Britain: Heading for a coalition government?

The options facing the capitalists and their parties following the 6 May general election.

The general election – which could lead to a form of coalition government after 6 May – is in terms of ideas and policy probably amongst the worst in history, certainly since the winning of universal suffrage, the right to vote. If democracy means that the people have a ‘choice’, then there is no real democracy in Britain.

It is as if we live in a one-party regime divided into three wings: New Labour, the Tory party and the Liberal Democrats. Three brands of the same cheap soap powder would offer more excitement than this election! ‘Change’ is in the air – especially from Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats – and yet, as the French say, ‘everything changes so everything remains the same’. All the parties agree that the axe will be taken to the living standards of British working-class people, irrespective of which type of government emerges from the election; all that is under dispute is the size of the axe to complete the job. An unofficial coalition already exists on the need for ‘sacrifices’, cuts, from the working class.

The presidential-style debates of the three party leaders are a further degeneration of British elections into a personality contest – a political ‘X-Factor’ – with commentators swooning because Clegg looks straight into the camera with his puppy-dog eyes. Yet beneath the froth, the ‘surge’ for the Liberal Democrats after the first TV debate does denote the desperate search for an alternative to the pro-big business, pro-market, pro-wealthy and powerful interests, which all the main parties and their leaders in reality espouse.

Masses more radical than politicians

The mass of the British people are way to the left of the marionettes who appear on our screens. Johann Hari points out in the Independent: “Fifty-eight per cent support a dramatic increase in the minimum wage. Fifty-eight per cent want to ditch Trident – an act of unilateral nuclear disarmament. Seventy-seven per cent want to bring the troops home from Afghanistan now, or within a year at the latest. Fifty-three per cent say people come out of prison worse than they go in, and would rather spend money on more youth clubs than on more prison places.” Yet not a mention of these proposals gets onto the airways.

The shameful dumbing down of politics at the time of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, affecting millions, reveals a hollow shell of democracy. This goes together with the virtual outlawing of strikes by unelected judges and the crowding out of even the small voice of dissent of left forces like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which has been kept off the television and radio, let alone the press.

We are on the road to America, the home of ‘dollar democracy’, where two big business parties – the Democrats and the Republicans – vie for support from a narrowing base of those who take an interest or participate in voting and other aspects of capitalist ‘democracy’. Yet even in the US there is a brewing revolt against them. Socialist candidates are getting a hearing, with one receiving 16% of the vote in an election in California and unions standing their own candidates in North Carolina.

Here in Britain, the attempt to establish an alternative pole of attraction for working-class people in this election is given no space, either at national or local level. New Labour local authorities have banned posters – even where the Socialist Party and TUSC has offered to take them down after the election – because they are mortally afraid of the message of organised opposition to what is coming to them, the Tories and the Lib Dems.

This is a very dangerous situation for the capitalists. If there is no outlet for alternative views in elections, particularly against the background of this catastrophic economic crisis, then working-class people will take direct action on the streets, in the workplaces and in the communities in order to stop the capitalist juggernaut destroying them and their families.

capitalist one-party regime divided into three wings: New Labour, the Tory party and the Liberal Democrats

Falling interest in elections

Britain has been on a trajectory of low turnouts in election after election. In 1950, 84% of those able to vote turned out in elections. By 2001, under the baton of the Blair-Brown government, this had dropped to a scandalous 59%. There was a small increase in the 2005 election to 61%.

Up to the first TV debate, the pattern of lower and lower turnouts seemed about to be repeated on 6 May. Reports, however, have indicated that now 65% of voters will ‘definitely’ use their vote. The Electoral Commission reported more than 460,000 voter registration forms had been downloaded from its website since 15 March, almost half of which had come after the first debate. It remains to be seen whether hopes for a higher turnout will be borne out. In the past, an increased turnout would ‘normally’ benefit Labour. But this is uncertain this time, given the widespread disillusionment with Brown and New Labour’s record.

Brown and New Labour

Indeed, so bereft of an alternative and with the incubus around their necks of responsibility for presiding over the present devastating capitalist crisis, Brown’s main plank seems to be ‘I agree with Nick [Clegg]’. Indeed, the bookmakers Paddy Power took bets before the second debate on how many times Brown would repeat this phrase!

