A growing number of voices are calling for the Labour Party to separate the idea of social progress from the ideas of money and public spending. It can’t be done – the Labour Party needs to talk about money unless wants to give up the goal of a fairer society
First published here on Labourlist
Us Brits are supposed to go all coy at the mere mention of the word. But I’m getting a bit sick of being told to stop talking about money.
The latest effort, by Labour MP Gregg McClymont and academic Ben Jackson, calls on Labour to avoid “a simple defence of the public sector and public spending.” Instead, Labour should focus on growth policies which aren’t going to need “significant” amounts of extra public moolah. (Incidentally, despite their conclusions, their historical analysis is well worth a read.) Blue Labour academic Jon Wilson also said earlier this month that we in the Labour Party needed to get over our “money fetish.”
And then there’s Black Labour, which – whilst more nuanced than some of its critics have recognised – pleads with Labour to recognise that there are economic limits to public spending, calling this “really radical,” whilst lightly skipping over the fact that, you know, we recognised that all along. And the public finances were actually doing pretty well under Labour up until the financial crisis. And the Tories don’t need any more encouragement on that front, thank you very much.
Together, overtly or by implication, they are all pushing the idea that money hasn’t really got anything to do with making society better. That is a very dangerous idea, and not a Labour one at all.
Yes, in office, Gordon Brown had a habit of reeling off the big numbers. We all remember the ‘doubled spending on this’ and ‘quadrupled the number of that’ of successive Budget days, with all the accompanying Brownian hand gestures. It was, after all, the main thing that made the Labour Government different from the previous one. If the Labour Party were 50 Cent, public spending would have been its mad bling.
But why did Labour flash the cash? Did we have a bit of a “money fetish?” Hmm. I certainly didn’t, and I don’t think Gordon Brown did either. But we did have a fetish for bringing down waiting times in the NHS, rebuilding every school in the country, bringing children out of poverty. Ooh, all of that really did it for me. It’s not difficult to turn people against public spending if you keep the focus on the numbers (and the Daily Mail has perfected that into an art form). But it was really about improving people’s lives, their incomes, their futures.
It’s interesting that so many of these public-spending critics go on to suggest their own spending ideas. Jackson and McClymont suggest, among other things, a National Investment Bank, which should be “adequately capitalised” (read: give it enough brass). Wilson says we need a national plan (read: sponduliks) for vocational training. Others bandy around ideas like ‘an industrial policy’ as if they grow on trees. The priorities have changed since 2007, but the basic idea hasn’t: at least some part of our strategy for growth and fairness will involve strategically spending some public dinero. We shouldn’t let that idea be made into some sort of taboo.
There are ways we can improve society without spending public cash, and people are right to point them out. The National Minimum Wage is the big one. Putting workers on corporate remuneration committees is a good idea too. Though, when we talk about equality and squashing income scales, we’re still talking about the dough.
But we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that public spending is somehow passé. Labour is going to continue to defend publicly funded services. And a lot of these ideas that sound wonderfully cheap – like creating more co-operatives to take over from the state – wouldn’t really be all that cheap out here in the real world, at least not if we want to do them properly. (A co-operative done on the cheap isn’t much more than Cameron’s Big Society.) Maybe we can’t call for a big expansion in public spending, but that doesn’t mean public spending should simply disappear from the public debate – unless we are ready to give up altogether on those goals of fairness and equality.
So when we’re lectured about how Labour needs to be less profligate, we should remember that Labour was never really profligate in the first place. When we read that Labour needs to stop defending public spending, let’s remember that ‘public spending’ really means things that make society fairer.
And when we’re told we need to “get over” our fixation with dosh, remember that – although it’s not the be-all and end-all – we can’t talk about making society fairer without talking about the moneh. Like it or not, that’s what the Labour Party is here to do. ■