Opinion: it’s not the economy, stupid

“Enough of the cuts already!”. We should be shouting. Not because of some ostrich-like desire to deny we’re part of a coalition that’s taking a scythe to public spending, but because the message is wrong. It’s not the cuts stupid, it’s not even the economy stupid. It’s the vision thing, clever.

Businesses are not in business to cut costs. Of course, they need to be efficient to compete (which includes not burdening themselves with debt that they can’t cope with). But their purpose, the reason someone set them up in the first place, is to make something or sell a service. Their creators had a vision. And if that vision had any value it was about providing something better, cheaper, quicker, whatever.

Similarly, if we focus people’s attention solely on the cuts, we’re selling a society that seems to exist solely to cut. It’s a narrow accountant’s view of our country and its economy. It suggests that we have no vision of what we’re asking people to tighten their belts for. The cuts appear to be the end not the means.

If you say the economy is the engine of the country, you’re still faced with the problem that, once you’ve fixed the engine, where do you want to go?

And any vision of the country that starts and and ends with the economy will inevitably end up with people asking, “Great, thank you, now what?” Or, and it seems like a distant hope in our hope-quenchingly named ‘Age of Austerity’, to misquote the Third World song, “now that we’ve found wealth what are we going to do with it?”

Cameron recognises this in his ‘Big Society’ which as Andrew Stunell points out is strikingly similar to the community politics that we’ve been pursuing, practicing and promoting for decades.

It’s easy to dismiss the Big Society as a cynical message to exhort a deeply in hock country to volunteer to make up the shortfall in its finances. But it also appears to be a genuine attempt to articulate a vision that people can rally behind.

Admittedly, as Andrew Rawnsley noted in the Observer, Tory activists have found it hard to flog on the doorstep. But that may have more to do with the difficulty in unpacking the vision than its desirability in itself. It’s also possible that they may find some of the ideas hard to square with the Tories’ recent history (“there’s no such thing as society” anyone?). Whereas Lib Dem involvement in community politics has an, often literally, concrete legacy.

But community politics, essential and worthwhile in itself, is not the same as a coherent, compelling vision. For one thing it has the slightly off-putting ‘P’ word, which makes it sound as if we’re practicing it for our good rather than the public’s.

However, given this well-established record of acting on our values, it shouldn’t be too great a stretch to build on this record to create a coherent, compelling vision. One that inspires people by showing there’s life beyond the dumb economy.

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32 Comments

  • Liberal Eye 7th Oct '10 - 5:46pm

    Whether you like it or not the economy is and will always remain a pretty huge part of life.

    Many Lib Dems simply don’t ‘get it’, possibly because so many work in the public and voluntary sectors and quite understandably don’t feel comfortably thinking about it. Whatever the reason, the failure to get to grips with how the economy is run has been one of the Party’s great weaknesses over the last three decades. By default it has left the Thatcherites to make the running. while we amuse ourselves with pet projects some of which are important but which miss the elephant in the room.

    It has left the neo-liberal Thatcherites as it were free to dig channels to lead the irrigation water (read money and power) where THEY want. When we later notice that things seem to be going badly, that society is getting steadily more unequal, that bankers are thriving as everyone else is scrabbling for a minimum wage job then we are left to play catch-up. But because we have never much liked thinking about irrigation and never bothered to understand it we just use our buckets and spades to move the water to where it should be leaving THEIR channels in place. Unsurprisingly, this is a doomed enterprise.

    The vision we are lacking is how to run the economy along lines that are intrinsically fairer. Without doubt when we find that formula we will also discover that it leads to jobs that are not just bettter paid but more humanly rewarding and fulfilling and, yes, it would involve communities large and small.

    The point is that the economy is not something that can be sidelined and kept in a box in the corner.

  • The most sensible article written on this subject on LDV yet.

    You’re dead right – and it’s the bit Clegg + Alexander have fundamentally failed to do. Alexander looks like he’s enjoying this – like a bullied child attacking the bully. The Liberals have undergone a road to damascus-style conversion to Tory deficit-fetishism with relish. Your messaging in Coalition has been since day 1 “cut cut cut”. You’ve used it to hammer Labour and provide a reason to be in Coalition. Every time Clegg and his supporters on LDV are queried by anyone on their economic plans, what’s the answer?
    You’re a deficit denier!
    No – just not everyone believes you’re right.

    Is there any wonder the electorate is rallying back against your stupidity? You look and act like rabid Thatcherites. Your answer to respected bodies like the IFS querying your apporach is to say “You know nothing”…and then to amateurishly attempt to re-define people’s concept of fairness, for Heaven’s sake.

