I’ve just watched the soi-disant “March for the Alternative” snaking its way across London. It is clear enough, from the banners and slogans, what the protesters are against: spending restraint, open markets, private enterprise, property rights, free contract, Tories, bankers and Nick Clegg. Fair enough. But what are they for?
Their website suggests that they think the answer to our debt crisis is more spending. In fact, they don’t think we have much of a debt crisis. They want higher taxes, particularly for the rich, whom they expect to wait around meekly to be fleeced. And they insist that higher state expenditure (”investment”) will create more jobs. Why so half-hearted, comrades? Why not go all the way, nationalise every business, place every adult on the state payroll and confiscate all income? By your logic, it would surely make Britain the most prosperous country on Earth.
I can’t imagine what prompted Labour leaders to get involved with this madness, but I suspect that they have just added a couple of years to their spell in Opposition. Ed Miliband, sounding almost reasonable compared to the official demands of the marchers, says that he would halve the deficit over this Parliament instead of eliminating it altogether. Let’s leave aside, for a moment, whether the Coalition’s proposals really would bring us back to surplus over five years – a prospect which strikes me as optimistic. The truth is that, as yet, there haven’t been any net cuts. Every month since the general election has seen rises in taxation, spending and borrowing.
Ministers hope to close the deficit by allowing the private sector to grow faster than the public. In other words, although the state will end up being smaller as a percentage of GDP, it will be larger in absolute terms. To be clear, then, Labour isn’t proposing to cut spending more slowly than the Coalition, but to increase it more quickly.
After “No Cuts!” the marchers’ favourite slogan was “Fairness!” Alright, then. How about parity between public and private sector pay? Or job security? Or pensions? How about being fair to our children, whom we have freighted with a debt unprecedented in peacetime? How about being fair to the boy who leaves school at 16 and starts paying taxes to subsidise the one who goes to university? How about being fair to the unemployed, whom firms cannot afford to hire because of the social protection enjoyed by existing employees?
The protesters might have engaged in a serious argument by identifying alternative spending reductions. Instead, they have decided to indulge their penchant for empty, futile, self-righteous indignation.