May 09, 2010

There are no good options

by lenin


The problem with the hung parliament is that any government arising from it will impose vicious public spending cuts. The Tories will just go for it more aggressively and urgently than Labour would, because of the latter’s relationship to public sector trade unions and dependence on working class votes.
The Liberals, I believe, are inclined to support any emergency budget that the Tories can come up with. I suspect that this close alignment over fiscal policy, not the belief that the party with the most seats should rule (an odd declaration from a believer in PR, surely?), is what motivates Clegg’s preference for working with the Conservatives.
The bankers and bond traders want cuts introduced as rapidly and quickly as possible, and appear to believe that a coalition of Tories and Liberals would be just the ticket in the present circumstances. That much was made clear by the sudden upsurge in share values when Clegg announced that he would prefer to deal with the Tories, duly reported by the BBC immediately after Clegg had made his statement.
If the bankers want to impose cuts on the electorate as quickly as possible, and with as authoritative a mandate as possible, then the prospect of social turmoil, strikes and protests greeting a government with a weak mandate is a problem for them. This is why capital threw its weight behind the Conservatives, why the right-wing press went crazy over the Liberals’ brief moment in the sun, and why Cameron warned of calamity in the event of a hung parliament.
Despite Ashcroft’s millions, Cameron’s soft-sell, and a media frenzy that actually involved making Cameron out to be the new Obama, the public declined to give them the authoritative mandate for cuts that they required. At this moment, the worst option for capital and particularly for that politically powerful fraction of capital centred on the City, is a Lab-Lib pact (with the support of centre-left nationalists) which would be led by a party which stood explicitly on the idea that it was opposed to the worst of the cuts and would make the rich pay for a little bit more of the deficit.
The issue of the deficit and who pays for it is the single biggest issue in this electoral morass. There is nothing that comes close to how important this is for the City, for British capitalism, and for the future of welfare and public services in this country. It is in this light that we have to judge the available options now.
No one on the left can afford to take their eye off that ball – it isn’t fundamentally about PR, though I don’t dismiss the issues underlying the demands for PR. It’s the economy, stupid. (Or, in a more marxist idiom, it’s the class war, stupid.) I hope that this is one issue on which socialists and left-liberals can agree.
If we do, then perhaps I can also persuade liberals of two other things: 1) the best outcome is a government with Labour in it, however much we rightly despise their wars, their pandering to the rich, and what they have done to social democracy, because a government with Labour in it is one that has a mandate to at least limit the ferocity of any cuts; 2) it is important that the government should have a weak mandate, not a strong mandate, because a stronger government will be far more effective in imposing cuts. If those are basically correct points, then a Lab-Lib pact would probably be better than either a Con-Lib pact.
Allow me to say that I have no particular enthusiasm for a Lab-Lib pact. I can well see that it would also introduce deep cuts, that it could be exhausted within months, and that it risks letting the Tories back in after less than a year. I can also see that the media are going to use all the ideological power at their disposal to attack such a coalition, and that speculative attacks would likely greet any indecision or reluctance on imposing a rapid agenda of deep cuts to pay the bonds traders.
It could produce such a serious crisis that a new general election would put a majority Tory administration in power. Perhaps worst of all, it might give trade union leaders an excuse to frustrate resistance to the cuts on the grounds that it might let the Tories in.
The possibility of rapid enervation and a collapse of a Lab-Lib government is one reason why some liberals think a Clegg-Cameron cabinet would be beneficial. Unsurprisingly, Nick Cohen endorses a Con-Lib government. He has no particularly good grounds for favouring it, other than that Brown is a rather unpleasant sort of chap whom no one could be expected to work with. But given that he voted for Boris Johnson to defeat Ken Livingstone, I take this to be part of his extended journey to the right.
There is a better argument on Liberal Conspiracy, and it proceeds from some premises that I mostly agree with. Yet it is not one I am persuaded by, not least because it says absolutely nothing about the central political issue involved – that of the cuts. This is rather like a survey of the New Testament that doesn’t note that Jesus is said to have been murdered as a political criminal and then resurrected a mere three days after his death.
