Posts Tagged ‘Party politics and elections’

Reforming modern employment: have the Conservatives done enough to be the party of workers?

Have the Conservatives fulfilled Theresa May’s pledge to become Britain’s ‘workers’ party’? Not as it currently stands, writes Tonia Novitz. She explains what the actual plight of British workers is, what steps have been taken by May’s government to address it, and why they fall short of what is needed.

Can the Tories can become ‘the workers’ party’? This was the latest ambition of Robert Halfon, a Conservative MP. Observing the decline in support from women and those under 30, he sought a rebranding to revitalize Conservative popularity. His pitch for a ‘workers’ charter’ might be equated with what is currently envisaged in the Taylor Review initiated by the government, but if so such a charter would be hollow and inadequate. Much more would need to be done.

Theresa May’s aspirations

As Home Secretary, Theresa May’s preoccupation lay with immigration offences, the enactment of the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and criminal penalties for those implicated in slavery, forced labour and trafficking, sometimes confusing these objectives. As Prime Minister at the Conservative Party Conference in October 2016, she evinced less sympathy for the exceptional victim and more for the ‘ordinary working class’, stating that ‘we are the party of workers’, while restating her concerns about the effects on the labour market of immigration.

Similarly, chapter 5 of a recent White Paper on ‘controlling immigration’ asserted that Brexit would fix the ‘downward pressure on wages for people on the lowest incomes’. Chapter 7 claimed that ‘workers’ rights’ would be retained and improved, noting the Review already underway to ‘consider how employment rules need to change in order to keep pace with modern business models’.

The actual plight of British workers

There is, contrary to popular belief, little evidence that free movement rules operating in the UK by virtue of its EU membership have had a depressive effect on wages or affected the availability of jobs. Instead, studies reveal that they tend to boost economic growth. The ‘posted workers’ regime, which enables temporary posting of workers between EU Member States may well have negative effects and accordingly is the subject of proposals for reform by the European Commission, which have been agreed to in principle by the European Council.

Of greater concern is the increasing frequency of hiring of workers through agencies or under zero hours contracts, such that secure employment has become scarcer, while real wages decline. These modes of employment have also become associated with what has been described as ‘platform work’, whereby drivers, couriers, carers and others sign up to an ‘app’ under contractual conditions designed to prevent them claiming rights under the most privileged legal category ‘employee’ (such as protection from dismissal) and even as a lower status ‘worker’ (such as the National Living Wage, paid holidays, and maximum working hours). At present, it is estimated that no more than 15% of the workforce are currently affected by such practices, but there are fears that, as such technology pervades the labour market, these modes of hiring will become more prevalent.

In a series of very recent cases from 2016-2017, businesses such as Addison Lee, Citysprint and perhaps most notably Uber, have all sought to evade their responsibilities for those who work for them in these ways. Employment tribunals and the Employment Appeal Tribunal have firmly rejected their arguments that the drivers and couriers are not ‘workers’ and have found in favour of claims to wages and working time protections. In the care sector, even an express statement that a contract entailed ‘zero hours’ and led to no employment rights was found to be unenforceable.

To this extent, the courts are using current British employment law to try and protect those at work. They were recently joined by the Court of Justice of the European Union, which also found an ostensibly self-employed worker paid on commission to be entitled to extensive compensation for unpaid holiday pay. The notable exception is the rejection by the Central Arbitration Committee of an application for statutory trade union recognition of Deliveroo drivers in November 2017, on the basis that they were not ‘workers’. The unilateral introduction of ‘new contracts’ by Deliveroo that enabled drivers to choose substitutes to carry out the work for them (such that there was no ‘personal service’) prevented them from claiming that status.

Credit: Pixabay/Public Domain.

The current recommendations

Published in July 2017, the Review on Modern Working Practices sought to address these forms of precarity emerging in the British labour market. It made no reference to workers who are EU nationals, despite this stumbling block in current Brexit negotiations. Instead, the Taylor Review made a series of recommendations for ‘Good Work’ regarding precarious work. A response was expected from the current government by the end of 2017, although it now looks set for early 2018.

