‘Floating voters’, rules of rescue and the challenge to austerity discourse

The onset of massive flooding is throwing up some uncomfortable challenges for the UK Coalition government’s austerity agenda

Matt WoodAndrew Neil’s quip on Thursday night’s episode of This Week about the government’s concern for ‘floating voters’ in south-west England was among his best. Like a lot of good jokes, it resonates with an unacknowledged truth. This winter’s extraordinarily prolonged period of storms and flooding has turned the political weather vanes round dramatically. David Cameron’s headline quote is illustrative:

Money is no object in this relief effort. Whatever money is needed for, it will be spent. We are a wealthy country, we have a growing economy. We will spend what is necessary.

Note the difference to his speech on austerity just last November at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet when he said:

We are sticking to the task. But that doesn’t just mean making difficult decisions on public spending. It also means something more profound. It means building a leaner, more efficient state. We need to do more with less. Not just now, but permanently.

How can we understand this dramatic turnaround when, as angry Scunthorpe residents highlighted earlier that night on Question Time, despite similar floods in northern England in December, we heard nothing about ‘spending what is necessary’? Neil’s pun lampoons the obvious explanation: Cameron is doing this out of naked political self-interest. Whereas the Conservative party has little interest in responding to crises in northern areas with fewer electoral seats, these floods are causing havoc in Tory heartlands. So the dramatic change in rhetoric is, apparently, down to simple electoral considerations.

I think, though, there is more to Cameron’s about-turn than this: for two reasons. Firstly, natural disasters aren’t really key vote-changers. Sure, governments want to be seen as acting competently, and terrible misjudgements can be debilitating, as George Bush found out after Hurricane Katrina. Yet, as Barack Obama’s experience after Hurricane Sandy demonstrates, voters usually expect such crises to blow over (excuse the pun) fairly quickly, with perceptions of candidates and economic conditions remaining more important in determining party choices in elections themselves.

Secondly, while blame games do go on (as Lord Smith, Chair of the Environment Agency, found out), communities generally pull together during disasters. Research on foreign policy crises shows a ‘rally round the flag’ effect when unpredictable events like terrorist attacks create a patriotic outpouring which politicians can benefit from. My own study of floods in 2007 shows how a potentially debilitating crisis early in Gordon Brown’s premiership actually enhanced his reputation.

Generally, voters see floods as ‘acts of God’ that politicians can only respond to, rather than stop. This was the case in 2007, and looks to be similarly so in 2014. Even last Thursday’s angry Question Time audience accepted politicians can’t control the weather, but should stop the ‘blame game’ and ‘get on with the job’. Robert Winston summarised the mood, arguing that ‘it’s not a political issue at all’ and that no amount of dredging would have helped. In other words, flooding becomes a depoliticised issue. People expect politicians to pick up the pieces, rather than try to hold back the tide King Canute-style.

So, if electoral self-interest doesn’t explain what’s going on here, what does? Here I believe the Coalition government is dealing with a fascinating dilemma in reconciling its austerity agenda with the reflexive desire to intervene in situations of genuine human need. This dilemma I call the ‘rule of rescue’.

Put simply, the rule of rescue is a logic that states governments must do everything possible to rescue human life and property in imminent danger. The term was coined by medical ethicist Albert R. Jonsen:

Our moral response to the imminence of death demands that we rescue the doomed. We throw a rope to the drowning, rush into burning buildings to snatch the entrapped, dispatch teams to search for the snowbound … The imperative to rescue, is, undoubtedly, of great moral significance.

Jonsen argued that doctors needed to intervene in situations where patients’ health is most seriously endangered, so they cannot always do what is ‘cost effective’. During flooding this logic can also apply to governments, when there is a permeable sense that normal rules about fiscal discipline can be thrown out of the window. Keynesian political economy makes precisely this point: during economic downturns governments should borrow money to protect the vulnerable from the effects of recession.

Arguably, then, the rule of rescue, as a Keynesian-style logic or ‘ideational legacy’ of the welfare state, has created a dilemma for ministers seemingly committed to permanent fiscal discipline. On this occasion, the Coalition government seem to have become unwitting hostages to the logic that those in greatest need deserve our greatest attention – regardless of the money involved.

Political analysts like understanding political action by deconstructing the logics behind justifications and rhetoric. Alasdair Roberts’ book The Logic of Discipline defined a logic that has permeated public policy for the thirty years, wherein ‘technocratic guardians’ are preferred to politicians as allegedly ‘unbiased’ rule-makers. This logic underpinned Coalition reforms such as the creation of the Office for Budget Responsibility, a depoliticised, technocratic body aimed at permanently curtailing fiscal expenditure.  But there nevertheless seems to be a genuine clash, or ‘splintering’, of logics during these floods. Returning to ‘floating voters’, the ‘floating’ bit of Neil’s pun is arguably as important as the ‘voters’ themselves.  Appeals for intervention to protect human security often persist, even at great fiscal cost.

Clearly, both interests and ideas are important and influence when and where intervention happens. Just as during the global financial crisis government intervened to rescue multinational banks, but was less willing to prevent large-scale manufacturing job losses, so intervention in flooding is also uneven. In 2007 the military was deployed to tackle flooding in wealthy Gloucestershire, while government was slow to react when working-class Hull was inundated.

And yet, there is a sense that the 2014 floods are about more than simple electoral or class politics. The Coalition is facing a dilemma between its economic crusade for fiscal discipline and the competing moral imperative to rescue those facing genuine impoverishment. It will be interesting to see whether the Labour opposition uses the floods to expose this paradox of austerity and argue for an alternative.