Ideology and Discourse in ConDem Policy

Ideology and Discourse in ConDem Policy  by MarxistNutter

First posted on Politics Worldwide  December 26, 2012

 The UK government have failed on whatever measure you choose to name. In this article, Marxist Nutter draws on a variety of political theorists to explain why the government’s support base has failed to collapse after over 2 years of policy failure after policy failure from the ConDems.


The Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in the UK in May 2010. Since then their policy programme has been a complete failure in respect to whatever measure you may wish to choose. Unless you happen to think, as Cameron and Osborne may well do, that further enriching elites (many of whom were responsible for the 2008 financial crisis), increasing inequality, eroding social mobility, increasing the deficit and national debt and further embedding poverty and inequality are signs of good governance, then the current government may represent the greatest failure in governing in the national interest that those of us alive today have ever seen.

This epic failure in policy has not however led to an equally epic crash in support for the Conservative Party (although the Liberal Democrats do appear to have suffered a fairly steep decline in support) nor has it resulted in a dramatic  resurgence in support for Ed Miliband’s Labour party.

A rational analysis, based on empirical observation would, without a shadow of a doubt, show up the current UK government as a failure in its own terms (governing in the national interest/ fiscal responsibility) and in terms of governing in the interests of the majority of British people. Modern political science, with its over-emphasis on quantitative methods (especially regression analysis), and a reliance inherited from economics on instrumental rationality, seems ill equipped to explain continuing support for coalition policies, many of which run counter to the rational interests of a large swathe of their electoral supporters.

Thus, to explain current UK politics, one must move beyond mainstream political science with its large ‘n’ studies, data sets and regression analyses, and draw on the insights of interpretative scholars and radical political theorists. In this article I will draw on crucial insights from a range of radical theorists such as Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, Ernesto Lacalu, Chantal Mouffe and Slavoj Zizek as well a certain post-structuralist current in political science expressed by academics such as David Howarth and Jason Glynos  to account for the apparent stability of the current UK administration in the face of such epic policy failure.  This is not primarily an academic work; but rather seeks to engage readers of both an academic and non academic disposition with an interest in in depth analysis of UK politics.

The Extent of the Coalition’s Failure

Coalition policy has caused and will continue to cause greater suffering for more and more people in Britain.  According to research published by Crisis:

  • Rough sleeping is up by 23 per cent in the year to Autumn 2011- the most dramatic growth since the 1990s. Recorded rough sleeping is up by 48 per cent in London.
  • Homelessness acceptances up 34 per cent since bottoming out in late 2009.
  • Temporary accommodation and bed and breakfast placements are both on the increase. Last week’s homelessness statistics, published too late for this report, showed that the number of families with children in B&B has risen from 740 in second quarter of 2010 when the coalition took power to 2,020 in the third quarter of 2012. The number in B&B beyond the legal limit of six weeks has quintupled from 160 to 880 over the same period.
  • 1.5 million concealed households involving single people and 214,00 involving couples and long parents in 2012
  • An increase in the number of sharing households between 2007 and 2010 after a long-term decline
  • Overcrowding affecting 670,000 households according to the latest figures.
  • Homelessness resulting from the termination of assured shorthold tenancies up 156 per cent in London in the two years to 2011/12

However when it comes to housing policy the ‘gold standard’ on which the government wants to measured is housebuilding. Once again the coalition’s performance can only be described as an epic failure as the graph below demonstrates.

Figure 1: Reproduced from Inside Edge

One of the government’s main aims was to reduce the deficit; however yet again all we have seen is failure. Despite the Chancellor’s assertions to the contrary both the deficit and national debt have risen each year for the last two years according to the Office of National Statistics. Therefore despite cuts to public services, making large numbers of public sector employees unemployed (the majority of which being women) and the bonfire of the Quangos, the government have completely failed to bring the public finances under control.

Further pain will be inflicted by the Department of Work and Pensions’ welfare reform agenda. Independent research as well as the government’s own impact assessment has shown that these policies will disproportionately impact the disabled  and introduces an effective tax rate of 65% on the working poor . Reforms already in place, such as those regarding local housing allowance, have so far not only failed to help to reduce the deficit; but have contributed to the issues of homelessness mentioned above. As the slow motion car crash of welfare reformcontinues, this is set to only get worse.


Rationally speaking, the primary cause of the government’s failure has been a mis-recognition of the policy problems they have sought to address.

Regarding economics, the government seem to have bought into their own myth around inheriting an economic mess from Labour. They have misunderstood a crisis of income as a crisis of excessive spending and bought into their own crude and ill informed analogy of the ‘national credit card’.  One only need to look at the simple graph below to see that the 2008 economic crash resulted in a dramatic loss of revenue for the government. Certainly the additional costs of bailing out the banks did not help; but this was not a measure the Conservatives opposed, so one has to wonder what they would have done differently. Certainly it is not credible to believe that they would have regulated the financial service sector more heavily than Labour.

Figure 2: Deficit Graph from False Economy

As the graph above shows the 2008 crash resulted in a deficit that was driven primarily from a drop in revenue rather than from excessive public spending. However, by constructing the problem as one of public spending, the government have managed to push through an agenda of austerity which, as it turns out, has further damaged the UK economy and resulted in stagnant or declining growth and tax revenues.