The only distinct theme in New Labour’s campaign in this election has been the idea of a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. Andrew Adonis – the besieged transport minister – and Peter Mandelson, the eminence gris of New Labour have both hammered away at this theme. So has Peter Hain – an earlier refugee from the Liberals to New Labour after all – emphasised the ‘common ground between the Liberal Democrats and New Labour’. He conveniently passes over the fact that the dominant Lib Dem duo at the moment, Clegg and Vince Cable, are from the ‘Orange Book’ wing of that party. They swung their party over to a completely pro-market, viciously anti-working class stance in the run-up to this election.

Attacks from Liberal Democrats and Tories

At a local level, they have given us a glance, in Leeds for instance, of the kind of cuts programme which they would favour in the event of their participation in the government nationally. And yet Clegg has been able to get away with the swindle that he is a ‘change agent’ because of the immovable pro-capitalist stance of Brown’s New Labour.

The Tories, on the other hand, have openly come out for brutal attacks on the poor and the working class as the bedrock of their government, if Cameron sneaks through the portals of 10 Downing Street. Quite casually on the election trail, he has venomously declared that “his government” would unceremoniously “cut benefits to those who refuse to work”. This is an echo of the 1930s slashing of unemployment benefits which led to riots on Merseyside and elsewhere. It also assumes that there are countless jobs which the unemployed can just fall into. On the contrary, one fifth of those able to work are idle in Britain today.

This arises not from ‘laziness’ or a reluctance to work, as Cameron suggests. The Daily Mirror (23 April), reported on the suicide of a 21-year old woman who had been rejected 200 times for jobs! The Guardian (23 April) reported the situation of a 56-year old IT professional from Harlow who has been unemployed for five years. “He has applied for 4,700 jobs over the past five years and been invited to just two interviews. Alongside jobs at senior management level and banking he has also applied for taxi driving, warehousing jobs and baggage handling at nearby Stansted Airport. ‘I hit rock bottom last year and applied for a job at Harlow crematorium.’” It is capitalism, a system for the production of profit for a few capitalists and not social need, and those who prop it up like Cameron, which is entirely responsible for mass unemployment.

Massive attacks coming post-election

Their proposals will add considerably to the army of unemployed. Even ‘one of their own’, the City hedge fund manager RAB Capital has conceded this. An economist from this body has pointed out that aggressive cost-cutting of state expenditure to fund a National Insurance contributions cut for the employers promised by Cameron “would lift unemployment by almost 250,000 people and knock out a significant market prop”. They comment: “Prices [for property] remain around seven times average income, which is higher than the long-run average of 5.5. It is unsustainable without continued low interest rates and government support especially public-sector jobs.”

Before New Labour can point the finger at the Tories, however, they also state: “On our calculations, Labour’s 1.5% spending cut for 2010-11 equates to 120,000 jobs [which will be cut] while the Conservatives’ 2.8% would shed about 230,000.” What kind of choice is this for public-sector workers or for working people as a whole?

Electoral collapse of Tories in the cities

If the real programme of the Tories was exposed, they would face even greater attrition than suffered in previous elections. In the last election, they came out with no seats in whole swathes of some of the most important urban areas of Britain. This was the case in Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield. The Tories in Liverpool went from 44% of the vote 40 years ago to 8% in 2005!

A major reason for this collapse of what was once the most successful capitalist party in Liverpool was the work of the Liverpool labour movement under the political sway of the much-maligned Militant (now the Socialist Party). Getting rid of Militant and the left, the abandonment of Clause IV, Part 4 of Labour’s constitution, was, it was argued by the Blairites, the road to electoral triumph and the long-term benefit of Labour. The result of this ruinous policy – in effect, the destruction of the Labour party as a workers’ party at its base – is revealed in the electoral train wreck of Liverpool and elsewhere.

So wedded to capitalism is New Labour that the Liberal Democrats outflanked them in demagogic attacks on the banks. We were treated to the spectacle of Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight almost pleading with Alistair Darling to ‘satisfy Labour supporters’ with some kind of minimalist attack or promised action against the banks. To no avail! Darling, alongside Brown and the rest of the New Labour tops, has stuck unswervingly to their pro-capitalist, pro-big business mantra during this election.

