Austerity as Ideology

Austerity as Ideology

Neil Serougi (Independent Researcher)


The 2015 general election is being touted as the ‘moment’ when ideology will remerge as the way politics presents itself. Courtesy of George Osborne’s vision of a shrinking State, the ‘de facto’ formalisation of austerity as something more than a short term measure could sharpen the ideological nature of the discourse with which political parties engage the public.

Clearly the societal choices we will encounter as a result will be stark and far reaching and in a very material sense the logic behind austerity will be morally tested. But will this translate into a real ideological contest defined by alternative explanations and ideas? It’s doubtful and for it to do so requires more than a dispute about the speed and scale of a programme largely agreed on by all parties.

Austerity to date has been accepted by them to differing degrees as a necessary evil. It has conceptually and linguistically re-articulated a crisis of capitalism as something different: namely, as a result of unsustainable expectations in a society failing to deliver the requisite hard work and productivity. The coda is one of fecklessness encouraged by a ‘something for nothing culture’ where rights have outstripped responsibilities. It has inverted culpability such that wasteful spending on public services and a lack of moral rectitude that comes with ‘benefits dependency’ is held to be to blame. The inherent volatility of organising a society on a free market philosophy and its irresponsible speculation has been displaced. Austerity politics fits neatly into a narrative of free market values and a wish to sanction the power of global finance as societally beneficial

This policy environment has allowed the terms and conditions of the ‘recovery’ to seamlessly operate in the interests of capital; low taxation, privatisation, a weakly regulated economy and a free hand to restructure labour relations. The inequality, poverty, and social dysfunction that has resulted has become the new social reality against which demands for more belt tightening, more sacrifice and less resistance are packaged as public policy. To differing degrees, these precepts have formed the consensus through which all the parties have constructed their political economy. This has been as much the hallmark of Labour when in power as it is the Conservatives today.

Thus following the 2008 global meltdown, austerity enjoyed a political consensus as the erstwhile solution to the ensuing crisis and was accepted by the public as a necessity amidst eye watering deficit figures that suggested the country was heading for bankruptcy. Acceptance though was dependent on the impermanent nature of austerity and an understanding that when the economy improved and the deficit was under control, reinvestment in public services could begin again.

To the layperson it might appear that we are now approaching this point. According to the government, the economy is expanding at close to 3% growth, wage rates are beginning to edge above inflation and unemployment is falling with a 558,000 rise in the numbers working. Furthermore a CBI/Accenture – Survey noted in Employment Trends that 43% of employers were planning pay rises in line with inflation and 50% will take on new staff. So on all the major indicators of the economy – growth, inflation, unemployment and the balance of payments – the ‘runes’ suggest the corner has been turned.

However, the autumn statement by the chancellor has signalled that this will not be the case. Rather Osborne has shown his hand by prescribing further swingeing cuts to the tune of £30 billion and it may even be worse, with others estimating a more realistic figure will be circa £50 billion (IFS). Austerity has been revealed as a structural project with a design template replete with neo liberal aspirations.

The impact of Osborne’s vision will be most ruthlessly felt in the public sector where the sheer scale of cuts will presage a fundamental rethink about what we mean by welfare and social support. Given the pressures of an ageing population that will require increased spending on health, social care and state pensions just to ‘stand still’, the quest for a surplus is in fact a blueprint for dismantling the welfare state by setting it up to fail. Already spending on social care has fallen by about a fifth with adverse repercussions for NHS capacity. If, as Jonathan Portes, Director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, calculates, a further a 5-10% increase in spending proportionate to GDP is needed to meet this demographic pressure, then the impossibility of addressing our social needs from a diminishing baseline is reckless. Raising taxes to realistic levels remains a political anathema and so, in this context, Osborne’s vision is clearly doctrinaire.

So where does this leave Labour? Ed Balls has attacked Osborne for acting ideologically but this hardly represents a reintroduction of ideology into the electoral debate as most of us would understand and for good reason. It offers little in terms of challenging the underpinning precepts opting instead for a counter identity of pragmatism.

The prospect of real ideological choice may, therefore, be exaggerated given the Labour Party’s adherence to fiscal credibility plans in which ‘cuts’ are the instrument of budgetary balance. Admittedly their approach incorporates a less drastic calculation which the IFS believes will involve a £7billion package of cuts – substantially less than Osborne’s prescription, but with a significant material impact nevertheless. In many other areas too, there will be more of a rhetorical distance than serious policy variance. The need to get tough on immigration and reduce ‘benefits tourism’ spring to mind.

