The Ends of Austerity: Reflections on the 2017 UK General Election and its immediate Aftermath

by Everyday Analysis

In the United Kingdom, the ends of austerity have been served, although – despite its final whistle ostensively being blown – its end is nowhere really in sight. Between the 2016 Brexit referendum and the 2017 general election there was a change in the rhetoric of the government. The blame game played against ‘the previous Labour government’ seemed to drop out of the discourse somewhat, and the triumphalism of the ‘austerity measures’ message went quieter under the exchequer chancellorship of Philip Hammond, who replaced George Osborne in Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet, built up in the stead of David Cameron’s resignation after a 52% majority called for the country to leave the European Union.

On 18 April, May called a general election for 8 June, looking to strengthen a mandate for a ‘hard Brexit’, the cards of which – as the result showed – had not been played anywhere near right, in having been kept too declaratively close to the chest for the talked-up ‘negotiating’ chips to have seemed anything more than a bluff; in the end, the only indication of its terms and timbre were three colours, meaningless to anyone without a pronounced case of imperialist synaesthesia. May said: ‘we want a red, white, and blue Brexit’.[1] The hot air fuelling the Brexit balloon was an anthem of anathema to the two percent less than half of voters who plumped to remain in the EU, not to mention whatever compunction was felt by voters for ‘Leave’ after the fact of the referendum, all of which was quantified to some extent immediately afterwards, although such ‘Bregret’ could really make no qualitative difference, at that stage.[2]

The election returned a hung parliament – after the support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party surged – the subsequent denial of which led to an all but ungoverned period, in which the Queen’s Speech necessary to inaugurate the new parliament was in suspension, whilst an immensely unpopular £1billion deal was being brokered with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, an ironic development after May’s repeated mantra on Brexit: ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’.[3] It is now widely accepted that May – leader of the Conservative Party (a party recently restored by her to its full official title, the Conservative and Unionist Party, in a speech which sought to lay the basis for a deal with the DUP) – took a gamble when she called the general election, and that this gamble badly misfired. At the same time Conservative strategists also took another gamble, and one which to them did not look like a gamble at all, when they sought to fight the campaign on the grounds of party leadership, emphasising May’s ‘strong and stable’ credentials (a phrase almost as self-parodying as her other, tautological refrain: ‘Brexit means Brexit’) against Jeremy Corbyn’s perceived weakness and unpopularity as Labour leader.

At first, this seemed to be a winning formula. At the start of the election campaign, widely-reported polls gave May an enormous lead against Corbyn on the key question of who would be the best prime minister (e.g., ft.com’s of March 29; independent.co.uk’s of April 11). The Conservatives made the assessment that since Corbyn was ‘unpopular’, and since his politics appeared to them entirely wrong-headed, all they needed to do was hold him up to view and the electorate would continue to turn away from him. The calculation seemed to be that the more Corbyn was seen, the less support he would attract. (A similar line was taken by a great deal of the supposedly more left-leaning commentariat, the faux-humility of whom for getting their takes ‘wrong’ being really just a cover for their attempting to derail Corbyn’s, Momentum’s, and the Labour membership’s project from the start, in favour of the ‘aspirational’ mid-nineties ethos that they were desperately trying to preserve at all costs).

The Conservatives therefore launched a series of US-style attack ads, largely through social media, targeted at Corbyn and his closest allies, with the aim of drawing ever more attention to him (it cost them over £1m, whereas Momentum spent about £2,000 on their social media for Labour; the irony – as Matt Zarb-Cousin pointed out – being that the Conservatives’ most organically shared video was likely East Yorkshire MP Greg Knight’s promo, and this due to its parodic, sub-par(tridge) jingle[4]). It is the certainty with which the Tories adopted this policy that is most striking. Just a week before the election, as signs of Labour’s increasing support were starting to show, the BBC could still run a report containing the claim by Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, that ‘targeting Corbyn’s leadership is a no-brainer’.[5] The Conservatives’ analysis continued to tell them what they already knew: Corbyn was a weakness to be exploited. The right-wing press agreed, running headlines such as the Sun’s now-infamous ‘Don’t Chuck Britain in the Cor-Bin’ effort, published on polling day itself.

Yet the Labour campaign also put Corbyn centre-stage, alongside the party’s unapologetically socialist manifesto. In a series of well-attended rallies, Corbyn spoke to thousands of people across the country, with these events giving rise to the now ubiquitous chant of ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’, sung to the tune of ‘Seven Nation Army’ by The White Stripes. In producing a chant that was simply the leader’s name repeated again and again, the crowds responded to Conservative attacks not by resisting, but rather re-emphasising the attention which the right had turned upon Corbyn. Semi-humorous social media movements, such as the prominent Grime4Corbyn campaign and hashtag, followed the same pattern.