In the meantime, two House of Commons Committees (on Work and Pensions and on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) have intervened with their own joint Report published in November, proposing concrete legislative initiatives in support of the Taylor Review proposals. Indeed, the Report begins with Theresa May’s commitment to legislate for workers on the steps of Downing Street. Not to be outdone, so that it will not only be the Conservatives who are the ‘party of workers’, the Report pledges cross-party support for the reforms. The difficulty lies in what is proposed and its paucity.

The Report adopts the Taylor Review recommendation for legislative clarification of the tests for ‘employee’ and ‘worker’. The difficulty is that the list of legislative tests proposed seem more exacting than the practical approach advocated by the UK Supreme Court which takes account of the inequality of bargaining power between employer and employee (or worker). Moreover, the new statutory definition of ‘worker’ would still exclude the situation where an employer imposes a substitution clause to be used ‘freely’ in practice by the workforce, so the outcome in the Deliveroo case above would be unchanged.

Reversing the burden of proof regarding who will be regarded as a worker might seem superficially helpful, and will only be as helpful as the tests to be applied. Trade union representation could be better understood as a fundamental human right and should not be dependent on such technical definitions according to the International Labour Organisation. An entitlement to a one-sided written statement by the employer of one’s terms and conditions which would extend beyond employees to workers is also likely to have limited effect. Further, a premium on payment of non-guaranteed hours above the National Minimum Wage and National Living Wage does nothing for workers whose wages may be above this level, but who cannot rely on work in any given week, so that their overall income remains at poverty levels. The issue of fictional choice neglected in the Taylor Review is barely addressed in the committees’ joint Report.

Similarly the Report neglects worker representation. The Taylor Review proposed that the threshold for application of the Information and Consultation of Employees Regulations be lowered to enable casual employees to speak out in the workplace. In his evidence to the committees, Matthew Taylor argued that otherwise workers could not stand up to employers, for example, on matters of health and safety.

Yet information and consultation which does not require an employer to act on workers’ views is vastly inferior in effect to collective bargaining backed up by recourse to effective industrial action. It is the latter which really needs to be protected, as the application in respect of the Deliveroo drivers demonstrates. The Trade Union Act 2016 and the draconian reforms therein which limited worker voice are not even mentioned by the Taylor Review or the joint Report. If the constraints on the choices and voices of those who work are not acknowledged, it is difficult to see how any legislation will ameliorate their current vulnerability. If the Conservatives simply follow these limited recommendations, they will not have acquired Lord Halfon’s ‘workers’ charter’; nor can they or will they be the party of the workers.

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Note: the above draws on the author’s PolicyBristol report (with Katie Bales and Alan Bogg) ‘Choice’ and ‘voice’ in modern working practices; an evidence informed response to the Taylor Review.

About the Author

Tonia Novitz is Professor of Labour Law at the University of Bristol Law School.

 

 

 

 

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

How Momentum got Britain’s youth interested in politics

Momentum has played a key role in regenerating interest in electoral politics among young people. Sarah Pickard explains how the tactics they employed have been met with ongoing success, and how they harnessed the enthusiasm and energy of young people to campaign for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour.

One of the dominant narratives about the 2017 General Election result is that young people turned out in a considerably higher proportion than previously, and that they voted overwhelmingly for the Labour Party. The recent surge in young people favouring Labour can be traced back to the launch of the political movement Momentum to support Jeremy Corbyn, following his election as party leader in September 2015. How has Momentum generated interest in politics among young people?

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership election campaign in 2015 (and his re-election in 2016) involved three intertwined factors: mass mobilisations, grassroots support, and digital technologies. Notably, there was a database containing information (email addresses, telephone numbers, postcodes, etc) “collected during both of Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, through both Momentum and the official campaigns.” This political communication goldmine was owned by the director of Operations for Corbyn’s leadership campaign, Jon Lansman. He took it with him when he went on to form Momentum in October 2015 as a traditional socialist organisation independent from the Labour Party, but officially supportive of it and Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, thus filling the left-wing political vacuum vacated by New Labour.