    And guess what? The Tories are now reigning cuts back according to the FT. What’s the betting that no cuts start for 18 months – longer than even Ed Balls argued for? How will that make you look – Labour being right in delaying the cuts? When we don’t end up “like Greece” like you suddenly starting scaremongering in May?

  • In the Guardian today:
    “The government faces a multibillion-pound bill to close up to 180 quangos and in some cases it could be a decade before any savings are felt”

    And these are not idealogical cuts?

  • @BB

    As all three major parties have said repeatedly over the last couple of decades that they would “cut quangos”, I suppose you could say it’s ideological (on a strictly cross-party basis).

    The only difference is that Labour failed dismally to deliver on its promises.

  • @Simon Shaw
    Purely idealogical cuts that actually cost money should not have a priority and does nothing to reduce the deficit. Millions of people are going to be made unemployed and have their benefit cuts so you can’t justify spending billions to close quangos which will show no savings for at least 10 years.

  • @BB
    If you are speaking for the Labour Party, are you saying that all that anti-quango guff from the Labour Party over the last couple of decades were just cynical lies?

  • @Simon Shaw
    Forget about what Labour did or didn’t do because we can’t change that now. We can do something about what is about to happen now. So are you saying that it is more important to spend billions to close quangos than reduce the deficit and in the process make more people unemployed and make the lives of poor people even more miserable?

  • tony
    e.g. the reversal on universality
    Are you really saying that the Labour Party defends universality?

    Most Lib Dems wouldn’t be surprised to hear that. Given the choice of defending a benefit to those on £12,000 per annum, or a benefit to those on £60,000 per annum, we would always expect the Labour Party to say that the benefit to those on £60,000 was more important.

  • Andrew Suffield 7th Oct '10 - 9:18pm

    Purely idealogical cuts that actually cost money should not have a priority

    I disagree quite strongly, I think that cutting ID cards and Trident should be a priority.

  • @Simon Shaw.

    Not quite sure I follow your logic. Every single print media outlet has come out against the end of universality. Yet you choose to attack Labour. Your party leader guaranteed not to cut universal benefits, on television, in an interview with Paxman, in April. Yet you choose to attack Labour.

    I can take it that you will never use the line “Labour tribalists” again then?

    And Andrew Suffield – the Tories have briefed + interviewed this week that they will not cancel Trident. So when the Liberals spun 2 weeks ago that the delay in Trident procurement was all thanks to their influence on government – they’ve been made to look yet again, like fools.

  • Cuse
    Every single print media outlet has come out against the end of universality.

    Have they really? None that I have read have come out against it, although I don’t read the Daily Mail, which I can imagine would do so.

    Anyway, I am not really interested in what the populist press say.

    As our resident Labour tribalist, can you explain to us if the Labour Party plans to defend “universality”? If so, why?

  • People paying higher taxes and about to lose their jobs are going to be less than kind to anyone foolish enough to turn up on their doorstep trying to sell Cameron’s flaccid Big Society rhetoric.

    The precipitous house price fall is a warning of clear and present danger of a possible economic double dip.
    So now is preciseley the wrong time to get lost in esoteric policy discussions.
    They will not campaign well next year. They did not campaign well at the G.E.

    There will be plenty of time and warning if the economy ever gets good enough to start worrying about how to sell some sort of cuddly narrative if anyone wants to do that. But that is so far in the future as to be a luxury we simply can’t afford.

    Now should be the time for pushing and standing up for all the policies that the Conservatives are quietly squashing. Trident matters. Student tuition matters. Getting AV matters. There should be Liberal Democrat Cabinet MPs and Ministers on our TV screens night and day pushing for these and other pollicies. That they have not so far is a huge mistake that cannot be corrected once policy arguments are lost behind the Cabinet doors.

    The Liberal Democrats cannot continue to be the invisible willing partner in the coalition nodding everything through with barely a murmur.

  • @Simon Shaw

    “Our Resident Labour tribalist”.

    Brilliant.

  • Cuse

    As someone who repeatedly abuses our hospitality on “Our place to talk”, it is interesting that you have singularly failed to answer my simple questions to you:

    As our resident Labour tribalist, can you explain to us if the Labour Party plans to defend “universality”? If so, why?

  • @Simon Shaw

    Brilliant.

  • Simon Shaw you have not answered my simple question either.
    BB
    Posted 7th October 2010 at 9:02 pm | Permalink
    @Simon Shaw
    Forget about what Labour did or didn’t do because we can’t change that now. We can do something about what is about to happen now. So are you saying that it is more important to spend billions to close quangos than reduce the deficit and in the process make more people unemployed and make the lives of poor people even more miserable?

