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British general election: Government of the people, by corruption, for the capitalists
13 May 2010
This article first appeared in the Weekly Worker
David Cameron’s deal with Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats puts in place the ‘strong government’ demanded by the capitalist class. The working class will now be attacked with a vengeance, writes Mike Macnair
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose - the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing - is an appropriate metaphor for the May 2010 general election and its result: a Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition. It is necessary, however, to remember both sides of the tag: it really changes, but in changing becomes more the same thing.
The change from New Labour to Tory-Lib Dem government is quite real and the changes it portends are important. But it also remains the same thing: government by corruption and fraud in the interests of the capitalist class and in particular that of the world-dominant capitalist state, the USA.
And the changes which are likely to be made will make it more the same thing. This is not only true of the coming wave of cuts, which will increase unemployment and sharpen social inequality. It is also true of whatever ‘constitutional reforms’ are agreed: the common ground between Tories and Lib Dems will increase presidentialism in the constitution and raise the power of the advertising-funded media in the electoral process. By doing so, it will increase corruption, and reduce the real political choices open to electors to those between personalities.
The process has already begun in a small way with Brown’s decision to stand down in order to enable the Labour leadership election to be conducted before the party conference. Within the Labour Party, the party is to be asked to choose between personalities, before (and as far as possible without) any serious discussion on the party’s policies.
Meanwhile, the election showed that a fundamental feature of British politics had not changed. Faced with a choice between Tory and Labour governments (even if either might need support from the Lib Dems), Labour did not ‘melt down’. New Labour suppresses the voice of the working class, and thereby canalises its political representation into support for a ‘Labour’ wing of the corrupt and careerist ‘political class’. But the conflict of the classes remains fundamental to British politics.
After the first TV ‘debate’ Lib Dem support shot up in the opinion polls. By election day this surge had evaporated, though only a few polls picked this up: the Lib Dems gained around 850,000 votes, a 1% increase in its share, but suffered a net loss of seats held. Conversely, though Labour lost 962,000 votes and 6.2% of its share in a higher total turnout, the wilder predictions of Labour being put in third place, and so on, did not materialise. In the local elections Labour’s position actually improved. In Scotland Labour increased its share, while in London its loss of support was considerably less severe than in other parts of England and Wales. The Conservatives gained around 1.9 million more votes, but their share only rose to 36.1%. As Socialist Action leader John Ross correctly pointed out on his blog, this is an actual decline relative to the last election the Tories won, and displays a long-term trend of declining votes for the Tories (and, less sharply, for Labour) since the 1950s. (Ross first identified this decline in 1983 in his book Thatcher and friends).
Some of the votes have gone to parties further right. The UK Independence Party’s tally went up by a third from around 600,000 in 2005 to 900,000, while the British National Party’s more than doubled from around 200,000 to 550,000. The rise in absolute support represents only a small increase in share of the vote, but is nonetheless significant. It is concealed in much media coverage. In the case of the BNP this resulted from relief at its failure to make a breakthrough in Barking and its wipe-out in local government (resulting merely from increased turnout and votes for the ‘mainstream’ parties when local elections are held together with national elections). In the case of Ukip it invariably polls far better in Euro elections than in parliamentary ones.
Some commentators have identified the evaporation of ‘Cleggstasy’ as proof of the limited influence of the media on voters. This is very questionable (and usually self-serving). Only The Guardian and The Independent were backing the Lib Dems, while the Murdoch press and Sky, the Daily Telegraph, Mail and Express were all - as usual - backing the Tories, with the Mirror in its usual lukewarm fashion hanging onto its Labour readership. In initiating the TV ‘leaders’ debate’ Cameron was promoting his - and Murdoch’s - presidentialist constitutional agenda. Until the first ‘debate’ the Tories were running primarily to appeal to voters fed up with the New Labour government. The Lib Dem surge threatened this project, and the Tory media reoriented its campaigning. As rightwing (but hostile to the Tories) commentator Peter Hitchens, put it in the Mail on Sunday on April 24: “Huge tankers full of fresh slime fanned out across the nation from Cameron headquarters this weekend. The new slime, specially developed in laboratories, is formulated to be used against the Liberal Democrat leader, Nicholas Clegg. Mr Cameron and his aides are hoping that it will swamp Mr Clegg, though early experiments have not been encouraging. Existing stocks of slime were effective only against Gordon Brown, who is now so covered in effluent and slurry that there is no point in tipping any more of it over his baffled, scowling head.”
