Last night I read Polly Toynbee's latest article on the need for Labour to be brave, bold and honest.
In it, she argued that Labour's strategy should involve:
"No false promises: be honest that we can only have what we pay for in tax… …People don't know what they want until they see it, as good leaders know. Jobs and growth; borrowing to spend on infrastructure, homes and green energy; guaranteed work and apprenticeships – these don't belong to any one mosaic group.
I was intrigued by this. Polly wants Labour to say that "we can only have what we pay for in tax" but in the next sentence argues for "borrowing to spend on infrastructure, homes and green energy;'
There's a fairly obvious logical disconnect here*.
That aside, if the 2015 government was honest that we can only have what we pay for in tax, we would face an immediate fiscal crisis, as we'll face a deficit of some £50 billion, and that to take Polly's point literally would have to involve spending cuts.
Given that Polly is on record as also proposing £10bn in tax increases to fund an extra spending commitment (a good one, on Social care) as well as extra borrowing in the areas she mentions, it struck me that this meant Polly was surely calling for significant spending cuts in areas other than infrastructure, homes and green energy, jobs and apprenticeships.
So I tweeted my astonishment that Polly was bravely calling for significant spending cuts. I said "Blinking heck
@pollytoynbee wants really swingeing cuts" I suppose I should have added "or really massive tax increases", but it was a bit late, and I was tired.
In response, Polly chose to tell me that "You sometimes seem keener on pointless faction fighting that seeing Labour win." and that I "seem to have no interest in Labour winning, only ever sniping."
Well, Take heart, believers in Labour soft centre.
Polly Toynbee used to attack Tony Blair, then Gordon Brown, then Liam Byrne, Now she's reduced to attacking a nobody like me.
In this I think we we see the sad and sorry decline of the Labour right!
But delighted though I am that Polly is apparently familiar with my entire oeuvre, I do want to take a moment to address the central charge Polly makes.
I joined the Labour party illegally at 15, In fact, I think Polly and I joined the Labour party at roughly the same time. Me as a socially awkward teenager, she from the SDP. We all have our crosses to bear.
Since then I've been a Labour councillor, an election agent, and member of Labour party staff. I've worked on several by-election campaigns, from triumphant to disastrous and three General Election campaigns. I've been a peon for each of the last three Labour leaders in various menial and insignificant ways.
In that time, I've never once called on a Labour leader to resign or demanded silence from those who I disagree with. I write a blog, which talks a lot about how Labour might approach the next election.
All this while Polly Toynbee has been a prominent national journalist. In that time, Polly has written this, calling on Tony Blair to quit- written just three days after the 2005 election, this. arguing Gordon Brown must resign a year or so after helping push him into number 10, and this, arguing that "Labour's vain, venal has beens" (it's former leaders) should shut up.
So I think you can understand why I'm amused that Polly had a pop at me for my willingness to engage in internal sniping instead of loyally campaigning for the next Labour victory.
It's a bit like being attacked by Kevin Maguire for excessive willingness to take a factional line.
But this mild astonishment and humour aside, there's a serious issue here.
I'm sure Polly will argue she is not engaging in "faction fighting", but trying to set out the best case of how Labour can win.
She's right. She's not there to be mutely loyal to mistaken ideas or foolish leaders. Nor is Jackie Ashley, or Seamus Milne, or any other Guardian columnist. Nor is John Rentoul, or Andrew Rawnsley or Steve Richards.
May I say the same about myself?
The reason I asked Polly about her attitude to Labour's future spending policy is not because I want to poke Polly with a stick, or make her uncomfortable, or because I want to score some factional points, but because I think the economy, deficit and how we approach them are the central issue of British politics and I care passionately that we have a policy here that makes sense.
Further, I think covering a central vagueness about what Labour would actually have to do with airy phrases about bravery, honesty and boldness is a mistake that would repel voters.
Worse than that, it's using bravery, honesty and boldness as a mask for caution, timidity and a refusal to engage with unpleasant choices.
I don't think such a position works for a political party, even if it's very effective as a polemic.
Come the next election, prolonged unemployment, increased state costs (care, welfare) and sluggish growth will lead to some pretty painful decisions on spending coming in the 2015 parliament.
Even after this current government completes this round of cuts, the next Labour government will be forced to address these questions.
Polly rightly argues that Social Care should be a priority for the next Labour government, earmarking £10 billion in tax increases on pensioners to fund this. I agree.
Yet that means we are already committed to £10 billion in tax increases before we undertake any spending to return to a productive Britain (investment bank, infrastructure spend, skills, Small business support atc) and before we try to address either our current structural deficit, or the longer term structural deficit identified in the OBR.
To do this, will likely require both tax increases and significant spending restraint, not least because we need to switch some current spending to investment for growth. Remember, all of this is a challenge for AFTER the current government's cuts programme is implemented.
I worry that if Labour does not address this, the electorate will find our position incredible, especially given that Labour's record on not running out of money is not exactly unblemished thoughout our history.
So Polly, do let me know – if you were the next Prime Minister, would you close the gap through tax increases alone, or do you believe spending restraint after 2015 will also be needed? When would you like to see the structural deficit closed, and how do you propose to reach spending surplus, given your calls for incremental spending?
Polly calls for honesty, bravery and boldness.
I agree wholeheartedly.
I believe no progressive governing project will be wholly convincing unless it is honest about Britain's fiscal and economic challenges, brave in addressing them head on, and bold in understanding that some of the answers that are required for national renewal will be discomforting to our own movement.
This isn't factionalism. It's politics.
*It's been suggested to me that this is wrong – that by following the advice of Jonathan Portes and borrowing cheaply we can fund a major infrasructure programme now. Right now, I totally agree with Jonathan, though being a pessimist, I worry that the borrowing situation in 2015 will be less friendly. Hopefully, my worries are groundless. (That concern, plus the existing deficit, is why when it comes to extra spend, I prefer tax increases in 2015 over extra borrowing to fund such initiatives – though I'd rather they were done now, as the SMF have suggested)
But that's not what Polly says. She says, first, that we need to tax to pay for what we want, then, in the next sentence, that we should borrow to fund the initiatives we need. Doing either thing may be a reasonable strategy, but managing to do both would be logically impressive.
But I think even this misses the larger point Polly was trying to make – it is not just the initiatives she describes that must be funded honestly but everything government does.
So even if you fund the additional infrastucture spend with extra taxes (though again, Polly doesn't say this, talking instead about more borrowing, which however cheap, would still add to the deficit), you're still left with the structural deficit to be addressed. Given Polly says everything we want must be paid for, this leaves us with a fairly major hole that must be filled, either by spending restraint, or by taxes. Given the scale of the gap, something would have to give. To me, this is the central question for the centre left to address.