The British general election, held on 6 May 2010, proved inconclusive, with no party winning an absolute majority of seats in the 650-strong House of Commons. The strength of the parties in the newly-elected parliament is as follows:
Conservatives 306 (98 more than in the previous parliament);
Labour 258 (91 fewer than previously);
Liberal Democrats 57 (5 fewer than in the former parliament);
Others 28 (1 fewer than before).
Although Labour decidedly lost the election, the Conservatives failed to win it. As for the much trumpeted and hoped-for LibDem revival, it failed singularly to materialise. As though by some collective intuition, the British electorate decided to display its disapproval of all the major bourgeois parties – Conservative, Labour and LibDem.
The Conservatives emerged from the election as the English party, with no support in Scotland (where they won just one seat) and very little in London and northern England.
As it took place in the midst of the worst economic crisis for decades, it is not surprising that the single most important issue in the election was the economy. In the three months to February of this year, unemployment in the UK rose by 43,000 to 2.5 million, the highest for 16 years.
This latest increase has taken the official unemployment rate to 8 percent of the work force. Actual unemployment is much higher, as is indicated by the fact that the number of people classed as economically inactive – including students, people looking after a sick relative or those who have simply given up looking for work – rose by 110,000 to 8.16 million, the highest since records began in 1971 (see Financial Times, 22 April 2010).
Britain is confronted with an annual budget deficit of about £170bn following the bail-out of Britain’s bankrupt banks, which cost the Treasury hundreds of billions of pounds (£850bn so far, to be precise) and pushed public indebtedness to heights unprecedented in peacetime. Standing at 11 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), this deficit needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency. As a result, bourgeois economics requires that departmental budgets should be cut by at least 11.9 percent over the next parliament.
On the present forecasts of the Treasury, the British economy will once more reach 2008 levels of economic activity in 2012. In other words, four years of anticipated economic growth will have disappeared. Assuming that these forecasts are accurate (and it is very likely that they are overoptimistic), it will be 2031 when the economy becomes as big as it would have been had the 1998-2007 trend continued.
This cumulative loss of output amounts to 160 percent of the 2007 GDP. Consequent upon the crisis, it turns out that Britain, like many other countries, is poorer than it imagined it was. The fight over who is to bear the losses promises to be brutal.
The output losses have had a severe impact on the UK’s finances. Although the recession in Britain has not been worse than in the other imperialist countries, it has had a disproportionately large effect on revenues here, since Britain’s financial sector furnished an exceptionally big basis for consumer expenditure, corporate profits and property transactions in recent years.
Before the banking crisis, at least a quarter of corporate taxation came from the financial sector alone. Following the recession, receipts for corporate taxes fell by a quarter in the 12 months to October 2008 and the following 12 months to October 2009. During the same time, VAT receipts fell by 17 percent.
Writing in the Financial Times, Mr Martin Wolf, from whose article the information in the preceding two paragraphs is drawn, made the observation that “the UK has not only had a financial crisis, with the usual severe impact on output [Mr Wolf, as becomes a respectable bourgeois economic thinker, puts it the wrong way round, but we shall let it pass] and public finances, but that the UK has also been a ‘monocrop’ economy with finance itself acting as the ‘crop’”. (‘How to share the losses: the dismal choice facing Britain’, 16 December 2009)
In other words, the dominance of, and excessive reliance on, finance capital has reached such monstrous proportions that, in place of being a source of prosperity, it has become a conduit for spreading poverty and misery among the masses.
Lack of candour
Since each of the three big parties were only too aware of the dire situation surrounding the state of the British economy and public finances, they offered the electorate only competing visions of misery.
As this was not a message calculated to enthuse voters, the election campaign was characterised by a near-total absence of honesty and candour on the part of the leaders of these parties on the question of restoring public finances. Their parties’ election material was no more enlightening. None of them was prepared to take the electorate into confidence about the choices facing it if they found themselves in office on 7 May.
Both the Conservatives and Labour promised vague “efficiency savings” to make impending cuts palatable. Labour promised savings of £11bn a year from 2011, though without disclosing before the election the departmental budgets from which these savings would come. The Conservatives for their part promised to cut an extra £6bn immediately. They insisted that these cuts would have no effect on service delivery and its quality, but failed to identify the targets of these magical cuts.
The Conservatives attempted to present themselves as a Thatcherite party of “tough choices” and deficit-cutting while at the same time purporting to be a “compassionate Conservative” party intent on protecting public services and increasing spending on overseas ‘aid’.
While expressing horror at Conservative plans to cut spending in 2010-11 by £6bn, and emphasising its manifesto pledge to “support the economy to ensure recovery is established”, the Labour government had already taken away upwards of £20bn of support for the economy in 2010-11 by reverting the VAT rate back from 15 to 17.5 percent, and by cutting capital expenditure.
