When the LibDems and the Tories agreed on a coalition the French newspaper Le Monde quaintly described it as "A marriage of reason at 10 Downing Street" and a triumph for "British fair play." In reality, for all the horse-trading and manoeuvring that went on behind the scenes, and despite all the divisions and antagonisms, those involved in the negotiations were united in seeing the seriousness of their task because the formation of a governing team is an important moment for the ruling class.
Above all, the government has the role of defending the interests of the nation's capitalist class. It is essential that it is able to do this competently and effectively. To understand the reasons behind the change of government we need to understand the situation it has to confront.
The most important concerns for the British bourgeoisie at present are:
- Managing the crisis: This is the most violent economic crisis to have hit capitalism in its history: as serious as the Great Depression in terms of its underlying contradictions. It has manifested itself as the most brutal recession since World War II. The ruling class has managed to achieve a temporary stabilisation but it is clear that this is extremely fragile. The bourgeoisie needs a governing team that can effectively maintain stability and confront any new convulsions.
- Repair the damage: This stabilisation of the economy has come at an enormous price. While not yet immediately threatened with default, the UK has an enormous budget deficit which the bourgeoisie has to act quickly to curtail.
- Make the working class pay: The stabilisation gives the bourgeoisie the opportunity to carry out its only response to the crisis, that of attacking the working class. These attacks have already begun with the Emergency Budget heralding the most brutal assault on public spending in decades. By the Coalition's own admission, worse is yet to come. Capital will continue to attempt to increase its rates of exploitation. It is essential for the state to try to persuade the working class that these attacks are necessary, and deflect resistance with ideological and material force.
An essential element in this strategy is revitalising democracy. The expenses scandal which revealed widespread abuse of parliamentary expenses that were essentially funding MPs' personal luxuries created a very deep and widespread disillusionment with politicians. In the context of a situation where the bourgeoisie will be calling on the working class to make sacrifices it hasn't experienced for generations, this disillusionment could have stimulated a questioning among the exploited class. So, one of the key aims is to rehabilitate democracy, with talk of voting systems, accountability of parliament and a new ‘clean' politics.
The new line-up will also have to deal with the reorientation of British imperialist strategy as the conflicts of the last decade have exposed the weaknesses of British imperialism. This is in some respects a subsidiary problem compared to the coming (class) war on the home front, but as the international economic situation continues to be wracked with convulsions foreign policy will play an important role, especially in UK policy towards the Eurozone.
Coalition collaboration and division
Judging from the media, coalition talks were on a knife-edge, with the LibDems negotiating with both Labour and the Conservatives in turn. There was a general presumption that Labour were more natural bedfellows for the Liberals than the Tories. Certainly, the LibDems style themselves as ‘centre-left' and ‘progressive' but there are, in fact, two distinct wings within the party: the ‘market liberals' and the ‘social liberals'. The latter were dominant under Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy, but since the 2005 election there have been signs of the market liberals reasserting themselves with the publication of the The Orange Book - a collection of essays advocating ‘free market' solutions for many aspects of public policy. Many key contributors are now at the centre of the LibDem leadership: Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, and Ed Davey. The dominance of this faction within the LibDems clearly helped pave the way for the new coalition.
Right from the start of the Coalition there have been reports of the inevitable divisions, with former leaders such as Kennedy and Ashdown openly expressing their doubts. There have also been mutterings, especially from the Tory right, about the new conditions for dissolving parliament. The stability of the Coalition could certainly be in doubt as there are a whole host of divisions concerning Europe, defence, etc. that could easily result in fractures.
However, for the moment, these potential fissions are not the driving force. The bourgeoisie will use the window of opportunity to drive through the enormous cuts required, using the cover of the Liberal Democrats' ‘progressive' credentials to try and soften the blows. The fact that the Governor of the Bank of England has already voiced his support for the £6 billion of cuts announced, shows the primacy the bourgeoisie has given to this aim. The coalition may or may not last the full 5 years - what really matters is what it can achieve in the next 18 months.
The Labour Party, gone but not forgotten
Labour's loss was no surprise. Although there was a real increase in poverty under Labour, for the most part this was masked, even for the majority of the working class, until the latest outbreak of the economic crisis. The bourgeoisie was largely pleased with Labour's capacity to manage the economy, but it was less than impressed with its management of Iraq and Afghanistan, its growing internal feuding which contributed to its losing sight of the national interest.
Most importantly, Labour could no longer pose as the bringer of ‘renewal' to British politics. Also, keeping Labour in power to bring in massive spending cuts would have annihilated its ability (already much reduced in recent years) to claim to be a defender of the working class. In addition, since the election Labour have become useful scapegoats for the state of the British economy.
Opposition will give Labour a chance to revitalise itself, to continue to pose as the champion of public services, and criticise the very austerity policies that it would have been compelled to impose had it retained power. Some turn to the left seems inevitable, although none of the candidates for the Labour leadership offers much that is different from the ‘New Labour' mainstream. A candidate of the left will not be the new Labour leader, but the left in the unions will continue to be an important influence.
Ultimately, the trajectory of the Labour party will be determined by the class struggle. A powerful response from the working class to government austerity measures will increase the pressure for a Labour left-turn. This idea of a ‘real alternative' would serve the needs of the bourgeoisie. However, if the Coalition proves to be unstable, Labour needs to be ready to return to government. This could be difficult with a strong left-turn, but not impossible. After all, it's a ‘socialist' government unleashing the austerity programmes in Greece.
One of the immediate aims of the Coalition has been to defend the LibDems from the backlash they are already getting through their participation in the Coalition. Many supporters voted LibDem to either keep the Tories out or because they genuinely believed in the ‘new politics'. As a result, a number of LibDem policies clearly aimed at the lowest-paid workers have been adopted, such as the raising of the tax thresholds, meaning the lowest paid workers will pay less tax. This is despite the fact that the plans to drastically curtail working family tax credits adopted by the Coalition are, in fact, LibDem policies and are far more ruthless than those of the Tories. The new government is playing the ‘anti-poverty' card early on, in order to mask the full extent of the austerity that is to come. It's also important in trying to stop LibDem voters from feeling betrayed
Nonetheless, the ‘new politics' promised by Cameron and Clegg is a strong theme that can develop into a more overt call for national unity as the cuts begin to bite - ‘if we can sink our differences and work together, then so must the whole country'.
One example of this is the attempt to involve public sector workers in choosing what to cut. This plays to important themes about democracy and the idea that ‘we're all in this together'; as is Clegg's project of asking the public what laws should be cut.
There will also be a more hostile posture towards the class struggle. The policy of using the courts to outlaw strikes seems set to continue as the ongoing saga at British Airways demonstrates - new ‘anti-union' laws are also a possibility. Strikes will be presented as the selfish action of particular interest groups (‘well-paid' public sector workers, BA cabin crew, etc.) with a hard-line government ‘protecting' the public. This will allow struggles to be diverted into a defence of the unions and false campaigns about the ‘right to strike', rather than actually carrying out effective strikes which are, by definition, illegal anyway. However, the austerity regime will also show more starkly the real situation of the working class - that even minimal demands cannot be tolerated by crisis-ridden capitalism. That things seem impossible within capitalism can lead to paralysis - but it may also push forward the understanding that a new social order is required.