Momentum used the tactics of the ‘Jeremy for Leader’ campaign to generate support and claimed to have 100,000 online registered supporters by April 2016, 2000,000 by January 2017. For paid up members, the number grew from 20,000 to 31,000 members between January and November 2017. Supporters and members can roughly be divided up along generational lines: the older, veteran, traditional Leftists who do not identify with New Labour; and the young, newly politicized movementists, some of whom were not even born when Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997.

Part of the attraction of Momentum for young people resides in its horizontal, social movement network way of doing politics, as opposed to the rigid, hierarchical Labour Party structure. Similarly, for Momentum sympathisers, the network generates a feeling of belonging to a constructive and positive community that offers hope and potential for change. The very active and interactive use of digital technologies – that comes naturally to many young people – is another part of the appeal and an effective method for both diffusing information and mobilising support.

Young people are at the heart of Momentum. They play a crucial role in informing, participating, and organising Momentum’s digital and physical events, as opposed to being passive consumers. Indeed, part of the success has been allowing supporters and members to organise individually, as part of local Momentum groups and larger regional umbrella groups, alongside what was Momentum’s national executive, now called its National Co-ordinating Group. Pivotal to this has been volunteer ‘Big Organising,’ where activists are empowered and trusted with roles usually designated to employed staff and the party hierarchy.

This is achieved through a variety of means, including, on the one hand, Momentum’s official communication channels and frequent emailing using the information from the aforementioned database, and, on the other hand, member- and supporter-generated communication via social media. Social media creates a direct link between Momentum and the grassroots, by-passing the Labour Party and the mainstream media, especially most newspapers, that were vociferously against Corbyn and Momentum. It is also fast, labour un-intensive and cost-effective, thus enabling Momentum to reach a large audience. Social media also gives a voice to the grassroots, allowing them to generate content and to organise events.

Momentum has also been creative through the use of pop-up phone banks (initially used during the ‘Calling for Corbyn’ 2016 leadership campaign). Volunteers access a web-app to canvass potential supporters and voters from either an improvised call centre or from home. These activists are encouraged to post photos on social media, spreading the message and generating further interest. Effective use of social media and apps such as My Nearest Marginal has also enabled grassroots activists to be dynamic at traditional door-to-door canvassing and leafleting on a large-scale, especially in marginal seats and areas that have been traditionally difficult to reach, including university towns.

Momentum off-line events include different scale community-centred activities, like group discussions, debates, seminars, pop-up political meetings, public meetings and policy consultations taking place in various settings. There are also more informal Momentum social events, such as pub quizzes, music concerts, meals, picnics and sporting fixtures, which all contribute to creating a community spirit among grassroot activists – young and old.

The appeal of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party in the 2017 General Election among many young people is largely attributable to the leader being viewed as an authentic and ideological politician with a positive and hopeful message, as well as youth-friendly policies, as opposed to Conservative Party. Momentum played a key role in generating this support. Although the movement has not been without its critics, especially regarding extremism and entryism, it has nonetheless managed to bring many young people into the fold of political participation, including voting, which can only be a good thing for democracy.

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Note: this article draws from the author’s chapter in Sarah Pickard and Judith Bessant, eds. (2017) Young People Re-Generating Politics in Times of Crises, (Palgrave Macmillan).

About the Author

Sarah Pickard is Senior Lecturer at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris. Her research in contemporary Youth Studies focuses on the interaction between youth policy and youth politics. She is publishing Politics, Protest and Young People. Political Participation and Dissent in Britain in the 21st Century with Palgrave Macmillan in 2018.

 

 

How effective is online communication between the elected and their electors?

In its early days, some considered the internet to be the silver bullet that could deal with the deficits of representative democracy. Others had been less optimistic vis-à-vis its potential to foster democracy. Hartwig Pautz looks at whether the e-democracy tool WriteToThem allows for meaningful communication between citizens and their elected representatives.

