Many on the left of British politics still talk about “austerity” as something created by the Coalition government and now being carried on by the Tories with their newfound majority. However, I can assure you that austerity is for real; the government has less money to spend than it used to, or rather, we now know that the markets will not support the levels of government borrowing seen prior to the crash of 2008 any longer.
The Tories have a solution to this: you cut things. Lots of people don’t like this solution. Even lots of the people who voted Tory a few weeks back don’t particularly like this solution. But what it has going for it is that it’s a bona fide solution. What’s the Left’s alternative to the Tory plan? Deny that austerity exists in the first place. This is the chief reason why Labour lost the election as badly as they did this year.
What the British public heard over the course of the election campaign was that the Tories were probably going to cut some things from public spending that many amongst them probably would object to; however, Labour seemed to think that 2008 had never happened, or been some sort of corporate driven delusion or conspiracy. So the Tories were the least bad of the two by some ways. If Labour sticks to the same arguments, it will lose again; next time, probably worse.
This does not mean the Left needs to cave in to Tory solutions to the problem – otherwise, what’s the point? It just needs to admit there is a problem in the first place, from which it can then assemble its own arguments. But the second part can only follow if the first is achieved. At present, that feels a long way off.
In essence, the Left needs to figure out how you keep social democracy rolling in an age where governments can borrow less from the markets. Many on the left do have a point when they say a return to Blairism isn’t possible, but they’re just off on the real reason for that: it’s because the type of heavy borrowing to keep taxes low but public expenditure high that Blair championed won’t work again, not now, very possibly not ever. The 2008 crash happened because we were all leveraging against a future that was never going to happen.
This is a big ask, coming up with a way to maintain an active state when less money is going to be available. It will involve demolishing shibboleths, such as allowing some private involvement in health care while protecting the free at the point of care principle (as has happened in Scandinavia already). It will require making tough choices about what the state is and isn’t for. But I’ll tell you this much: if the Left can figure this all out, it will be well worth it. Because if there’s a credible plan to keep the NHS going, how to continue a high level of care for the elderly in an aging population, and a way to not only avoid suffering declining public services but actually watch those service improve, all while keeping taxes relatively low and the public finances in check, the Tories will get blown out of the water a la 1997.
But as I say, this all seems like a pipe dream at the moment. The Left seems unwilling or unable to even take the first step. All of us, whether we consider ourselves on the left or the right of politics, are worse off for this.