In fact, Hitchens was not quite right. The turning points towards the end of the campaign were two. The first was that sections of the media began to talk about the Lib Dems pushing Labour into third place, and (part of this) about Clegg’s April 24 statement that “Labour is increasingly irrelevant” (The Times April 25). Vote Clegg, get Cameron; and this message, quite strongly promoted by the media, fairly clearly led to some increase in turnout among Labour’s core voters to compensate for the losses elsewhere. It was this increase in ‘core Labour’ turnout which produced the scenes of voters turned away from the polling stations at 10pm in a number of inner-city constituencies.
The second turning point was Rupert Murdoch’s April 28 ‘bigot-gate’ stunt, exploiting an opportunity provided by Brown’s momentary carelessness. This enabled the Tories to appeal to widespread anti-immigration sentiment without having actually to campaign openly on the issue, as Michael Howard had. Howard’s approach let Labour brand the Tories as racists; Murdoch’s stunt let them get the benefits of appealing to chauvinism without the stigma. They were aided and abetted by Labour itself joining the attack on the Lib Dems’ proposal for a one-off amnesty for illegal immigrants, as well as by Labour’s own long-term promotion of national chauvinism (as Eddie Ford pointed out in last week’s issue of this paper: ‘They all scapegoat migrants’, May 6). The result was to enable Cameron to claw back some anti-Labour votes from the Lib Dems.
The overall result is, then, a narrow change in the electoral map. The most the Tories have conceded to the Lib Dems on proportional representation is a referendum on the alternative vote system - in which the Conservatives (and their media) will be free to campaign for a ‘no’ vote. Most likely, this coalition government will prioritise carrying through cuts, but be short-lived and followed by a general election in the near term on the existing first-past-the-post basis; and this general election will be a disaster for the Lib Dems, who will attract the opprobrium of the ‘cuts government’ without having the stable social base that the Tories have in rural classes and Labour in the proletariat.
As I argued in the April 29 issue of this paper, though many media commentators favour the Lib Dems replacing Labour, this does not appear to be the view of the capitalist class as such; since the trade unions are still a considerable force, now is not the moment (from the capitalists’ point of view) to take risks with their political integration. Whatever media commentators may have hoped for, this policy was reflected in the overall editorial policy of the media, which played to the Lib Dems’ weaknesses to reduce the surge effect.
At the time of writing the outline policy agreed by the coalition partners has just been published (there is, of course, a good deal more yet to be settled between them). The Lib Dems have agreed to the substance of the Tories’ position of “accelerated” action to cut the budget deficit: there is to be an ‘emergency budget’ within 50 days, and £6 billion of spending cuts this year. Where the cuts will come from remains totally unclear, though the governor of the Bank of England has evidently seen some concrete proposals of which he approves.
The negotiation has produced deferral of Tory plans to increase the inheritance tax threshold and Lib Dem plans to raise the income tax threshold; but the new government will abandon Labour’s 1% rise in the ‘national insurance contributions’ variant of income tax on employees. The Lib Dems’ ‘mansion tax’, never more than a populist gimmick, has been abandoned, and Lib Dem MPs are given a free vote on Cameron’s ‘tax break for marriage’ gimmick. There will be a general rise in capital gains tax from 18% to something close to the income tax level with an exemption for ‘entrepreneurial business activities’ transactions.