Notwithstanding the strenuous efforts made by the two leading bourgeois parties to conceal their real intentions, it was clear even before the election – at least to the initiated – that their prescriptions for fixing the public finances were very similar.
Each proposed sizeable tax increases – Labour £19bn a year, the Conservatives £14bn. Both harboured similar budgetary objectives, with Labour desiring to halve the deficit within four years and the Conservatives doing the same over a slightly shorter period. Both wanted major deficit reduction to result from spending cuts not tax rises, with Labour’s ratio being £1 of tax rises for £2 of spending cuts, and that of the Conservatives being £1 of tax rises for £4 of cuts.
In view of the similarity between the parties on cutting the government deficit, it is not surprising that the biggest financial sharks with investments in Britain’s government debt were quite relaxed and by and large indifferent to the outcome of the election. Credit rating agencies, too, decided to wait for the new government to come up with its fiscal consolidation proposals before pronouncing on the UK’s AAA-rated status.
The other burning issue, namely, the Anglo-American imperialist wars against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have claimed the lives of well over a million people, and wounded and displaced many times more, were, as if by a conspiracy of malign silence, hardly even mentioned, let alone thoroughly debated, by the principal parties and their leaders.
Each of the parties hypocritically promised to usher in a ‘fairer’ society on being elected, while knowing full well that their main job would in fact be to safeguard the interests of British monopoly capitalism at the expense of millions of working people.
As an alternative to Gordon Brown’s war-mongering, anti-working class government, the Conservative leader, David Cameron, could promise no more than what he called the “big society” in which problems of Britain’s “broken society” were to be addressed by voluntary groups and community organisations, rather than by state action – a recipe for leaving the victims of capitalism to the care of the churches, voluntary bodies and a myriad well-meaning community organisers. Welcome to the new Victorian age of dire poverty, providing a fertile ground for the well off to practise their charity on.
The LibDems, as usual, waffled vaguely about a ‘fairer’ Britain, although among their concrete proposals for making this happen were plans to force immigrants to carry cards permitting them to live and work only in certain areas!
Characterised by diplomatic silence, deception and fraud, lacking in even a modicum of honesty, with the three parties offering a vision of general misery, the election was a lack-lustre affair resulting in a hung parliament.
Finding himself bereft of an absolute majority, David Cameron, who during the election had rudely remarked that the biggest joke he knew was Nick Clegg, made “a big, open and comprehensive offer” to the same joke to join in a coalition – of course all in the “national interest”, to which Clegg responded, doubtless in the “national interest”, with great alacrity.
Following several days of horse-trading, a coalition government was finally formed between the Conservatives and LibDems on Tuesday 11 May, with David Cameron as prime minister and Nick Clegg, the LibDem leader, as deputy prime minister. Apart from Clegg, the new cabinet includes four other LibDems.
In order to seal the coalition deal, the two partners had to agree to small modifications of their electoral pledges on issues ranging from Europe, immigration and defence to electoral reform. The Conservatives had to give ground on the issue of electoral reform and agree to the holding of a referendum on the alternative voting system (AV); without agreement on this issue the formation of the coalition would have been out of the question, thrusting the Liberals into the arms of the Labour party, who had made a far better offer, that of proportional representation, to the LibDems.
Sinn Fein victory
One ray of light to emerge from the otherwise bleak electoral scene are the victories scored by Sinn Fein in northern Ireland, where this progressive nationalist party won five seats, emerging as the largest party there, with a 25.5 percent share of the vote – the greatest number of votes of any party in the north of Ireland.
The party’s five MPs were re-elected with an increased mandate, including the stunning victory of Michelle Gildernew in Fermanagh and South Tyrone against a ‘unity’ unionist candidate by just four votes on the third count.
In West Belfast, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams secured 71 percent of the vote, winning the seat by a majority of 17,000 – one of the largest of the newly elected MPs to Westminster. Welcoming a small number of votes he had received from “heartland loyalists or unionist areas” of the constituency, he thanked “those who see that their class interest rests with Sinn Fein and not with the conservative parties of unionism”. In Mid Ulster, Martin McGuiness secured 52 percent of the vote and won by a majority of nearly 16,000 – again one of the largest.
Speaking in the aftermath of her re-election, Michelle Gildernew, said that “the forces of unionism had collected together against us and we had a mountain to climb this time”, adding, however, that “catholic, protestant and dissenter” had voted for her. She said that she was “especially proud and grateful” that “protestant people … came out and voted for me”, and thanked everyone who had supported her campaign.