Since its creation, the internet has been hailed by some as an instrument that can ‘fix’ representative democracy, or even make deliberative or direct democracy possible on a mass scale. On the opposite side, some have pondered whether ‘democracy can survive the internet’ in the face of post-truth politics and given the use of the internet to spread lies and ‘alternative facts’.

Amongst the modest claims about the internet’s potential positive impacts on democratic practice is that it can facilitate exchange and communication – in other words, higher levels of interactivity between voters and their elected representatives. Among those believing in the internet as a technology to make democracy better are MySociety – a ‘brand’ of the UK Citizens Online Democracy charity. They have produced tools such as TheyWorkForYou; FixMyStreet; WhatDoTheyKnow; FixMyTransport; PledgeBank; and HearFromYourMP. A further tool is WriteToThem, more or less the internet version of 1990s FaxYourMP.

WTT allows users to input their postcode and find their representatives – on the local, sub-national, national and EU levels – in order to send them an email. MySociety believe ‘that the internet can meaningfully lower the barriers to taking the first civic or democratic steps in a citizen’s life, and that it can do so at scale’, WTT was set up to facilitate this. This assumption however begs a question: what kind of interactivity does WTT actually facilitate? My research seeks to give answer this question by exploring WTT through research with Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) and Scottish local councillors.

This exploration is approached through how those elected evaluate WTT as a tool that allows citizens to reach out to them. On the positive side, e-survey and interview data show that WTT is well-used, as both MSPs and local councillors demonstrate a keenness on interacting with WTT users. Few, if any, emails go unanswered. But the data also shows that people do not use WTT as planned by its makers. Rather than being used to bring the concerns of individuals to their representative’s attention, WTT is often used by campaigning organisations, albeit indirectly so.

This is done by campaigners who ask their followers to ‘copy and paste’ standardised demand letters into WTT. Replies are not expected, let alone an exchange of views with the MSP or councillor. When asked about this aspect of WTT, one MSP remarked that ‘WTT is ideal for special interest groups trying to generate a pressure of numbers in respect of any issue’. Such usage is unlikely to generate interactivity as WTT becomes little more than a one-way communication tool. Similarly, MSPs and councillors think of many emails through WTT as a call ‘to sort it’.

But the research also showed some positive findings. Some interviewees describe WTT as one of many mechanisms through which to communicate with citizens: ‘I think WriteToThem and things like that are really helpful because it means I have contact, however fleeting, with a wider range of people’, as one local councillor said. Contact, however, does not equal better insight into what is important for constituents. Just over a third of MSPs and only less than a quarter of councillors indicated that they had gained better insight into what concerns citizens through WTT.

It seems therefore that WTT is of limited use for better fulfilling the ‘constituency service role’. Indeed, doing so is further complicated by the competition which WTT messages create when the user decides to send them to all councillors in a multi-member ward or to constituency and list MSP. This can lead to the elected trying ‘to sort it’ all at the same time and thus unnecessarily binding government resources or duplicating officials’ efforts. Yet some respondents regard this competition as healthy for it provides an incentive to react to constituents’ concerns quickly.

What are the conclusions then? Data presented here shows that only very rarely the instigators of a communication via WTT move communication beyond the initial email and the representative’s response. Instead, many WTT users, despite attempts by MySociety to block such usage, send emails written by campaign organisations. And when email-based iterative exchanges do occur, the representatives do not find them very fruitful.

The research confirms that ‘the internet’ itself cannot stimulate democracy or revitalise the relationship between the represented and the representative. This is not surprising, as technological determinism was always displaced. Nonetheless, WTT is seen by many representatives as a helpful tool for citizens to contact them. What also emerged was that the makers of WTT could have made their tool more attractive to the elected. Some councillors and MSPs voiced unease about the fact that they were never consulted over WTT or their inclusion in its database: ‘I would be in favour of more communication with MySociety.org because I’ve never had communication from them. So, they’re asking me to engage on a site with constituents but they’ve never actually engaged with me to tell me what the purpose of the site is, what they expect of me, how they rate things’, as one MSP said. This is problematic as e-democracy tools ought to be considered legitimate by all involved. Otherwise, they might contribute to the existing distrust in parliaments and their members.