The Conservative Party gamble had resulted from an assumption so basic it barely needed articulation; that anyone looking at Corbyn would see what the Conservative Party saw, a man constitutionally unfit to govern. We can detect here signs of what the psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan calls méconnaissance, a form of misrecognition that is fundamentally narcissistic.[6] In turning attention onto Corbyn, the Conservatives misread their own particular perspective as a general one, failing to recognise the possibility that by displaying Corbyn they might help open the door to alternative ways of perceiving him. In doing so, they displayed a characteristic typical of the centre-right, which always wants to present its views as pervasive and obvious, a position from which it can claim to represent society in general. From the start, the right presented its image of Corbyn as the only credible one, and ended up being taken in by its own rhetoric (which it barely recognised as rhetoric). The possibility that people in any significant numbers might vote for Labour not despite but because of Corbyn was unthinkable. In this act of méconnaissance, and in the failure of the unacknowledged Conservative gamble, we can see the basis on which the right has established its entitlement to govern fraying at its ends.

And yet it clings on to this supposed entitlement with every last fibre of its stiff little fingers, after an election in which the electorate (once again) returned a hung parliament. This time, however, there was no ready coalition to be built on the basis of a ‘moral majority’, made up (we could stop there) of Tory votes and Liberal Democrat turncoats. A lesson has not only been learnt by, but taught to, the Lib Dems, although too lately realised (not least by ‘tactical’ voters in constituencies that previously had Lib Dem MPs, in a good cross-section of which Labour’s vote share was seen doubling and beyond, as it was in the Tory heartlands and safe seats, making everything to play for), causative of this current stalemate. It is to the DUP that the Tories have turned, a phenomenon that in itself raises an interesting parallax, another moment of Lacanian méconnaissance. In Lacan’s theory, the destabilising figure of the other is not only found outside oneself (as gets exploited in so many instances of stoked-up resentment and xenophobic scapegoating), but precisely within. The other is ‘something in you more than you’ as he put it (the instance of which he enigmatically labelled the object a). The reaction against the DUP and its puritan principles, as perfidious as these might be in practice, highlights a moment of recognition of the unsuspected, the unconscious; a return of the repressed. Contemplating Northern Ireland – so little thought of by the ‘mainland’ consciousness before this turn of events, and its peace now in risk of being torn to pieces – brings home something uncanny: not only the odiousness of the DUP’s retrogressive politics (as devolved as it is) being so nearby, but the condensation of the Britishism that so much of the ConDem and straight Tory governments have based their ethos on, and what close ties there are between the two. The half-baked Corbyn smears regarding the IRA become exposed as incitements in this their mirror-image, as May’s Conservative Party expends the remnants of its already-exhausted credibility as an independent arbiter in the stalled Stormont Assembly talks. It is the flippant disregard for, and likely lack of knowledge of, a very troubled political process and its history that, for the sake of political point-scoring and vote-courting, is playing with fire.[7]

Where, we might feel entitled to ask, does this combination of persistent, though now threatened, austerity and structural méconnaissance lead? On 14 June, in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, a massive fire spread unconquerably fast through the Grenfell Tower block of flats, its recent aesthetically-concerned refurbishment with outer cladding having fallen far short of fire safety ensurement (as has now been found to be the case in every other instance of similarly-cladded tower block that’s been tested), but not of building protocols and regulations, recommendations for the tightening of which had been repeatedly on the desks of MPs in the Conservative government (72 MPs of the Tory party voted against making social housing humanly habitable[8]), despite the tower’s residents having perseveringly written to the property’s landlords about the issue.[9] In the disaster’s coming the day after Prime Minister May touted a weasely and obviously opposition-vote-courting slogan, ‘austerity is over’ (which she’s repeated since with other faux-concessions, the latest being the suggested slashing of tuition fees), the ends of austerity – the movement of public money into private pockets, in Mark McGowan’s phrase – have begun to show up their very means materially.

In response to this horrific event, this article’s title – ‘the ends of austerity’ – is a phrase that looks two ways (unlike ‘Brexit means Brexit’, which looks only at itself). It both acknowledges the tentative potential indicated by June’s election for a way out of the post-crash economic consensus relentlessly pursued by Osborne, Cameron, and May (which can only viably be brought about by Corbyn and the Labour party, to whom it is understood, rather than viewed only as a possible inroad to more power), and it recognises the destructive and divisive results that this consensus has inflicted upon the UK. In Grenfell Tower, these two strands – the failure of the current system and the call for something different – come together. We should recognise, though, that the call for change came not only after the fire, but before it, and that the rejection of the residents’ requests is of a piece with the failed cladding, whose purpose was not only to insulate the homes of residents, but to insulate the perceptions of other inhabitants and visitors to Kensington and Chelsea against the poverty and inequality in their midst. Like the belated recognition that the DUP and Northern Ireland are not somehow outside UK politics but sitting awkwardly at its centre, the Grenfell fire is an uncanny return of the repressed in which the other is revealed as already here, sitting amidst the wealth of the London property boom.

