Tomorrow, tens of thousands of people will descend on London to “March for the Alternative” – an anti-cuts demonstration organised by the TUC, but which is likely to draw broad support amongst the left.
In my mind, the name of the event – “March for the Alternative” – encapsulates two strategic issues for the left when opposing the cuts.
1. What is THE alternative? Does it even exist?
I’d wager that there will be a multitude of different reasons for people attending the march – they are a public sector worker facing redundancy, their local library is being closed, an elderly relative is seeing their care reduced.
And it is entirely rational for these individuals to oppose cuts in government spending for these personal reasons.
But as Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem implies, you are unlikely to achieve a coherent macro-policy simply by aggregating individual preferences – if you agree that government spending will need to be reduced, then at some point you will have to make choices as to how this is achieved.
So I don’t agree there is one alternative – THE alternative. March for AN alternative might have been a better slogan.
This isn’t a trivial point, and links to a potentially more significant issue for the left and Labour in particular in opposing the government.
2. Focusing on THE (or AN) alternative is a strategic error.
By defining clearly what you stand for, you take the focus off what you are against. Opposition should, by definition, be primarily about opposition.
But if Labour pretends to be in government* by setting out specific alternatives, rather than general guiding principles, it will become a hostage to fortune; a lot will change between now and 2015.
*Something Ed Balls is more than a little guilty of. For example, in yesterday’s Commons debates he said:
“Under Labour’s plan, the economy was set to grow strongly, unemployment was falling, and we were on track to halve the deficit in four years.”
But Labour lost an election on their plan. So it’s probably time to reflect on alternatives, while opposing the only plan being implemented – the government’s.
Alex Baker is Secretary of the Young Fabians.