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About the Author

Hartwig Pautz is Lecturer in social sciences at the University of the West of Scotland.

 

 

 

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Image credit: Pixabay/Public Domain.

Masterly inactivity or a new dawn?: Labour and the regulation of private renting

If there is one thing that Labour and the Conservatives currently have in common is that both appear ready to embark on a step change in housing policy. But are Jeremy Corbyn’s recent announcements on rent controls a sign of change, or just another new political language for ‘masterly inactivity’? Ben Pattison reviews Labour’s record on private renting regulation.

The frenetic pace of British politics means that the party conferences in September can feel like ancient history. However, it is worth reflecting on the conference speeches and their significance for housing policy. One of the most notable announcements was Jeremy Corbyn on rent controls. He said that:

…we will control rents – when the younger generation’s housing costs are three times more than those of their grandparents, that is not sustainable. Rent controls exist in many cities across the world and I want our cities to have those powers too and tenants to have those protections.

Reaction to the announcement highlighted how polarising this issue remains. Some commentators reacted with “joy unconfined” that Corbyn was taking on “greedy” landlords and “villainous” lettings agents. Others argued that it would be a “disaster for tenants”. In reality, “rent controls could mean any number of different policies“. Without a much more detailed idea of Labour’s policies it is impossible to know what their impact might be. Despite this ambiguity, Corbyn’s announcement is still significant. To understand its importance we need to consider the Labour party’s long and contentious relationship with the regulation of private renting.

Labour has traditionally been viewed as hostile to the private rented sector. During the 1960s “housing assumed a central political role, which indirectly can be traced to the activities of one west London private landlord named Rachman”. Rachman was a London landlord whose alleged reputation for using aggressive methods for removing existing tenants to allow for increases in rents became infamous. This scandal consolidated a consensus that support for the “private rented landlord seems to have been politically out of the question, even for Conservative governments”.

Up until the late 1980s it was argued that, for Labour, “the negative ideas associated with private landlordism… act as an ideological reservoir”. This was typified by the response of Labour MPs to the proposals which became the Housing Act 1988. The Conservatives introduced the current regulatory environment of assured shorthold tenancies which allowed for the negotiation of rental levels between the tenant and landlord. At that time the Labour Housing spokesperson, Clive Soley, argued that the rights of tenants were being destroyed as “a shorthold assured tenancy is an insecure short let. There can be no consensus between the political parties on such a policy”.

Tony Blair’s explicit support for the private rented sector in the mid-1990s marked an important milestone as it “constructed a symbolic distance from ‘old’ Labour’s preoccupation with council housing and distaste for private landlords”. The first New Labour Housing Minister, Hilary Armstrong, stated that “I am agnostic about the ownership of housing – local authorities or housing associations; public or private sector – and want to move away from the ideological baggage that comes with that issue”. The private rented sector was no longer a housing problem but a mechanism to increase choice for consumers.

Credit: Pexels/Public Domain.

The New Labour approach often consisted of “masterly inactivity”, as described by one of their housing ministers, Nick Raynsford. In a range of policy documents and speeches, successive New Labour ministers were at pains to point out that they were seeking the minimum intervention in the private rented sector in order to allow the market to function independently. Regulation would be limited to ‘protecting the vulnerable’ from a small minority of ‘bad landlords’. Academics such as Brian Lund considered the policy changes relating to private renting to be relatively minor. He concluded that – particularly during the first term in government – “housing policy marked time, albeit within a novel political language”.

The Labour party largely stuck with a minimal approach to the regulation of private renting after Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007. Additional “light touch” regulation was proposed by the government commissioned Rugg review of private renting. Published in October 2008 it also proposed encouraging investment from both institutional investors and “good landlords” with small portfolios (p.xxiii). In response to this review a government consultation expressed concern about the possibility of the private rented sector shrinking and argued that the tenure was “needed”. Just weeks before a general election, in February 2010, the government finally published a strategy for the private rented sector. The government continued to argue that regulation needed to be “improved” rather than increased.