This construction of the problem has also allowed the government to pursue an agenda of cuts in welfare expenditure. Once again this is framed through a misunderstanding of the policy problem at stake. Certainly benefit expenditure has increased over the last decade. However the vast majority of benefit expenditure goes to pensioners or to people in work. In fact the increase in benefit expenditure has been primarily driven by the difference between wages (which have stagnated) and the cost of housing which has continued to rise. This problem shows no signs of abating and yet the government’s current policy does nothing to address it. In fact the reduction of the building of affordable homes (see figure 1) will only make it worse still. However the government have constructed the problem as one of increasing benefit payments for the unemployed despite the fact the unemployed are responsible for only a minute fraction of the total benefit bill.

Therefore, rather than building more affordable homes and pushing polices that will increase wages (such as the living wage) for the lowest paid, the government has instead cut affordable housebuilding whist cutting the benefits needed by working people to cover their housing costs.  The government seem to think ‘making work pay’ involves cutting benefits rather than increasing wages. If housing costs continue to rise and wages stagnate and the government refuses to help working households pick up the difference, one wonders how employers will manage to continue to find employees able to afford to work for them without wither increasing wages (and so making the UK less economically competitive). If this happens, the result can only be an self sustaining spiral of unemployment and homelessness – one which the data suggests we are beginning to see already.

Understanding Ideology and Rationality in ConDem Policy

Government policy is  best understood as a discourse or a discursive system which is largely self referential and does not often need to refer outside itself to empirical observations. Discourse here is defined as a ‘differential ensemble of signifying sequences in which meaning is constantly renegotiated’. Certainly this is useful for the government for, as we have seen, empirical observation and data do not seem to support their case. Indeed when the government do refer to data it often involves some quite considerable distortions in order to make it fit their narrative (see here or here or here for example).

Government policy sits inside a discourse which consists of various nested logics. Overall the government rely on the concept of instrumental rationality: the idea that there it exists rational agents that seek to maximise their own self interest. Much economic theory rests on this same assumption and it is simply a way of theoretically modelling reality. On this dubious foundation sits the discourse of neo-liberalism. Neo-liberalism, like the notion of instrumental rationality on which it is based, has only a nodding acquittance with empirical reality and has been shown by recent analyses of the data to be completely and utterly wrong, as I showhere  (for a fuller explanation of the flaws of neo-liberalism and the concept of rational agents see John Quiggin’s excellent book Zombie Economics). Within the notion of neo-liberalism sits the sort of supply-side economics that is used to justify the austerity agenda. This is where the myth of the national credit card and inherited mess sit. By drawing on this discourse of austerity the government seek to rationally ground their policy programme.

There is a rational and ideological dimension to these nested discourses. Each is able to defer to the discourse above it for its rational grounding (e.g. neo-liberalism is grounded on the notion of instrumental rationality) but in turn each discourse is able to defer to one below it for its ideological appeal. For example both instrumental rationality and neo-liberalism are rather dry concepts – they can be made to feel more real by an appeal to austerity and especially the notion we have ‘run up the national credit card’ . Austerity cannot rationally support neo-liberalism (as neo-liberalsim rationally supports austerity) but instead provides it with an ideological hook which people can relate to. Thus government policy discourse is able to sit inside a system of self referential nested discourses that can defer/refer to each other for both rational and ideological support without needing to refer outside the system to empirical observations.

Figure 3: The Condem Hegemony of nested discourses

In order to understand more how the government are able sustain their discourse in the face of mounting evidence of failure we need to understand the role of political and fatasmatic logics.

Political logics are discussed in some detail in Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s  Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (pages 127-134) . They consist of two opposing logics, neither of which is capable of totalising the discursive, because they operate so as to subvert each other; however one of these logics may dominate the other in any specific instance.  The two political logics are termed the logic of equivalence and the logic of difference.

For those familiar with Marxist theory, the logic of difference bears a passing resemblance to Gramsci’s notion of trasformismo without the class reductionist underpinnings. It is the process whereby demands arising from diverse subject positions are absorbed by the dominant order by conceiving of each of these demands as separate. The fact these demands are seen as separate draws attention to the differences between these demands and thus the differences between the groups or actors making the demands.  These differences are not to be seen as antagonistic as such; but instead as simple differences that make up the system of differences from which identity is formed. Differently put, ‘[t]he differential relations between discursive moments are constitutive of their very identity’ (Jacob Torfing New Theories of Discourse)

David Cameron draws on the logic of difference when, for example, he has to deal with competing demands about Europe or gay marriage from within his party or within the coalition. Rather than constructing he EU as an ‘other’ which represents an enemy (as UKIP and many Tories would like to do), Cameron tries to break it down to individual policies and limits his contestation to these rather than the EU as a whole. This allows him to diffuse anger against the EU per se  by focussing on specific demands and allow the Conservative party to maintain a separate identity to UKIP.