Consequently, even the satirists are virtually redundant in this election campaign. The makers of Spitting Image, for instance, have complained that there are no “distinguishing lines” in the main parties or their leaders. To have caricatures, you must first of all have characters! It is a case of the bland leading the bland!

And the losers from this charade are the British people in general but particularly the poorest sections of society who will be called upon to make even greater ‘sacrifices’ in the aftermath of this election. And yet, despite the domination of the airways by empty rhetoric – the lack of an election atmosphere which pervades Britain – this election and its outcome could still be very important.

Workers have no time for Cameron’s ‘big society’

The most striking feature demonstrated in the polls is the lack of authority, the absence of ‘legitimacy’ for any of the three major parties. They will lack a mandate to savage the rights and conditions of the working class after 6 May, as they intend. Before the second TV debate, the opinion polls gave 32% for the Tories, a huge diminution from the figures of the last three years which put them between 38% and 40%.

The more the British people hear of Cameron’s proposals for the so-called ‘big society’ – that will benefit ‘big’ business – and of the economic barbarism of George Osborne, the more they reject it. When Cameron proposed mass privatisation in the form of ‘power to the people’ – the handing over of schools, local and national services to unspecified and unelected ‘citizens’, it was met with a loud raspberry. In the hell of neo-liberal capitalist society, with sweated and prolonged labour in the factories and the workplaces, every spare moment for workers is taken up trying to earn enough to keep the wolf from the door. Two or three jobs have become the norm for big swathes of society. “There is no time for us to run your ‘big society’” has been the riposte of workers to Cameron and the Tories’ proposals.

This underscores the urgent need for a cut in the official working week to share out the work, as a means of drawing in the unemployed kept idle for no reason other than it benefits the capitalists. Additionally, it points to the need to provide for working-class people time for leisure for themselves and their families free from the relentless pressure of the workplace. If workers are to run a socialist society in the future – which is ultimately the only salvation from the chaos of capitalism – then the working week must be cut.

Lib Dems rise in polls

The Liberal Democrats, incredibly, are on or around the same standing in the polls as the Tories. This astonishing advance – if it is maintained up to election night – is itself a distorted symptom of the underlying desperation of working people for real change. Millions have left their traditional electoral moorings and are searching for a figure or a party that can show a coherent way out of the present economic and political cul-de-sac.

The Lib Dems have momentarily become a focus for this mood but such is the present effervescent, almost organic instability in society that within a matter of days or weeks this mood could ebb away once more. A strong left pole of attraction in the form of a new mass workers’ party could harness this urge, almost desperation. It would capture support from a significant section of those looking for a change.

New Labour facing worst vote for years

New Labour, on the other hand, is seen as the main force presiding over the present economic mess, and seems destined to get one of its lowest votes in history. It presently stands at 28% in the polls. If reflected on election day, this would be its lowest share of the vote since 1983. Then Labour was described by the right of the party as standing on a manifesto that was “the longest suicide note in history”.

Yet even with this share of the vote, and so long as the Tories are not a clear six percentage points of New Labour, then it could come out of this debacle with the largest number of seats! Clearly, Gordon Brown and his entourage hope that this will allow him to continue to govern with the support or acquiescence of the Liberal Democrats. The question is whether a formal coalition can be formed or the Lib Dems will be content to support New Labour from the outside, demanding policy concessions, particularly for changes to the electoral system.

Possibility of coalition governement

But a significant reduction in New Labour’s vote would, in all probability, lead to an undermining of any ‘legitimacy’ to rule alone. Already, Lord Owen has written in the London Evening Standard urging Clegg and the Liberal Democrats to support a minority Cameron government. However, given Brown and his entourage’s courting of the Liberal Democrats during the election – it cannot be ruled out, in fact it is probable, that in this situation the Lib Dems would enter a Brown government. Ironically, when Blair flirted with the idea of including the Liberal Democrats and particularly their then-leader, Paddy Ashdown, in the cabinet in 1997, it was Brown who vetoed this.