Corbyn’s conference speech represents a clear break with the New Labour consensus that private renting should operate with minimal government intervention. It is worth noting that the change in Labour’s approach to the private rented sector started before Corbyn’s leadership of the party. After losing power in 2010, Labour began a review of their policies and gradually began to promote greater intervention in private renting to protect vulnerable tenants. This led to the Labour manifesto for the 2015 general election under Ed Miliband’s leadership which promised to “legislate to make three-year tenancies the norm, with a ceiling on excessive rent rises”. The 2017 general election manifesto reflected only a minor change to this approach and proposed “an inflation cap on rent rises”. At present it is not yet clear how ‘rent controls’ proposed in Corbyn’s speech would be different from ‘a cap on rent increases’.

We are still waiting to find out whether Corbyn’s conference speech represented a new set of policies or a ‘novel political language’ to describe existing plans. All political parties will have noted “the massive swing to Labour among private renters” at the 2017 general election. It is clear that the language used by politicians from all political parties to discuss housing has changed profoundly. In September 2017, Theresa May announced Conservative party support for the “rebirth” of council housing. This was unthinkable even a couple of years ago although policy details announced so far do not match the rhetoric. This leaves us in a situation where both the Labour and Conservative parties may be embarking on a step change in housing policy. But the danger is that recent announcements on housing are just another new political language for ‘masterly inactivity’.

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Note: This article is based on the author’s PhD and more recent research.

About the Author

Ben Pattison (@bmpattison) is Research Fellow at Centre for Regional, Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University.

 

 

 

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

How the Conservatives’ austerity rhetoric won them GE2015, and almost cost them GE2017

Paul Whiteley, Harold D. Clarke, and Marianne Stewart explain why austerity is no longer an election winner – neither economically nor politically. They argue that David Cameron’s government reaped political rewards through its austerity rhetoric, but the strategy backfired in the next election, when many voters believed a Conservative government would impose more hardship on them.

In our book on the 2015 general election we showed that economic recovery was the most important factor in explaining the surprise victory for the Conservatives. It played a key role in the 2017 general election as well. So the story of these two elections supports the longstanding proposition that incumbent parties are rewarded by the voters for a good economic performance and are punished by a bad one. To repeat a famous phrase coined by James Carville, a chief campaign advisor to Bill Clinton in the 1992 US presidential election: ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’

However, the story is not as straightforward as it seems, since the initial economic policy adopted by George Osborne when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2010 would have almost certainly lost the election for the Conservatives had he not changed course in the middle of the Parliament. The original austerity plan embedded in the Coalition Agreement of 2010 derived from a mixture of theoretical ideas about how the economy works, but it was also the product of a conscious electoral strategy.

In the 2010 campaign the Conservatives made much of the argument that Britain faced imminent bankruptcy and was in a similar position to Greece and other cash-strapped EU countries. This rhetoric was driven by the need to provide a radical alternative narrative to that of the Labour Party. This narrative enabled both Coalition partners to blame Gordon Brown and Labour policies for the Great Recession. This claim was very wide of the mark since the crash started when a real estate bubble in the US burst, and it spread quickly to banks and other financial institutions which themselves had been creating opaque and highly risky financial instruments that proved valueless when the crisis broke.

However, the Conservatives’ economic argument proved to be a very potent message in the 2010 general election, so much so that echoes of it were still being heard in 2015 and again in 2017. The focus on the size of the budget deficit as the root cause of the problem was an essential campaign strategy because the economy was recovering at that time. With the recovery taking place they needed to frame the debate by focusing on the bad news of debt and ignoring the good news of growth.

That said, the budget deficit in 2009-10 was very high by historical standards, but not so much that it triggered serious problems for a government trying to borrow in financial markets. We know this by looking at long-term interest rates in Britain which measure the extent to which British governments can fund their borrowing. If borrowing is so high as to trigger a fear of default, then foreign lenders would require a premium on the interest payments they receive in order to compensate them for the extra risks. This would drive long-term interest rates higher, something which actually happened to Greece. In fact, long-term interest rates in Britain declined during this period, largely because the country was experiencing deflation and also the policy of quantitative easing kept rates at a low level.