  • BB

    But it wasn’t a simple question. It was actually a rather silly question, and I don’t accept the premise.

    What you seem to be saying is that although Labour repeatedly promised to cut back on quangos, but failed to do so, the Liberal Democrat/Conservative coalition should now not live up to the promises made by all three parties in this area.

  • @Cuse, once again:
    As our resident Labour tribalist, can you explain to us if the Labour Party plans to defend “universality”? If so, why?

    It is strange that you are unwilling to defend your views which normally you seem to be so willing to ram down our throats.

  • John Roffey 8th Oct '10 - 6:43am

    I certainly agree with the thrust of this article – that the reduction and eventual elimination of the nation’s debt is necessary, but is not an end in itself.

    Part 2 of Wall Street is now on release. Gordon Gekko, who was intended to be the bad guy in Oliver Stone’s original film, but is attributed with the shift in public opinion on greed with Gekko’s ‘greed is good’ quote is, apparently, condemned in the new film in an attempt by Stone to redress the balance. I doubt if a single film will change attitudes – the corruption has gone to deep.

    Since Thatcher, a grocers daughter, we have been in the grip of ‘merchant’s values’, values which throughout time have been rated lowly or condemned by the great secular and religious thinkers which has, naturally, significantly increased the gap between the rich and the poor.

    We are extremely reduced as a species if ‘getting and spending’ is taken to be our primary goal.

  • Grammar Police 8th Oct '10 - 8:43am

    @ Cuse – so it’s okay for you to push the “Lib Dem u-turn on the economy” / “deficit fetishism” every time you post, but you don’t like it if people do the same to you? Brilliant.

    As you say, maybe just not everyone believes you’re right.

  • I also agree with the sentiments behind Simon’s article. Cutting should not be an end in itself. There is no doubt that the formation of the coalition and its avowed aim of “dealing with the deficit as a priority” has provoked the most amazing out pouring of thinking about the purposes of the Liberal Democrats. Many of us are clearly worried that some of what we consider our principles are being binned. It has even provoked me to reread the Preamble to our Constitution, in order to see whether any of the principles agreed when the party was formed have been abrogated definitively. I came to the conclusion that none actually have been broken, although we are very much “on the edge” in supporting coalition policy on green issues and on the distribution of wealth.

    Regarding universality as a principle in the welfare state, nothing is mentioned, although we promote the rights of all to social provision. Since the writing of the preamble, of course, much has changed, and the Thatcherite undermining of the principle of universality has occurred, being one of those aspects of Thatcherism accepted by NuLab (and apparently, by Orange Bookers). I am sure this is part of a bigger socio – economic argument in all three main poliical parties (yes, I am sure the Tories have their rejectionist element – matter of fact I know one or two!) But mainly in the Lib Dems and Labour. The argument used of course, has been that “Old Labour” and radical Liberals (and even some social democrats!) are painted as dinosaurs. In all parties they are being systematically excluded from power by the controlling financial vested interests.

    Somehow, this consensus needs to be challenged in order to move forward in difficult times. Those times will become much more challenging, and “we’re all in this together” much more important when finally the majority are forced to accept the impossibility of perpetual economic growth as currently defined in a finite world, and the overwhelming nexus of environmental crises (climate change, rapid extinction rate, resource depletion eg peak oil) are recognised as THE problem of the age, and public spending must take place, yes, internationally, in order to mitigate these effects. Judging by the noise going on about a “financial crisis”, goodness knows how everyone will face up to what is coming down the tracks. I thought Lib Dems were in the forefront of such thinking – judging by what has happened so far in coalition, we have just been absorbed by the consensus.

  • Cuse (strangly quiet for once):
    As our resident Labour tribalist, can you explain to us if the Labour Party plans to defend “universality”? If so, why?

    Or put another way, if you have the choice of defending a benefit to those on £12,000 per annum, or a benefit to those on £60,000 per annum, which would you choose to defend.

    Because your silence now (as well as previous postings you have made) suggest that your (and the Labour Party’s) priority would be to defend the benefit to those on £60,000 per annum.

    Brilliant!

