It’s time to deliver what half a million marched for: Plan B

A report to "produce a feasible set of reforms that deal with the economic crisis in an alternative way" is being drawn up by a group of progressive think tanks.

Where is the alternative that prompted half a million people to take to the streets of London on March 26th. Yesterday marked a whole two months since the public marched against the staggering £81 billion-worth of spending cuts deemed necessary by the coalition for ‘rebalancing the economy’. Yet despite the dynamism and diversity of the anti-cuts movement, the very word ‘alternative’ is in danger of becoming discredited.

It is this danger that saw Neal Lawson, chair of the political pressure group, Compass, and Left Foot Forward contributor Howard Reed, director of Landman Economics, put forward an outline for a ‘Plan B’ at the New Political Economy Network (NPEN) this week.

The aim of Plan B, Reed said, is to:

“Produce a feasible set of reforms that deal with the economic crisis in an alternative way, while taking some of the first steps towards a more serious challenge to economic orthodoxy.”

Over the next few months, Lawson and Reed will collaborate with a wealth of expertise from Compass, NPEN and beyond, inviting economists, academics, and environmentalists, trade unionists, equality and democracy advocates, and protest groups, to contribute their findings. The final report will be published by Compass in the autumn.

From the outset, Plan B – “provocatively titled” said Reed, to counter George Osborne’s claim there is no such thing – promises to challenge this “orthodoxy” in a big way.

Its premise is that the coalition’s die-hard focus on ‘dealing with the deficit’ simply does not constitute a truly transformative long-term solution. Society, and the forces which govern it, have to undergo changes which go far beyond Osborne’s short-burst economic recovery. It must become more economically stable, environmentally sustainable, and socially just.

Reed said:

“We see little value in ‘saving the economy’ now just to let it go back to the bad old days of debt-fuelled bubbles, unfair outcomes and carbon intensive growth.”

For Britain to progress in real terms from this historic recession, and the political and economic thinking that led to it, we must ensure that the bubble doesn’t become “re-inflated” – and that means significantly changing our priorities.

Some will wonder how ‘Plan B’ will differ from David Cameron’s Big Society. But yesterday YouGov president, Peter Kellner, wrote that the Big Society was “failing on two fronts”. Firstly, in “proclaiming the need for a bigger role for community action, at the very time when government financial support for many charities and voluntary organisations is being cut”, and secondly in the lack of clarity around the PM’s “big idea”.

Kellner elaborated:

“Until the prime minister manages to persuade the (59 per cent of) voters that the Big Society is not a cover for public spending cuts the Big Society is doomed to remain unloved.”

For a concept which talks of ‘empowering’ the people, it seems the people themselves are sceptical that the government has their interests at heart. In a YouGov poll (pdf) a meagre 19% agreed it was a ‘real vision’, while only 9% of pollsters thought the Big Society will work. This leaves a huge gap for Plan B.

Reflecting on Labour’s stance on the coalition’s fiscal strategy, Reed remarked:

“The lines of difference between the government and the opposition are important, but rather thin. Cutting less and slower is better than cutting more and quicker, but it does not point to an alternative political economy.

“On 26 March, up to 500,000 people marched for an alternative, but as yet no concrete and full worked-up alternative strategy for economic recovery exists (to the best of our knowledge), despite the fact that a large amount of relevant and useful research is going on in this area.”

But what is a ‘political economy’? According to Lawson:

“…a political economy is something which exists to create and sustain the kind of society you want.”

One area which will feature heavily in Plan B is the value of work and the worker, which will draw on the research of the Institute for Public Policy Research, the High Pay Commission, and the New Economics Foundation to inform a response to issues ranging from living wages, work flexibility, and investment in industry over cost-cutting, to gender inequality, and the value of different forms of work.

Talk should be of “redesigning the public sector”, not stripping it back, said Reed, and effective services “can’t be done ‘on the cheap’ without compromising service quality and/or universality”.

Reed,citing the arrangements for the Work Programme as a prime example, added:

“Attempting to provide services without adequate funding risks very poor outcomes and service ineffectiveness.”

A Plan B alternative for public service delivery will consider NEF’s work on ‘co-production’, along with accepting that spending will have to be increased in certain areas.

In closing, Lawson said the success of Plan B rested on “political generosity” of its contributors:

“The right never have the answers: they just have a bunch of instincts, and they just start moving and shaping and making things happen… We can only do it with active participation. This has to be about movement building, and we should see this as our goal, in order to get the things that we want.”

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