The agreement thus continues the silence of the election campaign on the real scale of ‘austerity measures’ at issue, deferring the issues to the ‘emergency budget’ and to a full spending review, to report in the autumn. The new government’s room for manoeuvre is pretty limited unless the parties’ existing spending pledges on the NHS, pensions and (from the Tories) defence are to be dumped (which is possible). The most immediate targets are the unemployed and other welfare recipients. There are immediate commitments to simplified and extended workfare. Likely to follow are cuts in public sector pensions and - as Cameron flagged up during the election - the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, none of which are controlled by Tory allies, and the north of England.
Unemployment is reported (May 12) to have risen again to 2.51 million. Cuts will necessarily involve increased unemployment, and the first round already introduced by Labour is already doing so. Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports OECD figures that private sector wages “fell further behind inflation in Britain than anywhere in the industrialised world except Mexico, Turkey and Iceland”. This inevitably makes public sector wages a target: Spain has just imposed an across-the-board cut of 5% in public sector salaries. The working class is to pay for the crisis in pay cuts, unemployment and welfare cuts.
The big lie that is supposed to justify this policy is the claim that the deficit results from Gordon Brown’s ‘profligacy’ after the 2001 general election. Perhaps this also explains the cuts agenda in Spain, which ran budget surpluses in 2005, 2006 and 2007? The reality is that the global market crises of 1997-98 (‘east Asian’, etc crises) and 2001 (‘dot-com crash’) were met by the US as well as Britain engaging in large-scale Keynesian soft-money and budgetary deficit policies, in order to avoid the crashes turning into something worse.
The agreement is completely silent on foreign policy except for the question of the EU. Here the Lib Dems have (unsurprisingly) been assured that Britain should remain an EU member; and have given (against their historical pro-Europeanism) commitments to Tory Euroscepticism on a range of fronts - most strikingly the requirement of a referendum before any further transfer of powers to the EU bodies. This will be of considerable practical significance, given the sovereign debt crisis affecting the euro and the consequent urgent need of the euro zone countries at least to increase budgetary and fiscal coordination.
Tory knee-jerk reactions and public chauvinism are appeased with a cap on non-EU immigration: practically insignificant, since the vast bulk of recent migration is from (and to) EU countries. There is no mention of the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan, any more than there was in the election campaign. The electors have bought this pig in a poke, but it is still too early to let the cat out.
The agreement involves three elements of constitutional change. The first is 10 commitments on ‘political reform’ - some quite specific; others highly ambiguous and probably covering a Tory agenda. The second is the commitment to substantially privatise the school system, which will function to reduce local democracy and increase the political power of the Christian churches. The third is some much vaguer commitments on ‘civil liberties’.
The No1 ‘political reform’ commitment is for fixed-term five-year parliaments, starting with the present one. The legislation will presumably take the power of dissolution away from the crown and therefore from the prime minister. There will, however, be a get-out for a dissolution if it is agreed by 55% of the House of Commons. The resulting change is marginal: it will be necessary to get a dissolution resolution through the Commons, but a governing party or coalition should be able to do so. The idea of fixed-term parliaments is democratic, but the five-year length is undemocratic. What would seriously be a democratic improvement would be one-year parliaments, as demanded by the Chartists.
No2 is a referendum on the replacement of FPTP by AV. The parties undertake to whip their members to vote for the referendum bill, but have agreed that they will be free to campaign as they please in the referendum. This commitment lets the Lib Dems say to their supporters that they have achieved a ‘breakthrough’ on voting reform. But, since AV is no more proportional than FPTP, it will be easy to campaign for a ‘no’ vote, and the effect will probably be to kick the issue into the long grass after the Lib Dems get hammered at the next general election.
Along with this referendum is the commitment to go for “fewer and more equal-sized constituencies”: ie, fewer MPs, a Cameron panacea. The expectation is that this will reduce the (real) proportional overrepresentation of Labour, making it easier for Tories to win elections. It will also (as in the US) tend to squeeze third-party and other candidates. And since there is no suggestion of a place bill to reduce the number of ministers, it will increase government control of the House of Commons.
