Does Cruddas' new poll on austerity sink Corbyn's chances?

The public may be pro-austerity, but the SNP certainly aren't. And from a certain perspective, the SNP are Labour's only chance of forming the next government.

Ben Margulies
12 August 2015

Flickr/Scottish Government images.

As Labour's internal divisions worsen, Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham and Rainham, has released a new poll suggesting that the British electorate has thoroughly accepted the logic of austerity. According to the results, "56 percent of those surveyed agree, and just 16 percent disagree, with the statement: 'We must live within our means, so cutting the deficit is the top priority.'" The working classes are just as convinced of the need for austerity as their higher-income compatriots, with 54 perecent stressing deficit reduction as the first priority of government (15 percent disagreed). The findings - and especially the selected quotes from the surveyed - seem to whisper the old Thatcherite mantra "TINA": There Is No Alternative.

Does this mean that Jeremy Corbyn is as unelectable as his mainstream Labour opponents - to whose ranks we can now add former home secretary Alan Johnson - claim? Some argue that the survey employed a leading question, among them the Corbyn campaign. But if we accept it, the poll presents a fairly damning case. Corbyn does have ample grassroots support, but that still represents only tens of thousands of activists. Labour is almost two million votes behind the Conservatives. Cruddas' poll is hardly good for Corbyn. But it does not necessarily portend the death of his movement.

The research makes it clear that the majority of Britons of all classes have accepted the economic logic of austerity. This is hardly surprising (unless you're my high-school economics teacher) - austerity is the dominant discourse throughout Europe, even in Greece. This poses a genuine challenge to Corbyn's campaign, and his mainstream opponents are correct to question his electability.

But Cruddas's poll suggests that although Corbyn poses one problem for Labour, he may be uniquely positioned to solve another. The poll confirms a key dynamic that emerged during the 2015 general election; voters in England and Wales showed considerable hostility to the Scottish National Party. The idea that Labour might enter government with SNP support or participation cost Labour votes, or boosted Conservative support in a bid to deny the SNP any influence at Westminster. The Cruddas poll found that three-fifths of English and Welsh voters  “would be very concerned if the SNP were ever in government" (though there was little chance the SNP would have ever actually participated in a Westminster cabinet). So long as the SNP is dominant in Scotland, it will not only deny Labour tens of Scottish seats, but be available as a tartan-clad scarecrow driving English voters away from Team Red.

The SNP, of course, has achieved its dominant position in Scotland in part through its vocal rhetorical opposition to austerity policies, and by taking advantage of the mostly left-leaning mass mobilisation that coalesced around the Yes campaign during the 2014 independence referendum. This has granted it a near-monopoly on the Scottish left. Unless Labour can break this monopoly, it will not only be unelectable in Scotland, but severely handicapped in England.

The only candidate who could conceivably appeal to an anti-austerity, leftist popular movement, at least at the moment, is Corbyn. Thus, Labour may face a painful dilemma; Cruddas's poll suggests that an anti-austerity candidate runs against the grain of public opinion, but also implies that Labour has to neutralise the SNP to win - a task only an anti-austerity candidate can complete.

Can Labour square this circle? Maybe. I do not believe that Labour has much future as a pro-austerity party. Admittedly, it might not cost it as much working-class support as one might expect - 55 percent of working-class voters accept fiscal orthodoxy. But it cannot regain Scotland as such a party. Secondly, Labour's support for austerity will always seem less sincere or plausible than the Conservatives, given its support base and socialist background.

And, in a larger sense, a Labour Party that simply accepts the Conservative, Thatcherite worldview cannot serve the people who vote for it - not public-sector workers, lower-income voters nor middle-class progressives. The party will simply lack a purpose.

So can Labour square this circle? Can Corbyn? Maybe. Working-class voters, despite their acceptance of austerity, still vote in greater-than-average proportions for Labour. So do the young, for whom Corbyn has shown he has a great deal of appeal. Even if the majority of voters accept austerity, that still leaves 43 percent who would back a party favouring redistributive policies. The Conservatives won with 37 percent.

And Labour has a key factor working in its favour: time. If Osborne succeeds in his much-delayed attempts to balance the budget, then the public demand or tolerance for austerity may decline, providing an opening for Labour. If he fails, or if the country returns to recession, austerity may become discredited.

Of course, what would really boost Labour is a strong leader backed by a vibrant popular movement, rainmakers that can either alter the public discourse around Osborne's fiscal policy or shape the way the public evaluates his record. Corbyn may not be that leader. But his three rivals don't even warrant the "may".


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