Having ousted Labour from Downing Street in 2010, the Chancellor then proceeded to follow through on the cuts. This was because he had bought the idea that austerity brings recovery. His views were set out in a speech delivered in April 2009 before the election: ‘The crisis has also exposed two fundamental arguments. The first is whether, when you are already borrowing too much, you should deliberately try to borrow your way out of debt. David Cameron and I have consistently argued against this irresponsible course of action.’

This meant that the newly-formed government embarked on a policy of deflation in a context in which traditional policy-making would have taken the opposite course of action. But following the 2010 election, the British public mood darkened as the Coalition Government’s stringent austerity policy medicine was prescribed and the country’s economic misery deepened. Evaluations of the national economy and personal financial circumstances became deeply pessimistic and, for a time, it appeared that the Government would be punished severely in 2015 for its harsh, and apparently failed, attempt to restore the country’s economic well-being.

Figure 1 shows the actual and forecast budget deficits as a percentage of GDP published by the Office of Budgetary Responsibility in June 2010 and then again in December 2014. The budget deficit reduction strategy was on course to reduce the deficit to zero by 2015-16 up until 2012-13, at which point it went into reverse. In later years, the budget squeeze continued, but at a much slower rate than set out in the original plans. The result was that the gap between those plans and outcomes widened each year reaching 2.6% of GDP by the time of the 2015 election.

As a consequence of this deft change of strategy, the economic situation began to brighten. Statistics on key economic indicators such as growth and employment started to improve and as did the public’s economic mood. The trend accelerated as the election approached and our analysis showed that while the economy was not the only issue that mattered in the election, it was the most important factor when it came to influencing support for the major parties. The Conservatives gained and Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and UKIP all lost ground.

The Conservatives hoped to repeat the strategy in 2017 with the slogan of ‘strong and stable leadership’, but by then support for what was left of austerity had rapidly waned among the voters. Seven years of cuts involving flat-lining real wages and a severe cash crisis in the public services began to show. One group in particular which had been heavily-hit by the austerity policies were the young. A rising burden of debt produced by burgeoning fees and usurious interest rates charged on loans to students became a key political issue. Similarly, those under the age of 25 were excluded from the increase in the minimum wage introduced in April 2016 and they were increasingly aware of being left behind. As a consequence, Labour won 65% of the youth vote in 2017 on a much higher turnout of this group.

Figure 2 shows the relationship between real growth in the economy and the size of the national debt as a percentage of GDP over the period from 1950 to 2016. The data are from the Bank of England and with a very weak positive correlation between the two (+.15) it shows that there is essentially no reliable relationship between debt and growth. If anything, the positive correlation suggests that increased debt has been associated with higher, not lower, growth rates. As Mark Blyth points out in his excellent book on the history of Austerity: ‘Austerity has been tried and will keep being tried, at least for the Eurozone, until it’s either abandoned or voted out.  It doesn’t work’.

In the end, austerity looks to be a loser, both economically and politically. The Cameron-Osborne Conservatives reaped political rewards in 2015 not by enforcing austerity but by relaxing it to revitalize the economy in the run-up to that year’s general election. But, as Theresa May will testify, they did go far enough. In 2017, many voters, particularly young people, believed a May-led Conservative government would impose more hardship on them in the years ahead. That prospect proved decidedly unpopular and in the wake of their near-defeat, with the Prime Minister and her colleagues now scrambling to replace both the rhetoric and the reality of austerity.

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Note: the above draws on the authors’ chapter “The Rhetoric and Reality of Austerity: Electoral Politics in Britain 2010 to 2015“, in State, Institutions and Democracy.

About the Authors
paul_wPaul Whiteley is Professor at the Department of Government, University of Essex.

 

 

Clarke_1Harold D. Clarke is Ashbel Smith Professor, School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, University of Texas at Dallas, and Adjunct Professor, Department of Government, University of Essex.

 

Marianne Stewart is Professor in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas.

 

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Conservatives (Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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