As to the other parties in the north of Ireland, the DUP, with 25 percent, was just behind Sinn Fein, the SDLP secured 16.5 percent, while the UUP/Tory candidates received 15.2 percent of the vote but failed to win any seats at all. The Alliance Party won their first seat, and Sylvia Hermon, having walked out of the UUP following the latter’s decision to join forces with the British Conservatives, won a comfortable victory.
Hot on the heels of Sinn Fein’s electoral victory, Gerry Adams, has written to other party leaders in the north of Ireland to meet, discuss and come up with an agreed strategy to oppose any cuts proposed by the British government. Adams expressed his belief that it was “imperative that all parties in the Executive act with a unity of purpose to safeguard public services, to defend frontline services in health and education”, adding that any cuts, which the Tories and Labour had both proposed, were “unacceptable”, for they would have a detrimental effect on public services and jobs. He went on to call on all the parties to “unite on a positive agenda” to “protect those most disadvantaged in our communities”.
Gerry Adams’ concern for the most disadvantaged, and his fighting talk to resist the cuts in the offing, ought to strike a chord among wider sections of the British working class, too, and furnish a basis for close collaboration between the two in the coming days to blunt and defeat the capitalist offensive, whose sole purpose is to pass the monstrous burdens of the deepest ever crisis of imperialism on to the backs of the working class, whether Irish or British.
In Scotland, the SNP nationalists won five seats, while in Wales, Plaid Cymru won three. In England, while the anti-European UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) and the BNP (the openly racist British National Party) won no seats, on average they came fourth and fifth after the three major bourgeois parties.
Caroline Lucas won Brighton Pavilion for the Green Party – whose programme in this election was anti-war (opposing Britain’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan) as well as reflecting concern over environmental issues.
However, despite the anti-war sentiments of the electorate, Caroline Lucas’s victory was an isolated phenomenon. Following months of scare-tactics campaigning by so-called ‘anti-fascist’ and ‘left’ Labour groups such as Hope Not Hate about the dangers awaiting Britain if the Tories or the BNP should get elected, many voters who would otherwise have voted Green or socialist – or not voted at all – were persuaded to back Labour as the ‘least-worst’ option.
As to the left candidates, their combined strength came to 107, of which a mere seven gained upwards of 1,000 votes each.
The best performance came from George Galloway’s party, Respect, three of whose candidates secured a sizeable vote, with Salma Yaqoob (Birmingham Hall Green) securing 12,240 votes, and coming a strong second behind the Labour winner, Abu Miah (Bethnal Green and Bow) 8,532, and George himself (Poplar and Limehouse) 8,160, while the fourth, Arshad Ali (Bradford West) received 1,245.
Of the other three candidates who secured more than 1,000 votes, two were from TUSC (Trade Union and Socialist Coalition) – Dave Nellist (Coventry North-East) who received 1,592 and Jenny Sutton (Tottenham) 1,057 – and one, Eamonn McCann, for People before Profit (an SWP front capitalising on dissident republican sentiments in Foyle, in the north of Ireland) received 2,936.
It is clear as daylight that what passes for the left in Britain has a long way to go. Further, its weakness is to a considerable extent to be explained by illusions, entertained by nearly all those who call themselves communist and socialist, in the imperialist Labour party. Until the communists change this stance, they will no more see victory than will they see their ears.
A time of opportunity
The easy part – the formation of the new coalition government – is over. Now comes the hard business of restoring public finances, securing the interests of finance capital, and attacking the living standards of the working class through tax rises and deep cuts in public expenditure.
The impending budget tightening, estimated to be between 5 and 7 percent of the GDP (£70bn – £100bn), that is, between £3,000 and £4,000 per household, will be the deepest for decades. Drastic cuts can only mean a freeze on public workers’ pay, brutal cuts in the provision and quality of public services, cuts in welfare benefits, rising unemployment, and increasing poverty and squalor.
The ability of Britain, as indeed of all the other imperialist countries, to get a grip on its borrowing hinges largely on the much talked-of economic recovery. But the very act of getting the deficit down quickly cannot fail to put in jeopardy the hoped-for growth and, in turn, make the process of deficit reduction even harder.
Notwithstanding the stoical reputation of the British working class for calmly putting up with the miseries inflicted on it by the ruling class, the nightly images of riots and petrol bombs in Athens and the rout in the financial markets are chilling reminders that workers’ patience has limits; that they will not react to deep cuts and attacks on their standard of life with impassivity and resignation. These are times of danger, as well as opportunity – danger for the ruling class, opportunity for the working class.
Let the working class rise to the challenge and declare loud and clear that it will not pay for the crisis of capitalism. Faced with the choice of either placing itself at the mercy of capitalism and accepting its lot while its level of existence sinks ever lower, or of adopting the weapon of Marxism Leninism and raising the banner of revolt against capitalism, the working class, in the final analysis, is bound to opt for the latter alternative.