Skwawkbox blog finally agreed to cover my candidacy, and we had a constructive row about the leaked memo I wrote for Corbyn’s office back in December about how to win the next election using data, organising and every new tool in the box.

I am worried about the old left, because I feel it is stuck in a bunker, trapped in a paradigm of hierarchical power and control. The new left by contrast understands the power of networks to transform conversations and win hearts and minds.

The old left yanks at levers, and brokers influence through a politics of fear and incentives. But this tired game is of decreasing relevance in this day and age. The new left has the energy, the reach, the culture and the ideas to build a new common sense in this country, and to win decisive victory for Labour and progressives in the next general election – if the old left will partner with it. 

I am keen to help. So are many others. I hope we can start to have a more constructive and equal conversation in Labour soon. Otherwise an exodus may begin before long; and no-one wants that.

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is a co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011.