And it betokens a complete failure by most political commentators to seriously engage with how deep we are in the shit, and how little the future is going to resemble the last two decades. If you can’t make the left-wing case for a Con-Lib government on the basis of how it would impact the struggle over public sector cuts, then you can’t make the case.
Allow me to briefly review what’s at stake here. Thatcher achieved zero growth for a brief period in some areas of public spending, and has a reputation for starving the public sector of necessary investment because of it. Any government that gets in now will not just freeze spending, but cut public spending by 11% across the board, and that’s based on optimistic assumptions about growth.
The damage this will do is hard to even project. For example, if New Labour cut over a hundred thousand civil service jobs during a period of sustained growth, the contraction of the public sector implied by these cuts is many magnitudes greater. Would anyone care to imagine the chaos of a system that seriously under-manned? Local councils are already experimenting with models for severely reduced provision, with Barnet’s Tories leading the way: having already sacked a quarter of their workforce over a seven year period, their new ‘easyCouncil’ model seeks to further cut and privatize public services, reducing bin collections, closing libraries, privatizing the housing and refuse departments, etc.
Those who suffer most will be pensioners, children and the poor. The social landscape in Barnet is likely to be very bleak in these circumstances, though resistance is helping to hold back some of the cuts.
There is bipartisan talk of protecting frontline services, and in many constituencies (my own included), both Tories and Labour pretended for the duration of the election to be fanatically committed to protecting local public services such as hospitals from closure. This is naked hypocrisy. Deep spending cuts are already in the works for both health and education. To the extent that these departments are ‘ringfenced’, then it simply means that cuts in other departments will be deeper.
No party has been completely honest about the nature of the cuts it plans, but a likely target is welfare, at a time when unemployment is soaring (and soaring in part because of the cuts being introduced in the public sector), and when child and pensioner poverty has been increasing. The social calamity that cuts of the magnitude being contemplated would unleash is just unimaginably grave. So, if you can’t tell me how a Tory-led government would help delay, mitigate or otherwise undermine that calamity, then I don’t see how you have a case.
One other argument I should like to see the back of is the idea that a Lab-Lib government would be less democratic than a Con-Lib government. This has been repeated in some surprising quarters. Not to overstate the Liberals’ “progressive” credentials, but they got many of their 7 million votes on the grounds that they weren’t Tories but – as Cleggy himself claimed – were a progressive party that had more in common with Labour than the Conservatives.
For them to climb into bed with the Tories would be a betrayal of the millions of voters whom they successfully wooed with that line. It certainly wouldn’t be democratic. A Lab-Lib pact would more accurately reflect the basis upon which people voted for each respective party, a point borne out by the polls showing that most Conservative supporters want nothing to do with the Lib Dems.
There is one other option. A Tory minority government, unstable and depending on opposition support to carry its policies through, might well be an easier opponent to take on than a working majority led by Labour. Moreover, whoever actually imposes the cuts could destroy their political credibility – thus, if we give the Tories enough rope they might hang themselves, just as the public has inadvertently hung parliament.
A slight majority of the public, 53%, favours this outcome – interestingly, taking the margin of error into account, probably as many people favour this as favour a Lab-Lib coalition (52%), while only 46% support a Tory-Liberal coalition. I can see the attractions of this position, but there is one drawback. A Tory minority government would undoubtedly have the support of the Liberals to impose an emergency cuts programme in its first six months. The Lib Dem economic spokesperson Vince Cable is quite clear in supporting cuts in health, education and welfare, and privatization and asset sales – and doesn’t even favour the ring-fencing that the two biggest parties claim to support.
A Tory government that offered cuts and privatizations would get the support of the Liberals. And you can be sure that the media would work hard to sell this as “what people voted for”. On balance, I tend to think that a government led by a party that is constrained in its cuts agenda because of its dependency on working class votes and its connections to the trade union movement is a better opponent to have.
But the main point I wish to reinforce is that whatever the left ultimately favours should be based first and foremost on an appreciation of the terrifying scale of the crisis that is ahead of us, not on what’s good for the Labour Party’s long-term electoral chances or on what will deliver PR.

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