Can we break the coalition?

Issue section: 
(372)

Less than halfway through it's projected 5 year term of office, the Tory and Lib Dem coalition is on the rocks. Charlie Kimber argues that it's important to understand the weakness of our opponents - but what kind of action would it take to drive this government out?

We need to understand the weakness of our opponents to grasp the potential for successful resistance. It's the backdrop to building huge demonstrations in London and Glasgow on 20 October and then resistance afterwards. We are all painfully aware of the weaknesses in our own camp. But we can often forget the deep and structural problems of our rulers.

The Tory-Lib Dem coalition is less than half way through its projected term of office. But it is in deep trouble. It's not just the ups and downs and temporary unpopularity that affect many governments.

Something much more fundamental seems to be taking place, making the coalition appear like those fag-end administrations where everything they touch turns to dung. This is quite a predicament for a regime which is supposed to keep going for the best part of another three years. And not just keep going. It is committed to continuing brutal assaults on millions of people in the name of "deficit reduction".

Bowing to business
David Cameron promised global business leaders gathered in London on 26 July ahead of the Olympics, "We've taken bold decisions to sort out our public finances and earn credibility with the markets... And my message today is clear and unequivocal. Be in no doubt: we will go on and finish the job."
Showing who he answers to, he added, "We have listened to what business wants and we are delivering on it."

Cameron and chancellor George Osborne's problem is that their economic strategy lies in tatters. The economy matters hugely to any government, but it's the utterly overriding issue for this one. Elected in the midst of an economic hurricane, they claimed they would calm the winds. They've failed, even on their own terms.

Of course they have "succeeded" in readying the NHS and Royal Mail for privatisation, they have cut workers' wages and they have savaged welfare and public services. And they want to do more of that. But the economy is still on the rocks, and that unnerves their own side as well - which is why businesses aren't investing.

Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, announced in August that the bank expected zero growth in the British economy for 2012. So stagnant is the economy that instead of meeting the target for borrowing of £120 billion for the current year, it is likely that borrowing will actually soar to £160 billion.

Osborne's prized triple-A rating for British debt may not survive such figures. He might roll out more cuts in an effort to hold back the growing deficit.

We have a coalition on the rocks which is seeking to push through an unprecedented mission of class war. Some four fifths of the cuts are still to be implemented. Turmoil and further struggle are still to come because workers are being hammered.

A study commissioned by the Unite union revealed that 67 percent of people need to borrow to pay for the basics in life because they are caught on a treadmill of falling wages and rising costs.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies said this summer, "Average incomes have fallen by near-record amounts…the poor have undoubtedly been getting worse off in absolute terms, on average."

It's commonplace to chart the Tories' travails from chancellor George Osborne's budget in March. It was certainly a toxic blend - further attacks on workers, presents for the rich and the corporations, and measures that seemed to have been designed to infuriate people (pasty eaters, caravan owners and charity leaders for example).

But the budget was a summation of coalition policy rather than a new departure. And the opinion poll ratings were already on the slide. The Lib Dems' ratings have never recovered from their decision to tear up their election promise and back the tripling of tuition fees. And their backing for Andrew Lansley's NHS bill was a strong reminder for anyone who thought that might be a one-off aberration.

So poisonous has the coalition been for the Lib Dems that a poll showed nearly half of the party want Clegg to resign as leader before the general election so that he can be replaced by someone more distant from the Tories.

Slump in the polls
The Tories' slump in the polls has been slower. But it is steadily happening. In the summer of 2010 the Tories polled around 40 percent; a year later they could still hit about 36 percent; today they are lucky to poll more than 33 percent.

Research by academics Jane Green and Will Jennings reveals that ratings of Tory party competence declined more than any government in its first year since 1945.
That was an early judgement on the cuts strategy.

