George Osborne will deliver another austerity budget against a background of divisions in the Coalition, growing public hostility to cuts and a leap in support for Ukip
Popular opposition to cuts appears to be at an all-time high, according to a new opinion poll. 58% of those polled for the Observer say that austerity is hurting the economy, while only 20% regard it as having helped the economy. The dominant political story of our times - that austerity is necessary to cut the deficit and to ensure economic recovery - is more tattered than ever before.
While we should always be cautious about interpreting opinion poll findings, this is a hopeful sign for the anti-cuts movement. It indicates a decline in support for the idea that austerity is difficult but nonetheless necessary. Instead a growing number of people recognise that austerity is the problem not the solution, and an alternative is needed.
Austerity is failing
On Friday the government watchdog the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) - not known for criticising the coalition's economic policy - rebuked David Cameron for claiming that austerity was not responsible for choking off growth. The OBR undermined the prime minister's claim by stating that in fact austerity had knocked 1.4% off GDP in the last two years.
George Osborne has come under increasing pressure to change direction, with a serious prospect of triple-dip recession being confirmed by the next set of official growth figures. His budget on 20 March is, however, expected to merely confirm the chancellor's deep commitment to damaging public spending and welfare cuts.
It is clear that the disaster of austerity is causing tensions and divisions within the coalition government. There has been growing unrest on the Tory backbenches, with increased speculation about Osborne's position and about replacing Cameron as leader after the 2015 general election.
Just as there are divisions among the Tories, there is growing tension between the Tories and the Lib Dems. Instability in the coalition is apparent from the Lib Dems spring conference in Brighton, where business secretary Vince Cable referred to the Tories' "ideological jihad against public spending and public services" - a marked shift in rhetoric from 6 months or a year ago.
Some leading Lib Dems, including Nick Clegg, remain much more muted in criticising the coalition's senior partners. Cable's call for more borrowing to fund the building of new infrastructure, including housing, is no fundamental break from austerity, but enough to signpost divisions inside the Lib Dems, as well as between the coalition partners.
Ukip or the left?
The new polling evidence, though, also contains something that points in a less promising direction. The right-wing, nationalistic UKIP stands at 17% in the poll ( this is, astonishingly, more than double the Lib Dems' rating). It is unlikely that such a voting share will be sustained until 2015, and even more unlikely that it will translate into electoral breakthroughs for UKIP, but it reveals a loss of trust in Cameron's party from many traditional Tory voters.
With the Tories falling to a dismal 27% of the voting share, this high score for UKIP is above all a reflection of discontent among right-wing voters. As with the recent Eastleigh by-election, when Ukip took second place behind the Lib Dem winner, it suggests right-of-centre disillusionment with the government is finding expression in 'soft support' for a populist right-wing party.
The danger here is that Ukip pulls the centre of gravity in the political mainstream to the right, especially over immigration. The Tories can use this issue as a form of scapegoating to divert anger over cuts, while the Labour leadership has shown itself pitifully incapable of offering a principled response. Although many leading Tories think this approach can marginalise Ukip, it may actually legitimise their rhetoric and strengthen their support.
The left therefore needs to rebut the right-wing myths about immigration, while channelling discontent against the real enemy: a Tory-led government determined to make working class people pay for a crisis not of their making. The polls make it clear there is widespread opposition to cuts and an audience for alternatives to austerity. That audience needs to be organised and mobilised. The fractures in government and elite opinion reveal the weaknesses on their side.
The 'bedroom tax' - a transparently unfair attack on the poorest - is currently crystallising much of the opposition, with a major national day of action on 16 March. It is a winnable campaign and a victory will strike a blow against a government that has so far largely got its way. There are sizeable, vibrant campaigns against cuts to health services and the on-going privatisation of the NHS. Although there continues to be little strike action against cuts, the planned PCS strike on 20 March - Osborne's budget day - could potentially signal an increase in trade union resistance.
Above all, the People's Assembly Against Austerity - in Westminster Central Hall on 22 June - offers the hope of a co-ordinated mass movement which brings together, and amplifies, the different strands of resistance. It is a way of expressing the views of the anti-cuts majority and turning them into an organised force to confront the Tories and fight for an alternative to a failed economic agenda.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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