A blog for the socially and politically conscious, written by a young, gay activist who strongly believes in equality and justice.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Hanging in the balance?

In substance, Britain's general election campaign is a phoney war. The three main parties will attempt to deal with economic crisis through harsh cuts in public services, public-sector pay and conditions, and will back parallel attacks in the private sector. Timescales and degrees may vary but the essentials remain the same. It is the political equivalent of Rasputin, who in 1916 was given enough poison in cakes and wine to kill five men; then shot four times, clubbed and castrated and dumped in the icy river Neva (where he finally drowned, but only after struggling out of his bonds and a carpet wrapped around him)."The Russian aristocrats got the stroppy monk in the end, but the legend of his struggle to live long survived his death". Can Gordon Brown go one better and actually remain alive politically and win the next election? Will David Cameron's Tories emerge triumphant? Or will there be a hung parliament and a form of 'national government' arising from this? Such is the extreme volatility in Britain that it is not possible to predict with any certainty which of these variants will emerge from the election.

But, if there is one overriding factor which makes it possible that Brown could yet grab electoral victory from the jaws of defeat - slight though it still seems - it is a resurgence of 'lesser evilism'. (Socialism Today has consistently predicted that this mood would emerge as the election approached.) As an electoral upset, however, this would exceed even John Major's narrow victory in the 1992 general election. Economically besieged by the worst recession since the 1930s, and with the prospect of a Cameron government taking the axe to public spending and thereby depressing 'demand' - alongside a slew of other vicious attacks on the conditions of the working class - broad swathes of workers and the middle class now see stopping the Tory enemy 'at the gate' as a priority.This mood has nothing to do with any enhanced political support for Brown and his government. On the contrary, there is deep hostility amongst working-class people to the government's role in doing the dirty work of big business; Brown is not perceived as helping New Labour's so-called bedrock, the working class and trade unions.

There is no fundamental difference in the medicine being prescribed, which the three main political parties hope to force down the throats of the working class and poor.David Prosser of the Independent newspaper summed this up simply: "The Tory/Labour divide is a political not economic one". He further comments: "The idea that there is some mammoth divide between Mr Osborne and Mr Darling on when to start work cutting the deficit is a myth". The only difference, if any, is one of timing. The Tories will immediately go for the jugular in attacking public-sector services and wages, probably with an 'emergency' budget along the lines of the infamous 1981 budget of Geoffrey Howe, chancellor in Margaret Thatcher's first government. Contrary to the fairy tale peddled by Tory historians of this period, this budget did not facilitate an economic recovery but enormously aggravated the serious economic crisis gripping Britain at that stage - part of a worldwide recession. The only things that saved Thatcher from electoral nemesis in the 1983 general election were the 'Falklands factor' and the treachery of Labour's right wing, which split away to form the Social Democratic Party.

Those events have been etched into the consciousness of the British working class - particularly of the older generation whose recollections generate an abiding hatred and fear of the possible return of a new Tory Thatcher - Cameron. Seeking to assuage these fears, the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, now says that a Tory government will 'only' cut public spending by "£1.5 billion in its first period of office". This is against the background of a yawning £200 billion budget deficit which the Tories expect to inherit. We are now assured that the Tory mountain will truly labour and produce an economic flea! But the current 'savings' under New Labour - read: savage attacks on jobs and services - are already hitting public services, and amount to a £5 billion cut. On the main issue on which the general election is likely to be fought, there is no fundamental difference between the Tories, New Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, has even sought to assure the 'markets' - the venal bondholders who are presently holding the Greek government to ransom - that he would insist on "immediate cuts" in the event of a hung parliament with the Lib Dems holding the balance of power, as the price of his party's votes sustaining a minority government. The prospect of such a government has spooked the markets because the average capitalist investor wants a 'strong' government, citing the present 'black-yellow' coalition in Germany of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats and the vicious, pro-market Free Democrats. They seem not to have noticed that this government has come up against the implacable resistance of the working class and trade unions. This has resulted in plummeting support for the Free Democrats and increased support in the polls for the Greens and even the Social Democrats, who had been disastrously defeated in last year's general election because of their previous attacks on the German workers. In Britain, the more farsighted capitalist representatives - as opposed to those directly engaged in the market - tend to welcome the prospect of a hung parliament and what would flow from this in the form of a minority government.

They calculate that such a government could be forced to do the bidding of the capitalists, and could even lead to a national government of the Tories, Liberal Democrats and New Labour. This post-election variant, surprising at first sight, has been the position of Samuel Brittan, the former arch-monetarist and an economic commentator of the Financial Times. Even the Citigroup chief economist, Willem Buiter, echoed Brittan in the Financial Times: "A commitment now to a three-party government of national unity could stabilise matters immediately. "Failing that, all three parties could agree the size of post-election tightening, with only the mix of tax raising and spending cuts to be decided after the election". The proviso: "I am not holding my breath"! Similar sentiments are expressed by the director of the Confederation of British Industry, Richard Lambert. He declared that current concerns "of the possibility of a hung parliament at the next election were slightly overplayed".Philosophically, he muses: "The world spins on. It's what democracy is all about". But his particular spin is for a credible plan to 'fix public finances'. He does not want immediate 'deep cuts' - the favoured option of the Tories - nor does he want hefty tax increases and a post-election emergency budget - a further rap over the knuckles for the Tories from the knight of big business.

But he does want measures to favour his class (the bosses), including "modest cumulative cuts of £50 billion in current public spending by the middle of the next decade accompanied by the avoidance of tax rises on business". Such cuts would devastate the lives of millions. Moreover, this would be just the start of a programme of cuts stretching into the future.

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