A bizarre few weeks has seen the government nationalise Northern Rail, float the idea of a mansion tax and simultaneously call for cuts to both local and national government.
For some, this is the inevitable result of a clash between ex-Chancellor Sajid Javid’s ‘small state’ impulses and Dominic Cummings’ desire to “level up” the economy and court new voters – a feud now over in the wake of Javid’s resignation. Others see a prime minister without vision, struggling to hold together a coalition of voters that spans an economic spectrum stretching from Royal Tunbridge Wells to Wrexham.
But what appears to be a muddled economic melange, in reality, has some consistency. Johnson has said that budget cuts will allow government to “refocus” resources on the “people’s priorities” – health, crime and “levelling up”. These priorities are, of course, not primarily of ‘the people’s’ choosing, but are pressure points Number 10 has identified in an overheated culture war.
This is not a move to the left, as others have argued. After all, any investment funded by cuts elsewhere can hardly be called redistributive. Neither does it represent a sudden commitment to fulfilling the will of the people.
This is populist austerity in action. The majority of government departments will continue to be cut and the cash funnelled into areas of investment that promise to sharpen the frontier between ‘us’ and ‘them’. This is how Johnson plans to hold together the conflicting interests that comprise the party’s new voter bloc.
Just look at the publicity for the government’s spending on police services, focussed primarily on Johnson’s divisive call for county lines to be “totally wound up”- a euphemism for punishing, as opposed to rehabilitating, those involved. By throwing meat to the tabloids and playing into ‘small c’ conservative sentiment, Johnson hopes to capitalise on the racist undertones of the debate while challenging progressive calls for drugs to be treated primarily as a social issue.
This is less because Johnson has any particular ideological stake here, more because he can sense a division easily exploited for political gain. On the one side, there are lefties of every stripe, calling for a more holistic, less punitive approach to crime, and on the other, so-called ‘left behind’ voters, traditional Tories, and the far right, all demanding tougher sentences and more police.
In reality, the planned investment to bolster police numbers is entirely inadequate. Unless the wider criminal justice system receives funding, as well as health and social care, such investment will prove piecemeal, police budgets will remain insufficient and, in real terms, austerity will continue. And it is the same with the Tories recent plans to invest in the UK’s broken bus network, plans that would hardly put a dent in the number of services lost since 2010. What we end up with is the hollowed-out shell of Keynsian stimulus with an austerity riven core.
Johnson’s investment plans for the NHS aim for similar political results. He has already shown a willingness to use the NHS and wider welfare system to bolster a narrative that divides citizens from outsiders. Plans to make all ‘immigrants’ pay a surcharge of £625 to cover NHS costs, alongside assurances that benefits will only be extended to those in the UK for at least five years, make clear that any investment in welfare is for British people alone.
There is a disturbing convergence here between these plans and the British National Party’s early 2000s proposal for an NHS free at the point of access for British people. Alongside immigrant austerity, this is a policy that will likely go down well with many traditional Conservatives as well as far right voters. But these proposals also seek to exploit the fears of those who worry the NHS is overstretched, many of whom will have only ‘lent’ Johnson their vote.
This is not so different from how Donald Trump has wielded the US economy. In a very real sense, the president has cut government to invest in division, slashing funding for Medicaid, disability insurance and housing assistance to fund a wall that quite literally places a concrete divide between the US and Mexico.
Yet, there is perhaps more substance to Johnson’s economic strategy. Trump was always destined to break his impossible promise of revitalising US manufacturing via government investment and subsidies – and the wall has so far been riddled with infrastructural and political problems.
That said, the popularity of Johnson’s plans depend on whether his nativist fantasy appeals to new voters as much as he imagines. Indeed, whether its promise proves strong enough to draw together interests so disparate they extend across the very poorest and richest regions of the UK remains to be seen.
Moreover, the cuts Johnson feels he must make to appease the party’s free marketeers and traditional electorate will hit new voters hardest of all. Plans to reallocate council funding are set to redirect hundreds of millions of pounds from deprived formerly Labour-voting areas to the wealthy Tory shires. Johnson is, of course, betting that communities will identify local as opposed to national government as the perpetrator, with a great many cuts falling to Labour councils.
Undoubtedly, Johnson is parking Tory tanks on Labour’s lawns. But this may turn out to be a dangerous strategy. What starts as strategic flexibility to voter preferences – nationalisations, bailouts and investment, may turn out to whet the national appetite for a far greater systemic overhaul – something that the Tories are both politically and ideologically unequipped for.
Johnson’s government may be able to nationalise a few rail companies but Labour has both the will and intellectual resources to go far further – nationalise all amenities, change the composition of company ownership and overhaul the world of work.
To stand a chance against Johnson, the next Labour leader must not recoil from the party’s current policy programme, but shape it into a narrative that exploits the gaps in the Tories’ voter bloc.
There are certain policy proposals that are capable of achieving this. Wage ratios, for instance, which cap excessively high private sector pay while significantly raising the national minimum, would force Johnson to decide whose side he’s on – the financier or the low-paid service worker.
While populist austerity may consolidate the Tory voter bloc for now, the contradictory nature of this strategy means cracks are bound to show soon. When they do, Labour must be ready to prise them apart.
Phil Jones is a research affiliate at the Autonomy think tank and is currently writing a book for Verso titled ‘Work Without the Worker’.