But it is now worse. As soon as parliament returns this month a series of new issues will emerge to plague the Tories and foster divisions. They include the soaring rise in rail fares where even Tory MPs are screaming at increases of over 6 percent (and some over 11 percent!), the trials of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, more evidence of the failings of the "new" NHS, more examples of the corrupt and venal banks and so on.

The coalition faces pressures on its very survival, and deep splits between its leading figures. As the Economist put it, "After one convivial joint event last year, Nick Clegg was caught telling David Cameron that they were in danger of never finding 'anything to bloody disagree on'. The Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister is, it is safe to say, no longer dogged by that fear."

Enraging the Lib Dems
Cameron's decision to drop reform of the House of Lords, a clear breach of the coalition agreement, enraged the Lib Dems. The decision was a victory for the Tory right, most of them among the 91 MPs who voted against Lords reform in July. They forced Cameron's hand (although he does not seem to have worked very hard to face them down) and will be emboldened to move on to other issues.

For the Tory right it's clear the coalition agreement is not sacrosanct, they will argue, so why not rip up other bits of Lib Dem policy? In particular why not really upset the Lib Dems by continuing to raise anti-EU measures?

Mail columnist Simon Heffer wrote, "Tory MPs couldn't care less if their Eurosceptic talk upsets their coalition partners. Some would like to goad the Lib Dems into walking away, and they have only just begun that process. They hoped the collapse of Lords reform would do it. Europe is their next weapon."

In truth any Tory who wants the coalition to collapse now has a death wish. If there's a general election before Christmas it is highly likely that the next prime minister would be Ed Miliband, not some foreigner-hating Tory.

That's even more true after deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said that in revenge for the loss of House of Lords reform the Lib Dems will no longer back a redrawing of the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies - a measure that was thought likely to deliver the Tories some 20 extra seats.

So the coalition survives because, however much the parties hate each other, divorce offers near-certain electoral defeat (and probably oblivion for Clegg's lot). Not that any of this is going to hold back the Tory right.

Five of them are soon to publish a book which seems deliberately designed to make them even more unpopular. There argument seems to be: "People think we are elitist bastards who hate anyone but the rich. Let's prove that to them then". In their book the authors say, "Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world. Too many people in Britain, we argue, prefer a lie-in to hard work."

Political analyst Henry Manson wrote, in a rather understated way, "Many will resent five Conservative MPs (with backgrounds in lobbying, financial services, business law, professional politics and think tanks) sneering at their efforts." It is already a huge challenge for the Tories to win the next election.

No prime minister has increased their percentage of the vote since 1974 (when two elections followed each other in quick succession). And at the 2010 general election Cameron's Tories took just 36 percent. That's nearly six percentage points (and around 3.4 million votes) fewer than the last Tory prime minister, John Major, won in 1992.

The Tories don't publish official membership statistics. But a study for the House of Commons library estimated their membership was 177,000 in 2010.

Latest estimates, from a survey by Tory website ConservativeHome, are that today's figure could be as low as 130,000. When David Cameron won the Tory leadership contest in 2005, the estimated membership was 258,000. So he has presided over a halving of the party's base. And it's worth remembering that at one point in the 1950s the Tories claimed a membership of over three million.

All of this means the coalition is there for the taking. But it is still getting away with murder because of the weakness of the opposition from the Labour Party leaders, the TUC and almost all trade union general secretaries.

Rise of resistance
Following the great student revolt at the end of 2010, the year 2011 saw the biggest ever trade union demonstration on 26 March, the strike by around 700,000 on 30 June and then the 2.5 million on strike over pensions on 30 November.

But that mood was strangled in the days before Christmas as leaders of the big unions accepted outline deals which were essentially unchanged from the ones that millions of workers had just struck against. These same union leaders have then spent the last nine months persuading the members to vote for these deals. It has not been easy, which is why it has taken so long.

But a combination of stringing it out, one-sided propaganda and rubbishing of any alternative has enabled them to get large votes for acceptance of the local government deal and to sideline the NHS pensions dispute.