AV in no way represents the proportional representation communists seek for elections. If anything, it will tend to lead to more arbitrary outcomes and less differentiation between the mainstream parties. But, assuming the referendum goes ahead, my personal view is that the left should probably campaign for a ‘yes’ vote. The reason is that AV does at least allow electors to register a first preference for non-mainstream parties, even if this will rarely be reflected in the candidates actually elected, rather than being forced to choose between a ‘protest’ vote and a ‘useful’ vote. If, however, the choice is only ‘yes’ to AV plus a smaller House of Commons or ‘no’ to both, then ‘no’ would become the right answer because of the anti-democratic character of reducing the number of MPs.
No3 is Cameron’s proposal for a tightly circumscribed ‘right of recall’, requiring both a conviction of an MP for ‘serious wrongdoing’ and a petition of 10% of the electors in the constituency. In practice, if this will be used for anything, it will be for witch-hunts of MPs disliked by the media proprietors - George Galloway, perhaps, would have been targeted.
No4 is to set up a committee to make recommendations for establishing an upper chamber elected on the basis of PR for “single long terms of office”; with, in the interim, appointments to the House of Lords based on the current party shares of the vote. The idea clearly involves squaring the circle: either the new house will be proportionally representative, or its members will serve for long terms of office. If they serve for long terms of office they will represent, not the views of the electorate, but the views of the electorate years before. A second chamber elected for long terms is as anti-democratic as the present appointed chamber; the democratic solution is abolition.
No5 is technical reforms of parliamentary procedure intended to give the Commons more formal control of its business. This is one of those cosmetic technical reforms which make no practical difference as long as the payroll vote, prime ministerial patronage and the whipping system remain in operation. No6 is ‘speeding up’ individual voter registration to tackle fraud in postal balloting.
No. 7 is “a commission to consider the ‘West Lothian question’” (the right of Scots MPs to vote on English-only matters) and No8 the implementation of the Calman Commission proposals to hand the Scots parliament a poisoned chalice of limited taxation powers. Both are designed to hammer Labour north of the border and the SNP.
No9 is a statutory register of lobbyists (the minimum necessary to even pretend to do something about the lobbying industry); “a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding”. The appearance is ‘clean government’; the reality will be that the unions will be barred from major funding of the Labour Party, while Tory donors will still be able to split their donations between multiple front companies and other such devices to bring them in below the upper limit, and the Tories will continue to receive page after page of free advertising in the advertising-funded media.
No10 is “the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups”, including “a full review of local government finance”. This promise could have a wide range of meanings, but most probably will be interpreted as leaving the regressive uniform business rate in place, rendering council tax more regressive, and ‘devolution’ beyond elected local government to ‘community groups’ to prevent the shift back to Labour which is already beginning to have practical effect and to allow the rich suburbs, as in the US, to opt out of paying for services to the inner-city poor. There is no concrete commitment to reduce the scope of judicial review of local authorities or the powers of the minister under Thatcher’s legislation (retained in substance by New Labour).
Stings in tails
The general commitment to privatise the school system belongs with this last commitment: part of the long-standing Tory agenda of getting away from the powerful local authorities, often run by Labour, which grew up from the late 19th century on. I place it in the category of constitutional changes both for this reason and because (as I said before) in practice it will deliver more political power to the Christian churches. The reason for this is that there is certainly no capital to be found in the budget for funding ‘parent co-ops’ setting up schools. But the capital and running costs of schools are high: the capital costs because the sites need to be accessible, which means high land values, and the building costs are substantial, the running costs because - however much teachers’ pay is cut - schools are necessarily labour-intensive operations, unlike, for example, breweries. The subsidies which have been available to the current ‘academies’ are unlikely to be affordable.
