Christina Patterson: I still don't see Labour's alternative

If I was losing my job I'd be very angry. But I'd also feel very angry that nobody had presented an answer, other than higher tax
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I am, I have to admit, not very keen on marches. I don't like vuvuzelas. I do like a loo. I also don't like violence and I'm not sure I could have trusted myself when Mark Serwotka, the General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, who said when he was elected, that he would only accept an average member's wage, but two years ago was apparently getting a salary package of well over 100 grand, told the crowd that they must oppose "every single cut".

There was, he said, "an alternative". Since this was what the several hundred thousand people who were there (apart from the ones who were there to smash glass over shop assistants, earning the minimum wage) were meant to be marching for, this was an important moment. I'd have expected a drum, or a steel-pan, roll. The crowd waited. The answer came. Tax rich scroungers! March and strike!

Perhaps Serwotka was expecting Gaddafi (who apparently put footage of the more lively protest scenes on Libyan state TV as an example of Western democracy) to come and bomb the bank vaults, so that any shortfall in his or his members' pensions could be swiftly made up. Perhaps he was at the forefront of scientific research that showed that trainers on tarmac trigger a form of energy that's stronger than wind power, and more lucrative than oil. Perhaps he was planning a massive sponsored walk. Or perhaps the thought had never crossed his pretty little head: that to keep the public sector, and public services, ticking over at Brownian levels of investment in a time of a whopping great deficit, someone, somewhere had to find rather more than whatever the profits were on what Philip Green handed over to his Monaco-dwelling wife.

But trade union leaders, bless 'em, have quite a simple job. In return for their several-times-the-average-wage salaries, they have to do just one thing: represent their members' interests. They don't have to balance those interests with the interests of anyone else, and they don't have to balance any books. Which, quite frankly, is probably just as well.

Leaders of political parties, and particularly leaders of political parties who would like to be prime minister, and particularly leaders of political parties who pipped their brother to the post because of the votes of union members, have to balance a lot of interests against a lot of other interests. When, for example, they speak at marches "for an alternative", they have to balance the interests of union leaders on big salaries against those of people like their neighbours who, like them, live in gargantuan houses, and probably won't be affected by the cuts, but care about those who will, and against those of people who got up at 5am and travelled on coaches from Newcastle, or Sheffield, because they, and lots of people they know, will lose their jobs, their benefits, their services, or their homes.

You can see why, faced with an audience like this, you might be tempted to start talking about suffragettes, and civil rights movements, and anti-apartheid campaigners, and Martin Luther King, and why you might also think it was a good idea to keep using the word "friends", as if you were a character in Julius Caesar, and why you might want to try to sound a bit biblical, even if your knowledge of biblical rhythms came largely from political speeches, and why you might go for a kind of "call and response" approach, as if you had been on a storytelling course as part of Black History Month, even if all of this actually turned out to be a very, very bad idea. But it's hard to see how, when you were addressing a "march for an alternative", you wouldn't actually mention the alternative.

You can see how, when the big, burly union leaders said there didn't need to be any cuts, you wouldn't really want to argue with them, and might even think it was quite brave to say that there'd have to be "some". You can see why you wouldn't want to spell them out. You can see why you wouldn't want to say that the cuts you were planning, which you hadn't spelled out, and which maybe you hadn't decided yet, weren't actually a tiny fraction of the cuts that the Government was making, but 80 per cent. And that it would be quite hard to say that every cut the Government was making was wrong, when you were only planning to cut 20 per cent less.

But running a country, and balancing different interests, and balancing budgets particularly when people seem to want European levels of public service and US levels of taxation, is hard. We know that, because the people who are doing it at the moment, who came in to power suggesting they were going to clear up the mess left by the previous government, don't seem to be doing it very well. They were very happy to roll up their sleeves and cut lots and lots and lots of things, but they didn't seem to think about the fact that whenever you cut, you usually have to spend.

If you cut people's jobs, then you have to give them a redundancy payment, and then jobseeker's benefit, and then housing benefit, and if you throw people out of their houses, you have to find other houses for them to live in, and if you cut youth services, you have to spend more on prisons. And if you want to find the money for all of this, and not just to pay off a deficit, but to pay for schools, and hospitals, and policemen, and pensions, you have to have some growth. But you don't just get growth by saying that Britain is "open for business", and calling your budget a "Budget for growth". To get growth, your country has to be producing something that somebody (and probably somebody who isn't also struggling with a deficit) actually wants to buy.

If I was losing my job, or if I was a disabled person losing my benefit, or someone on a low wage being thrown out of my home, I would be very, very, very angry. I might want to throw bricks at some of the bankers I thought had created the crisis, or some of the businessmen I thought could be paying more tax, though I don't think I'd want to throw bricks at people who were just doing some shopping, or trying to have a cup of tea and a scone. I might well wonder why very, very rich people didn't pay more tax, though I might also remember that most people didn't pay more tax than the law told them they had to. And that although I didn't like the sound of these people, their businesses did create jobs that people otherwise wouldn't have.

I think I'd feel angry with a government that didn't seem to care about me, or people like me, and I'd want to tell them that it wasn't fair. But I think I'd also feel angry that nobody, and certainly nobody in the party that said it wanted the next go at running the country, had presented an alternative. I'd feel angry that nobody seemed to have a long-term plan that looked as though it might work. And that nobody had presented an answer to debt and demographics other than higher taxes, which nobody wanted to pay. And I think I'd want to say to the leader of the party that said it had an alternative, but didn't say what it was: we've seen your heart. Now show us your brain, and your guts.;