In truth, ideology has always been present in the way public have articulated society and especially public services. On the surface it may appear not to be the case but in reality ‘market metaphors’ have increasingly been a proxy for ideas. The temptation to figuratively reference ‘things’ that we used to see as ideological choices has shaped the narratives deployed especially in the public services. Take the NHS for example. Frequently it has presented a mirror to both itself and the public in which its configuration and performance is represented via parallels external to its own reality. Patients become consumers with customer values despite the clear ethos of a medical profession that rejects the analogy. In a similar vein treatments become products aka care packages that resonate with models of value for money whilst treating patients are part and parcel of productivity metrics predicated on a formulaic assessments that compute financial data against throughput. Hospitals are transformed into business competitors and GPs double up as commissioners of efficiency amidst dwindling budgets per head of population.

The strength of these analogies is that they reference scenarios that seem to make sense. High street competition drive prices down; choice is the discipline through which business remains alert to the threat of losing trade. Quality is the unique selling point.

These metaphors have acted as a conduit to real ideological prescriptions but give the appearance of ‘common sense’. Crucially they have allowed politicians to underplay ideology in understanding what public services means to the electorate. This immediately raises a paradox: if ideology is really redundant in our modern day schematics why do we need proxies at all? It’s an important point for it indicates that political culture demands something beyond process management to create a politically engaged electorate. So ideology never really went away and to say we have a distinct ideological choice ahead when the prominence of markets is still intact across all parties is presumptious. As a result the question is how the underpinning ideological nature of austerity can be revealed to potentially alter the dynamics of political engagement?

This provides real opportunities on two fronts. The first is to reintroduce ideology as something more than an accusing finger at Osborne and the second is to do so in a way that politically engages those who are opting out.

A good place to start would be the marketization of the public sector which, as profits continue to increase for outsourced services in the hands of private providers, will contrast acutely with unprecedented hardship and social exclusion. Juxtaposed with a hard headed determination to create an environment favourable to the rich, the prosperity of the elite will sit in stark relief to the adversity experienced by a significant number of vulnerable communities blighting the lives of generations beyond the present. This bleak scenario more than ever demands that we have a political system that is fit for purpose and which can respond to the social and economic challenges ahead. For many already living at the margins, the question of whether our political system is broken is confirmed by the numbers opting out. Why this is so is not singularly attributable but from a public sector angle the suspicion that politicians stopped supporting the idea of public service as a vehicle for delivering real societal change has had a deleterious effect. Reducing our understanding of public services to a spreadsheet with performance indicators and a series of market metaphors will appear incongruous with the experience of many.

This provides real opportunity for the Labour Party to de-construct the pre-eminence of the market mentality in our public services and radically rethink how it can deliver a coherent ideological message that challenges austerity from a position of strength. Those whose instincts are to see ideology as akin to electoral disaster misread the public mood. Many now don’t vote because politics seems bereft of conviction and ideas. The appetite for ideological politics if not dogma is alive and well if we scratch under the surface.

The 2020 Public Services Trust researched and noted a number of public attitudinal positions that verify this especially when it comes to public service and marketisation. For example, Choice and personalisation were recognised as potentially detrimental to the level playing field ‘we value so highly’. Qualitative evidence suggested that the public genuinely worried that market reforms favoured the most able and advantaged, but were less likely to protect the most vulnerable. At best the benefits of competitive arrangements might translate into private benefits for some, but had fewer public benefits overall. At worst, quasi-market arrangements risked putting citizens, rather than suppliers, in competition with each other, undermining the public good.

Inevitably these are nuanced and qualified positions but they represent a new thinking beyond the market metaphors. Ed Miliband and Labour should raise the ideological bar over which politics has to jump by cohering these sentiments into an ideological alternative to austerity. The outcome could well be a more engaged electorate capable of seeing the austerity project for what it is and a new type of politics that gives us real choice.


Neil Serougi is a Trustee of Freedom from Torture. He has worked at a Board level in the NHS for 10 years, primarily focusing on ICT implementation, and was previously a Probation Officer and held office as Secretary of West Midlands Association of Probation Officers. He has also worked on the West Bank and Gaza as a volunteer with UNRWA. Formerly the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, Freedom from Torture has been working for more than 25 years to provide direct clinical services to survivors of torture who arrive in the UK, as well as striving to protect and promote their rights. Since its inception, over 50,000 individuals have been referred for help.