Today, thousands of people will take to the streets to oppose this Government’s self-defeating, foolish approach to austerity.
There will be camaraderie, banners, fiery speeches, dull speeches, and most often, inaudible speeches. There will be community and common purpose. There will be SWP chants and ironic placards. There will be, I reckon, rather a lot of fun.
For someone like me, who grew up in an era of mass rallies and marches, these Labour traditions have a reverberative emotional quality.
Yet despite this, I’m not there.
It’s not that I don’t agree with the message of the march, at least as expressed on their website. I do think there is an alternative. I do think jobs and growth are at the heart of that alternative.
Yet I can’t march with the thousands marching today because I don’t want to lie to them.
There is an alternative, but it will be little easier to bear for those marching today.
I believe that the next Labour government will likely inherit an economy displaying weak growth, stagnant unemployment and running a significant deficit, while the costs of servicing our existing debt may be beginning to edge up from historic lows, as recoveries elsewhere attract investors.
Faced with such a challenge there will be little to no room for public sector pay increases, or increases in employment. Even when we increase tax receipts from the better off, we will have to invest in infrastructure, capital spend and supporting private sector growth.
Further, there will be some areas – notably in helping the low paid – where we will want to reduce government tax take to improve living standards.
Where we can increase tax income, other priorities, from industry to infrastructure to early years care, to taxes for the lowest paid, will take up our limited resources.
That will leave little, almost nothing, for increases in public service budgets beyond what is projected now.
In other words, I believe the next Labour government will not just inherit a tight public spending envelope for public services, it will need to – and should – continue with something broadly like it.
Can I really march with firefighters, teachers, nurses, and workers from across our public sector and not say that while I see an alternative to the government’s idiocy from a future Labour government, it would be little better for them?
Nor can I take refuge in the comfort of saying that I wish to change the government’s strategy now.
If I were the Prime Minister today, I would decide that the market would bear borrowing to support growth. I would borrow to invest in capital spend, in infrastructure, to support a state investment bank, to reduce corporation tax on small businesses, to increase the size of the Regional growth fund.
If I felt we needed to help consumers to create a spurt of demand led growth, I might reduce NI, or VAT.
What I would not do, I’m afraid, is increase programme spend in the Public Sector or increase wages for any but the lowest paid in the public sector. It just isn’t where we should be putting our precious stimulus. New School buildings, yes, but not more pay for the teachers in them.
I’d also be conscious that every pound I borrowed today, when costs were low, would need to be repaid and that I should not create a higher permanent deficit through my greater counter-cyclical spending. To anticipate this, I would set a future fiscal strategy that locked in public sector spending restraint during the next cycle of growth.
In other words, I believe that there is an alternative, a better way for our economy to support growth, grow more equally and share the burden of deficit reduction.
Unfortunately, it is not one which will be any easier for those marching today.
Indeed, in a few years time, when growth returns, the tight fiscal collar I’d place on our spending plans might feel like an unwarranted extension of austerity, not the inevitable price of needed short-term stimulus.
Maybe, maybe, if the economy rebounds, and the rate of growth is strong, and the deficit is falling faster than expected, and inflation stays low, we might be able to loosen the corset just an inch, but only an inch. No promises, no easy way out.
If I was a leader of my party, or was able to speak, I could say this, and much more to the marchers.
I could explain why we needed to invest in private sector growth, and in capital projects, and in helping businesses form in places where far too few do.
I could explain that an industrial bank, support for innovation, support for people starting small business, for training apprenticeships, for building roads, and tunnels and wind turbines and power stations have to be our priorities, and that while we can increase tax on the wealthy, that would not be sufficient to do all we need, and that means limits elsewhere.
I could explain that I would be holding down spending in the public sector, not because I hated public services, but because it was the only way to build an economy that could support a superb public sector in many years to come.
I could explain that we needed to change the structure of the economy through improved social care, and help in early years, so more people could work. This would require families to contribute more, so to make that acceptable to them, these areas would require more support, all of which would mean everywhere else would suffer.
I could explain that while things would be tough, that pay would be held down, that programmes would be squeezed, expansion of services deferred, it would be for a greater purpose than Tory austerity to serve the few – a national renewal that worked for all.
I could explain that there’s no solidarity in telling people easy half-truths. No comradeship in evasive deception.
I could say that the worst betrayal of the Labour movement has always come from those who stood on platforms and hinted at promises they could never honestly deliver.
I could say I would never imitate them, not because I despise the banners of our forefathers, but because I prize what they stand for too highly to exploit them.
But I’m just an activist, and I don’t get to say all that.
So I can’t march, not honestly.