In the case of Grenfell, the ends of austerity were supported by a structure of repression that produced and maintained something like an automated insensitivity; bureaucratic, faceless, grey. This insensitivity continues to be pervasive, in evidence not only in May’s initial decision not to meet survivors of the fire, the failure of the local council to manage donations from members of the public, and their many other failures,[10] and now no repeal of cuts to the emergency and other essential services, but also in the automated fabric of the very online media landscape which alerted many to the fire in the first place. One demonstration of this automation is indicated in a tweeted advertisement for Hellmann’s, utterly inappropriately timed (which can only be a realisation beyond automation), which ran the tagline ‘London, it’s time to get grilling’, and which was swiftly condemned by Twitter users:

edanalysis

What the responses to this PR failure indicate – many along the lines of, ‘Did nobody think to stop this advert going out?’ – is that insensitivity has become structural: the default position is that the tweet goes out, that the drive towards consumption goes on, and that the capitalist imperative thereof is completely divorced from the events of ‘current affairs’, as if these were domains that are entirely unconnected. This begins to entail that in a certain sector an active effort is required not to disregard what has happened, not to continue to repress and misrecognise what has happened, its opposite having become the structural norm to an extent: that of insensitivity towards the catastrophes of late, and their consequences, and precedents, as found in the disingenuous calls not to ‘politicise’ or ‘hijack’ a declaredly political tragedy (declared as such by the directly affected themselves). Insensitivity, it is seen here, as one of the ends of austerity, has become interwoven into the fabric of certain media, and bureaucratic organisation, and their means of dissemination. It is the breaking down of which that we are in hope of finally being at the beginning of. Active recognition is needed now more than ever, as is the pressing questioning of the repressions, ideologies and acts of méconnaissance that structure our current conjuncture’s political life.

DB, BM


  1. See Jessica Elgot, ‘Theresa May calls for ‘red, white and blue Brexit’’, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/dec/06/theresa-may-calls-for-red-white-and-blue-brexit. ↩︎

  2. See, for example, Nicole Morley ‘Number of people who regret voting Leave is greater than Brexit victory margin’, http://metro.co.uk/2016/10/16/number-of-people-who-regret-voting-leave-is-greater-than-brexit-victory-margin-6195403/. ↩︎

  3. See, for example, Peter Dominiczak, ‘Brexit: Theresa May tells EU that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal for Britain’’, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/01/17/brexit-theresa-may-tells-eu-no-deal-better-bad-deal-britain/. ↩︎

  4. See Ben Kentish, ‘Tories ‘spent more than £1m’ on negative Facebook adverts attacking Jeremy Corbyn’, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/conservative-social-media-strategy-attack-jeremy-corbyn-labouir-twitter-facebook-video-stormzy-akala-a7784406.html, and Ashitha Nagesh, ‘Tory candidate’s campaign video makes us believe in politics again’, http://metro.co.uk/2017/06/06/tory-candidates-campaign-video-makes-us-believe-in-politics-again-6688819/. ↩︎

  5. See Sam Bright, ‘The rise of Tory attack ads on Facebook’ http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-40059846. ↩︎

  6. In Seminar I, Lacan describes this kind of misrecognition as ‘not quite a lie, it is somewhere between an error and a lie.’ See Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I: Freud’s Papers on Technique, 1953-1954, ed. by Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. by John Forrester (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) p.265. ↩︎

  7. An excellent outline of which can be found in Rosa Gilbert, ‘Northern Ireland, The DUP and Colonialism’, https://newsocialist.org.uk/northern-ireland-the-dup-and/. ↩︎

  8. See Frances Perraudin, ‘Tories reject move to ensure rented homes fit for human habitation’, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jan/12/tories-reject-move-to-ensure-rented-homes-fit-for-human-habitation. ↩︎

  9. This post from the Grenfell Action Group lists ten ‘links to previous blogs […] posted on th[e] site trying to warn the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, who own this property, and the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation who supposedly manage all social housing in RBKC on the Council’s behalf’ of the very dangers that led to the devastating fire, all of which ‘fell on deaf ears’: https://grenfellactiongroup.wordpress.com/2017/06/14/grenfell-tower-fire/. ↩︎

  10. See, for instance, Chloe Cornish and Andrew Jack, ‘Kensington council sidelined after faltering Grenfell relief effort’ https://www.ft.com/content/cb002c7a-5419-11e7-9fed-c19e2700005f?mhq5j=e1. ↩︎


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