If the mood of 30 November last year had been built upon by further strikes, not only could the pensions dispute have been decisively won, but this tottering coalition might have been driven out.

In the run-up to the great 20 October march this autumn there has to be a clear message: we are going to build the biggest demonstration possible and we are going to throw ourselves into trying to put a million on the streets. But this must not be a parade followed by only token action. It has to be the beginning of a process of militant resistance, not a substitute for that.

A huge demonstration on 20 October can give confidence to workers everywhere. It can make people feel they are with a mass, not isolated and powerless. It can act as a rallying point for different sections of the oppressed and exploited - workers in and out of unions, students, pensioners, unemployed, those forced onto workfare schemes, disabled people, claimants facing a financial squeeze as well as disgusting scapegoating, young people whose futures are being wrenched away: all these and more must be on the march.

Rank and file militants
The march could also popularise the idea of a real alternative to the policies of austerity. It has to be followed by mass strikes, if possible on the scale of 30 November and beyond, but certainly involving a million or more in November. And those strikes must in turn be a launchpad for further, more extensive action - best of all, a general strike.

A few days after this article was to be published the NUT was to announce the results of its ballot on strikes. It is crucial the NUT leaders turn any yes vote into a big strike alongside the NASUWT teaching union and others such as the PCS, the UCU and perhaps the EIS unions and others in the autumn - and then don't just stop.

Most of the union bureaucracies will set their face against such a programme. That is why it is essential to build networks of rank and file militants who can support one another's struggles, offer solidarity to workers in dispute, work alongside the union leaders who are prepared to fight, pressure them to keep fighting and seek to act independently when the union leaders fail.

That is why the Unite the Resistance conference on 17 November is so important and why it needs to be built big.

We have seen some battles that have been at least partially successful such as the London bus drivers' battle over bonuses. But far too often the union leaders fail, not only over big issues like the pensions dispute, but over battles like Remploy. There was outrage when the Tories announced the mass closure of Remploy factories, which mainly employ disabled workers.

The workforce massively supported two rounds of strikes but, with many closures looming and the Paralympics around the corner as a useful propaganda target, the union leaders called off further strikes and announced a "new phase" which so far has amounted to very little. What should have been a political and fighting focus for everyone across the labour movement has been thrown away.

Too many union leaders have already decided that the only hope is to sit tight and wait for Labour - and that's disastrous. Although the Tories have a mountain to climb, there is no guarantee that Miliband will win the next election. And even if he did, it might not come for more than two and a half years during which time millions of lives will be wrecked and the social counter-revolution will secure new victims.

But even if Miliband does win, he offers very little change. His economic policy is only to eliminate the deficit a little bit more slowly (a policy the Tories have already adopted), and to have a bit more spending to "promote growth". Such measures are grossly inadequate as the eurozone continues to lurch downwards and the crisis grinds on. Miliband is no friend of struggle: he has repeatedly denounced strikes and is even less likely to support them if he were Number 10.

Uninspiring Ed
Miliband is certainly not inspiring masses to join the party. Labour's membership now stands at 187,000, a rise of 31,000 since he succeeded Gordon Brown, but still half the level of 1996. In July he announced Labour wanted "more business people" as candidates - and that they didn't have to be party members when they put themselves forward!

He even welcomed war criminal Blair back as a "policy adviser".

Miliband is to the right of France's François Hollande but Hollande, after a few populist measures against the super-rich, is committed to EU deficit-reduction targets that will force the government to slash public spending. Radical left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon has already accused Hollande of being "a market liberal like those who have already driven the Greek, Spanish and Portuguese disasters".

Waiting for Labour is not a real option. Instead we need much more of a fightback and in the course of that resistance to develop a stronger political alternative to the Tories and Labour as well as an industrial one.

This has to be a "hot autumn" for the coalition. The 20 October demonstration, strikes in November and afterwards, and the student protest on 21 November offer an exciting potential for us not just to shake the coalition, but to raise the chance to drive it out.