The logic of equivalence represents the limit to the logic of difference. It can be understood as the process by which diverse demands from different groups are articulated in (chains of) equivalence to each other and in opposition to an ‘other’ that prevents these demands from being realised. This equivalence subverts difference and vice versa. The logic of equivalence is also constitutive of identity, in the sense that it brings social groups into existence in antagonistic opposition to each other as the ‘other’. It thus dichotomises the social space into antagonistic camps whose identity is partially fixed by each other’s status as the ‘other’.  The divide that separates these antagonistic camps is referred to as a (antagonistic) frontier.

Figure 4: logic of equivalence 

Here things get more interesting. Rather than looking at individual welfare policies and demands and dealing with them as different demands; the government seeks to draw an equivalence between them.  Thus the differences between  labour policy (wages etc), housing policy, and unemployment policy are played down and instead they are constructed as a single problem caused by people unwilling to work.  Here the differences between low paid workers on benefits, low paid workers who are not on benefits, the middle classes and the rich are masked by an appeal to an ‘other’ which is their shared enemy – the benefit scrounger. Via the  logic of equivalence, the government are able to dichotomise the discursive space between ‘us’ and ‘them’. The diverse demands of the working and middle classes (D1,D2,D3 etc in the diagram above) are represented by a demand to clamp down on welfare scroungers (the big D1). In this way all classes see their own demands as represented by the demand to cut welfare spending and enforce punitive measures against welfare claimants. This  logic of equivalence therefore allows many people’s own rational demands to be masked/ represented (demands for better wages etc) by an appeal to the demand to reduce welfare spending.

However  the logic of equivalence does not, on its own, explain why so many people (many of whom benefit from welfare themselves) buy into the notion of benefit cuts. Indeed many people who support reductions in welfare do so against their own rational interest. Here is where ideology comes in. Drawing on Althusser’s notion of interpellation we may say that they have mis-recognised themselves when they have been ‘hailed’ by the government – they seem themselves as one of the ‘we’ when in fact they are one of the ‘them’ being targeted by the cuts.

But to recognize that we are subjects and that we function in the practical rituals of the most elementary everyday life (the hand-shake, the fact of calling you by your name, the fact of knowing, even if I do not know what it is, that you ‘have’ a name of your own, which means that you are recognized as a unique subject, etc.) – this recognition only gives us the ‘consciousness’ of our incessant (eternal) practice of ideological recognition – its consciousness, i.e. its recognition…

As a first formulation I shall say: all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subject.

Althusser, L:  Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses

When the government speaks of those who are disadvantaged by welfare reform they do not recognise themselves as those people; but rather think it is only the ‘other’ the ‘benefit scrounger’ who is clearly not they, who will be affected.

Supplementing this Althusserian analysis by drawing on Jacques Lacan, David Howarth and Jason Glynos, it is possible to go as far as saying that it is this ideological dimension which helps to explain why government discourse has such an appeal to people – why, at the emotional level, people feel so angry about ‘benefit scroungers’ even though tax avoiding corporations or even the government would be more rational objects of their wrath.

Underneath the diagram of nested discourses (figure 3) sits what Glynos and Howarth may call a fantasmatic logic. The final source of the governments ideological appeal (in both senses of the word). Figure 3 shows the extent of official government discourse; however at the fringes of official discourse (tabloid media etc) there is space for a more blatantly ideological narrative to flourish.  It is here – beyond the scope of official discourse – where government policy draws it ideological appeal. Here is where the narrative of the ‘benefit scrounger’ is fleshed out in full.  As I argue elsewhere:

 [T]he Coalition government (together with the right wing press) successfully and misleadingly conflated the rising cost of benefits with the image of the ‘lazy scrounger’ who has no job and ‘lives off’ benefits and thus developed a hegemonic discourse of the ‘lazy scrounger’ who is responsible for the rising cost of welfare expenditure. The reason why the coalition has been so successful in hegemonising this interpretation is due to what we can call (following the French Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan) the ‘fantasmatic’ dimension of the discourse. The notion of the benefit scrounger closely follows the contours of the ‘stolen enjoyment thesis’ identified by political theorists David Howarth, Jason Glynos and Yannis Stavrakakis.

This fantastmatic narrative does not always stay at the fringes of official discourse and occasionally creeps into the government’s own rhetoric.

We should ask this question about housing benefit: if you’re a young person and you work hard at college, you get a job, you’re living at home with mum and dad, you can’t move out, you can’t access housing benefit. And yet, actually, if you choose not to work, you can get housing benefit, you can get a flat. And having got that, you’re unlikely then to want a job because you’re in danger of losing your housing benefit and your flat.

(David Cameron on the Today Programme September 2012)

The above statement is factually absurd considering 93% of new housing benefit claimants are in employment; but it helps sustain the fantasmatic/ ideological dimension of their discourse – propping up, as it were, the entire nested discourse in figure 3.  It is precisely in this sense that we can say the coalition’s policy agenda rests on ideology rather than on evidence.

2 thoughts on “Ideology and Discourse in ConDem Policy

  1. Pingback: Myth Busting: The Coalition Cut the Deficit by a Quarter | Think Left

  2. Pingback: Chris Huhne: The Latest Lying Politician | Think Left

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