In the past, it was the trade unions that proved a stumbling block to Labour entering coalitions, as shown by the events of 1931 when Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald could only carry through his economic retrenchment programme by splitting from Labour and forming the ‘National Government’. The unions were implacably opposed to MacDonald’s cuts, which led to his betrayal and the coalition with the Tories and Liberals. Yet so right-wing and inept are the trade union leaders today, and so ideologically wedded to pro-capitalist ‘partnership’ in the workplace, that they would not put up much resistance if any to a ‘progressive’ link of New Labour with the Liberal Democrats.

Alternatively, could Cameron form a government with the Liberal Democrats’ participation? This cannot be ruled out if the Tories were the biggest party in terms of the number of seats. However, the Liberal Democrats, with their still ‘left-of-centre’ posture and a partially radicalised base would probably find it difficult to actually enter a Cameron government – particularly if the Tories did not have the largest number of seats – without serious splits developing within their party. The British electoral system – famed throughout the world for ensuring ‘stability’ – now acts like a disordered slot machine with the outcome highly uncertain. Electoral deadlock could even result in a national coalition government of all three capitalist parties.

Clearly the possible scenarios following an election indicate the unprecedented social and political situation that Britain is entering. A constitutional crisis could even develop in the aftermath of the election if no party had a commanding lead. The monarchy – always a reserve weapon for the capitalists in a crisis – could be drawn into controversy over the ‘choice’ of which party leader should be called on first to try to form a government. There is no written constitution in Britain but plenty of ‘precedents’ from the past. The British ruling class is not averse to ‘changing the rules’ whenever it sees an electoral or governmental obstacle to what it wants.

Bosses want a ‘cuts’ government

The ‘markets’ – the financial sharks, the handful of chief executive officers of big monopolies who are responsible for ruining the lives of millions of working and middle class people – must be mollified by any capitalist government that comes to power. It must do their bidding or there will be a ‘strike of capital’, a further run on the pound, and a refusal to buy government bonds to plug the huge deficit. Therefore big business wants a stable government, preferably the Tories now, as shown by the millions of pounds they have poured into the Tories’ coffers in the first week of the election.

Failing this, they would be satisfied with a ‘hung parliament’ resulting in a Tory/Lib Dem coalition government, either officially with the Liberal Democrats in its ranks or unofficially, from outside. The worst of all worlds for them would be a continuation of the Brown government with Liberal Democrats either inside the government or propping it up from the outside. They calculate that this government would be more susceptible to mass pressure.

Period of turmoil

But in any post-election scenario, Britain faces a period of unprecedented turmoil. If the Tories are the biggest party, they will probably take office but their tenure could be extremely short. ‘Cameron the brief’ could be the epitaph for the Tory leader who may have to face the electorate again within a very short period of time. The social and economic situation in Britain is much worse than that which confronted the Harold Wilson government of 1974 which also ruled as a minority government for a short period of seven months.

Cameron could be in office for an even shorter period than this. More importantly, it will be against the background of colossal pressure from the capitalists for big cuts in living standards matched by growing and stubborn resistance from the working class and labour movement to this. Usually, when checked on the electoral plane, the British labour movement turns to the industrial arena, particularly when faced with a Tory government. Cameron has been more vicious in his programmatic promises than Thatcher ever was before she came to power. This alone denotes the seriousness of the situation.

Changes to electoral system?

The British ruling class will also press for big changes in the electoral system in order to ensure future ‘stability’. The so-called ‘Alternative Vote’, if accepted, will actually undermine the limited democratic electoral system we have today. It will enshrine almost permanently the two-party system and squeeze out smaller, particularly left parties from establishing a firm electoral presence. The labour movement must reject this in favour of a real proportional representation system which opens up the possibility of new small left parties making an impact.

The 2010 general election will also mark the end of the era of Blairism. The ruling class may think that out of this electoral meltdown of New Labour, they can stitch together a government which could massively squeeze the British working class with minimal resistance. They will be proved wrong by an unprecedented upsurge of struggle in Britain, which Clegg himself conceded could be of Greek proportions, once it dawns on British workers the full magnitude of what they will be expected to suffer at the hands of the capitalist parties in power.

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April 2010