If we ask who will be able to put up the necessary funds, the answer falls into two groups. Some US private-sector education providers may be willing to have a go at converting a few of the rural and suburban comprehensives into private schools. But far more important will be the churches, which already have large-scale educational operations and substantial charitable funds, and have already been involved in some academies.
The long-term practical effect will therefore be an increased institutional role of the churches in education and an increased linkage between church and state and ability of the churches to deliver sectarian politics. In other words, with this policy the Lib Dems have signed up to attempting to reverse the partial secularisation of British politics since 1945 and bringing to the mainland the sectarian educational divide found in the Six Counties. The Tory sting is in the tail.
Stings in tails are also found in the third variety of constitutional reform, the ‘civil liberties’ measures. Or perhaps here the sting is in the head. The first measure proposed is “a Freedom or Great Repeal Bill”: that is, an omnibus bill to repeal a large number of measures passed by Labour governments since 1997. What will be contained in this bill is perfectly unclear. But we can, perhaps, safely expect it to include at least the fox-hunting ban and substantial parts of health and safety legislation and other forms of employment regulation objected to by employers. We should not expect it to include the Terrorism Acts, which the Tories endorsed in opposition, or the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Acts, which were introduced by cross-party agreement.
There is one limited specific and positive commitment: the scrapping of the ID card scheme and associated matters. Beyond this, the commitments are extremely vague. For example, “the protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury” makes no actual commitment to reverse the legislation for the use of juryless trials either in criminal cases, or in libel cases. “The restoration of rights to non-violent protest” makes no commitment to reverse the decision in Austin v Metropolitan Police Commissioner (2009) or to restore the historic common law which denied the right of the police to detain any person except by way of limited powers of arrest. “The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech” makes no concrete proposals on the matter - even to enact Jack Straw’s minimalist regulation of libel costs. “Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation” supposedly already exist. And so on.
Oddest is “a new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences”. It is totally unclear what such a mechanism could be - except better scrutiny of government bills by the House of Commons, which demands a Place Act and a reduction of the powers of the central party offices over local constituency parties. Since the Tories and Lib Dems have entered this coalition - they say - because they agree Britain needs “strong government” in the present crisis, it is most unlikely that they actually believe in stronger scrutiny of government legislation by MPs.
The more it changes, the more it remains the same. If all the policies for constitutional change in the Tory-Lib Dem agreement are given some sort of effect, British politics will become more what it already is: government of the people, by corruption through the lawyers, the media and the professional politicians, for the capitalists. The state will continue to grow, as will its repressive operations, and it will become even more an instrument for sucking resources out of the poor to pay them to the rich.
On Monday May 10 the elections and the brief illusory hope that the Lib Dems might be prepared to form a ‘rainbow coalition’ with Labour and the nationalists claimed Gordon Brown’s head, with a promise to act merely as a caretaker till a new leader could be elected. On Tuesday, when it became clear that the Tories and Lib Dems would reach agreement, he decided to go with immediate effect.
No doubt he would have had to go anyhow: he has made too many enemies both on the Blairite right and on the left and centre-left of the party to survive a serious election defeat. Brown is to blame for the outcome in the sense that he is also equally to blame with Blair for the Blair years. Blair’s and Brown’s loyalty to Britain and to the existing form of the constitution disenfranchised the working class and created the conditions for a major loss of Labour support. Brown’s illusions in the ‘managed market’ and the ‘creativity’ of the financiers, still on display in his 2007 Mansion House speech, cut Labour off from any critique of the bubble economy.
That said, to blame Labour’s defeat solely on Brown is to play into the agenda of the Blairites and the advertising-funded media: that the media has a right to choose the leader of the Labour Party through spinning in favour of some candidates and - as Peter Hitchens put it - dumping slime on others.
