The UK’s avoidable hardship

Are we stuck with austerity forever or can anything be learned from more successful progressives across Europe?

A man begs for loose change on the streets of Manchester [Getty]
A man begs for loose change on the streets of Manchester [Getty]

In case you’re wondering why your English friends seem even more gloomy than usual, it’s because they uncharacteristically let in a little ray of hope. And then got crushed by reality. Ahead of last week’s general election, the UK polls were predicting a nail-bitingly close run – giving progressives, who had been rallying against the incumbent coalition, cause for optimism.

But then the Conservative party, they of the devastating austerity cuts, won by an unexpected majority. And now, piling misery upon despair, the UK media is filled with politicians and pundits claiming that the Labour party, supposed representative of working people, lost the vote as a result of being too left of centre.

Yes, this is the analysis applied to an austerity-supporting, welfare-recipient-bashing, tighter-immigration-controls-espousing party (you saw the awful mugs, right?), in a political landscape where “centre” has shifted right over the past 30 years.

Cameron defies odds to secure small majority

Britain, the world’s sixth largest economy, has for the past five years been run by a Conservative-led coalition that presided over the biggest drop in living standards since the Victorian age, with the poorest paying the highest price for austerity.

Avoidable hardship

Leading economists, from Paul Krugman  to Joseph Stiglitz and even the IMF, have all argued that the government’s austerity programme has made things worse – paralysing economic recovery while deepening unnecessary and avoidable hardship (29 percent of children are in poverty; over a million people rely on food banks – again, this is one of the world’s richest countries).

Now, the Conservatives, in power as an outright majority, have plans for even more welfare cuts of 13 billion pounds ($20.5bn) – which would further punish people for being disabled, or pregnant, or caregivers, or young, or in low-paid work, or out of work, or just born into families without the privilege or wealth that in reality separates the strivers from the so-called skivers.

So, yes, you can see why British progressives might, to use nation-appropriate understatement, be a bit upset at this failure to persuade the public to vote against such ravaging austerity. But should we now just abandon all hope? Are we stuck with austerity forever or until we are all characters in Oliver Twist (whichever comes sooner), or can anything be learned from more successful progressives across Europe?

Labour’s own goal basically gifted the Conservatives with the tagline of being the party to trust over the economy – in other words, Labour didn’t just fail to form a frontier; it helped the Conservatives to fashion theirs.


First off, that earlier sentence wasn’t true: Given the chance to vote against austerity, people did – which is how the Scottish National Party (SNP), which openly, convincingly, opposed the cuts, won 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland, dealing a devastating blow to a discredited Labour party. Which leads us nicely to the first piece of advice.

Political frontier

“Have a clear political frontier – who is the ‘us’ and who are we against?” says Marina Prentoulis, senior lecturer in media and politics at the University of East Anglia. Greece’s anti-austerity Syriza, which swept to victory in elections in January, has a defined frontier, as does the SNP, which has captivated and energised Scottish voters – but the Labour party does not: “It isn’t a frontier to say, ‘Yes, we will do the same [as the Conservatives], but a bit better.'”

Prentoulis notes that, for Syriza (she is a UK spokesperson), the anti-austerity frontier went past traditional notions of “left” and “right” – not all Syriza voters were from the left – and so appealed across a spectrum of social groups in Greece.

Of course, there were warnings ahead of the UK elections about the traditional party of the left failing to take an anti-austerity position. Indeed, rather than challenge the Conservative line that Labour had overspent while in power and thus caused the economic crisis, the Labour party seemed to internalise it.

Gregory Philo, professor of communications and social change at the University of Glasgow, says he met Labour’s media strategists five years ago and told them: “Whatever you do, you must not allow the lie of Labour’s incompetence to take hold – if you do, you are sunk.”

Labour’s own goal basically gifted the Conservatives with the tagline of being the party to trust over the economy – in other words, Labour didn’t just fail to form a frontier; it helped the Conservatives to fashion theirs.

But it’s probably best not to dwell on that one; let’s move on to the next tip from the anti-austerity movement’s guide to success: Grow the grassroots. Syriza had this down pat in Greece – getting people off the sofa and into the squares, organising, creating solidarity networks.

And so, too, does Spain’s Podemos, the anti-austerity party founded in January 2014 and topping the polls mere months later, with elections at the end of this year. The open, “grassroots democracy” of this party harnessed growing street-level protests, creating neighbourhood assemblies with the power to propose and vote on policies.

Accountable politics

That obviously matters in and of itself: engaging and inspiring populations that currently feel ignored, hopeless and disempowered; making politics more relevant, accountable and representative. But it additionally feeds another tenet of movement-building: Build a base that has your back.

Paul Mason, economics editor for Britain’s Channel 4 news, notes in a recent blog, that the just-resigned Labour leader Ed Miliband’s “inner team had almost no outriders in the press, no co-thinkers in academia; they had support among artists and film directors, but always half-hearted”. 

Without a support base behind you, there is little capacity to bat away attacks, make the case, spread the word, or build momentum.

That base can also help refute claims made by a hostile press – in a British print media landscape dominated by Conservative-supporting papers. With election campaign scaremongering over a potential SNP-Labour alliance reaching hysteria level, one worry is that progressive movements will be squashed by press barons, in whose interests it is to keep pro-austerity parties in power.

But this isn’t an insurmountable obstacle – it’s about “discrediting the messenger”, according to University of Glasgow’s Philo. That’s done by pointing out why those “messengers” – media proprietors – might have vested interests in being pro-Conservative.

“The SNP took them [the British press] head on and won,” says Philo. “In Greece or Venezuela, you couldn’t get a more hostile media, but if you come out and name them for what they are, then it defuses their message.”

So, that’s an initial and manifestly incomplete list; what would you add to this toolkit for anti-austerity movements? In the UK, we’ve got five years to work on it.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.