  • Simon, why are you concentrating on this, at the expense of thinking “Would the money be easier / fairer to raise by income tax, which is avowedly progressive?” Another tenet of the Thatcherite consensus. In a crisis we need to think broadly – put simply we need very rapid international action to block off all loopholes and gathering money from those able to use offshoring to avoid tax. Surely this was the thought behind Vince Cable’s powerful Conference speech. Sorry, if we have crises, we need rapid and decisive action – not tinkering at the edges. Of course we need vision also, but we are not helped by the wrongly directed rhetoric of the coalition (blaming Labour for evrything for instance is a waste of time, unduly confrontational, and purely and simply, wrong, when we will need Labour people as much as anyone else to fashion our way out of these crises).

  • Simon de Deney 8th Oct '10 - 11:29am

    @Liberal Eye
    I think your analysis makes an important point. I would agree that there has been an unchallenged assumption that the Conservatives have a near monopoly on financial competence. It’s a fabulously stereotypical attitude that rests lazily on a number of tottering ideas. For example, “the Tories must be good at the economy, because most of them own or run most of it”. So where can we turn to find an idea that exhibits our values?
    Personally, I think there’s a really valuable seam for us to mine in the co-operative model. I gave a speech a very long time ago at the first SDP conference in Central Hall, London, arguing in favour of it. It got zero coverage. However, in the intervening years, the Co-Op bank and John Lewis have grown very steadily and gained enormous trust from their customers and beyond (both companies are among the UK’s most trusted organisations http://www.utalkmarketing.com/Pages/Article.aspx?ArticleID=18407. Nationwide, a slightly different model, came top in the same survey.)
    You could characterise co-ops as a “Fair Share” approach, but I think that phrase only takes us a certain way. It suggests that everyone has some sort of fair stake in an enterprise, a housing association, a school??!! But I think that there’s something deeper underlying LibDem values than just sharing fairly. It’s about taking part and getting stuck in, not for the sake of it, but because of a belief that by thinking independently, challenging assumptions, getting everyone involved we can make things better.
    @John Roffey
    Thanks John. I agree wholeheartedly. One of the most impoverishing phrases that politicians can trot out is “Britain is open for business”. It is such a narrow-minded view of a country, society and human beings. I was doing some research in 1990 for a season of Russian plays and I was struck by an observation by a Russian talking before the fall of the Iron Curtain. He said, “Because we have no money, our only currency is friendship.”
    @Tim13
    Well put. We should certainly push hard for concerted international action. It is easy to write these kind of efforts off, claiming that national self interests will always scupper the attempts. However, the benefits from increased global, financial stability coupled with the increased tax takes to national governments should give us hope.
    On the carrot side of the carrot/stick equation, following up the co-op argument, is there potential to offer significant tax breaks to organisations with a mutual or co-operative structure? Given certain safeguards, this could help redistribute wealth progressively as well as offering incentives to companies abroad to set up in the UK in a way that helps workers here rather than shareholders globally.

  • Liberal Eye 8th Oct '10 - 4:11pm

    Simon

    I would certainly agree that the co-op model is a part of the answer – but as an organisational model it’s probably going to be a very small part unless I’m missing something.

    Where I think it has more potential is as a kind of guiding principle behind the thrust of govt. Kind of like ‘fairness’ but I dislike ‘fair’ as a term because everyone uses it so it means everything and nothing. Basically it’s just become a pretty wrapper to spin round what suits me and my group which is the antithesis of fairness really.

    The ‘we’re all in this together’ sense of co-operative married to a complete rejection of Thatcher’s infamous ‘there is no such thing as society’ and ‘there is no alternative’ would get us a long way. But we’ve got to arm this concept with teeth; too often we leave it all well-meaning and fluffy and defenceless.

    And the thing is that the Tories are rubbish at the economy. Just watch them collapse the economy again next year like they did in the earlly 80s. It really is an open goal if we want to take it.

  • John Roffey 8th Oct '10 - 4:31pm

    @ Liberal Eye

    I view ‘just’ as preferable to ‘fair’ – as in those two fundamental building blocks for any decent society – truth & justice.

  • Andrew Suffield 9th Oct '10 - 3:05pm

    the Tories have briefed + interviewed this week that they will not cancel Trident

    Trident’s being delayed and probably scaled back. The Tories then stand up and say “look, we’re keeping Trident, we’re doing what we said” and the Lib Dems say “we’re cutting Trident, we’re doing what we said”, and both of them are correct. That’s coalition politics.

  • Simon de Deney 12th Oct '10 - 2:32pm

    @ John Roffey

    You might enjoy this on ‘Just’ vs ‘Fair’: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/maryriddell/8056769/We-should-be-bashing-bankers-not-the-young-poor-and-disabled.html

    @ Liberal Eye

    I’d be interested in developing what you suggest further, if you have the time. I think there’s the germ of something really solid, empowering and distinctive .

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