Like many (probably most) of my friends in London, I spent my Saturday marching in protest against the Coalition’s planned spending cuts. Like everyone else on the march, I don’t believe that £81bn of spending cuts by 2015 and only £29bn of tax rises represents a plan in any way compatible with social justice: and I do believe that it will do terrible social damage and wreck lives.
I’d have to concede, though, that the alternatives put forward by the marchers were many and various. People miles to my political left and my right were there – from those who were much more concerned by the speed than the composition of the fiscal tightening through to those who ‘opposed every cut and fought for every job’ (except Trident, usually!). The Coalition’s response has been, in essence: ‘You have no alternative; we have a plan; we’re carrying on with the plan’.
The trouble is, their plan bears no relationship to anything the public could reasonably be said to have endorsed. Forget the fact, for the moment, that all three parties fudged and dodged a real accounting of what would have to happen in this parliament. Even on the points which did come up – should we cut over five years or over eight? – the current plan is at odds with the votes. During the campaign, the public displayed a preference for the more gradual approach. 52% of people voted for parties who (at the time) agreed. Whatever you think about the balance of taxes and cuts, this is not a mandate for shock therapy in Britain. But that is what we’re getting: the sheer depth of austerity we now face parallels the 1920s.
And a large part of the reason for this is that, in the coalition negotiations, the Liberal Democrats didn’t prioritise economic policy when they chose their sticking points. In fact, they may well have decided to reverse their policy before they even entered the room; according to Nick Clegg, at least some of them changed their minds before they went to the ballot box themselves. The result is that the basic process of discussion, of splitting the difference – of negotiation – which a hung parliament might have been expected to require has been short-circuited. Instead, we’ve got a deficit reduction plan written in outline by one party alone and occasionally coloured in slightly different tones by another. Perhaps that’s not so different from the norm in British politics: but then, a hung parliament was supposed to change all that.
The marchers wanted a range of different things, granted. A march for any other alternative, if you will. But what they were trying to start, in a way, was that very negotiating process which our Parliament so signally failed to carry through. That’s why it was a March for the Alternative: Saturday’s protesters all agree that there are alternatives, even if they don’t agree which ones should be chosen. And that’s why, rather than saying ‘what’s your alternative?’, the powers that be ought to look at the range of alternatives we do have.
If we’re looking at compromises from the Coalition, they might involve more capital spending, combined with a reduction of the structural deficit at the planned rate; they could involve a greater emphasis on taxes. I appreciate that a Conservative government is not going to give me the deficit reduction programme I actually want – but then the voters didn’t elect a pure Conservative government, even if the deficit reduction programme makes it look as if they did. It’s high time the government acknowledged this reality in its economic policy.
And by the way, they should remember that mass demonstrations don’t always have an effect on the government’s policy … but if that policy goes wrong, the demonstration has a habit of making the government look a whole lot worse later on.