The reality is that Labour was in deep electoral trouble when Tony Blair resigned, and that this is why Tony Blair resigned. Brown’s supporters stitched up the party leader election partly because they hoped Brown could and would take the party back towards its centre-left traditions and working class base; and, conversely, because they feared - probably correctly - that an open election would allow Murdoch to put in a ‘Blairite’ candidate. For the first couple of months the project appeared to be working. Then, however, Cameron and Osborne, with emphatic support from most of the media, derailed Brown’s plans for a snap general election by their fraudulent campaign around inheritance tax, based on pretending that it affected far more voters than is actually the case.
At this point it became clear that a Blair-Cameron succession was intended, with Brown merely to serve as a caretaker. The Tories and their press went on and on about Brown as an ‘unelected prime minister’ because he had not won a general election (it should be said that the same is true of Winston Churchill in 1940, and of a great many past PMs). The Blairites did the work of their media masters in launching endless (incompetent) coup plots against Brown. Things went from bad to worse for Labour and Brown and in summer 2008 it looked as if Labour was heading for catastrophic defeat.
Then came the crash, and for a while the wheels came off the Cameron-Osborne project. Capital desperately needed massive bail-outs and Cameron’s and Osborne’s first response was, like their US Republican mentors, to refuse them. Brown provided the bail-outs and was briefly hailed as a hero of the economy. As the economy has (seemed to) recover from the immediate credit crisis, however, capitalist support for the Tories and the ‘economic orthodoxy’ of cuts and making the working class pay has recovered with it. Tons of slime were dumped on Brown’s head.
In this context, Labour’s result in the general election is almost a creditable achievement. The party has retained second place in the polls as well as in seats. That second place rests in the last analysis on its ability to claim working class support, however attenuated the real political basis for this support has become. This was reflected in the fact that in many (not all) regions the candidates backed by the Labour Representation Committee, which retains more links to the idea of Labour as a workers’ party, outperformed Labour’s regional average performance. It has happened with almost no positive support from the media - at most, the media offensive of the last part of the campaign indirectly served Labour.
What has kept Labour as a serious force in politics even in the midst of this defeat is the support of its core working class constituency. The problem facing the Labour Party, in view of the Con-Lib coalition, is therefore actually the problem facing the working class movement in general: how to reorganise and remobilise the working class in opposition to the capitalists’ insistence that the working class must pay for their crisis, and that the media must control political representation. This problem of opposition already confronted the non-Labour left under New Labour, and the non-Labour left disastrously failed to address it through illusions both in old Labourism and in bureaucratic control.
The corresponding illusion now affecting the Labour Party is that the Tory-Lib Dem coalition will rapidly break down, issuing in an early general election which Labour can win: but only if the party operates another bureaucratic stitch-up to put a new (Blairite or Brownite) leader in place quickly without a fundamental discussion of policy.
The reality is that the coalition has a very clear parliamentary and electoral majority; the capitalists want ‘strong government’ and will back it through the media; and Cameron has made enough concessions to keep the Lib Dems onside until at least his political reforms - fewer MPs, larger constituencies, further evisceration of democracy in local government and reduction of Scots votes - come into play. When they do, Labour will lose the advantages in merely electoral arithmetic which have enabled it to be sharply over-represented in parliament; and even if the cuts are dramatically unpopular and the Lib Dems are, as they almost certainly will be, hammered, Cameron will be able to win a Tory majority.
Communists seek to replace the Labour Party with a mass Communist Party. But that does not mean that we want to see the marginalisation of the Labour Party at the hands of the capitalists, or endless government by the immediate and direct agents of capital in the Tory and Lib Dem parties. If the Labour Party goes down the path of bureaucratic stitch-up to elect a new leader without serious discussion, that will inevitably be the result.
If Labour has a serious and open discussion, on the other hand, it will certainly have tankers of slime poured on it by the media. But it is possible that Labour or part of it might find the road back to the appearance, however distorted, of political representation of the working class, and through that road to develop the ability to win against the media and the capitalists.
If not, Labour will provide yet another example of Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: the names at the top of the party will change, but its commitment to the constitution will continue - and with it, its decline.
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