Britain in 2010: elections, austerity and struggle

New Year is meant to represent a new beginning, a clean slate. Old Father Time gives way to a new bouncing baby. But what can we expect in 2010? Will it be a new shiny outlook for world capitalism, or will 2009 just seem to be dragging on under a new name?

In some countries capitalism seems to be limping painfully out of the slump. But in Britain the depth of the recession means that the ‘green shoots of recovery’ are still not evident. In the Stock Exchange casinos the price of shares is rising and big bonuses are being paid out – for now. There is still the possibility of a double dip recession, and the recent events in Dubai illustrate the fact that the capitalist system is extremely fragile.

The big threats for workers and their families are government austerity programmes and vicious cuts in wages, hours and welfare. The recent budget in Ireland and the talk of virtual pay freezes for public sector workers announced in Britain are a taste of the future. These austerity measures could last for decades. The cost of bailing out the bankers has been huge, and of course they want us to pay for it.

The capitalist system is in a hole and the boss class knows it. They need to foist the whole burden of the crisis on to the working class. That means unprecedented cuts in public services. New Labour can no longer do the dirty work for the ruling class. To carry out this programme, they need a strong Tory government with a big majority. In fact the next government will be one of crisis and sharp class struggle.

All eyes will be on the general election. New Labour will have been in power by then for 13 years. Far from creating a socialist paradise, we have been dragged into unwinnable wars, forced down the road of Thatcherite economics, PFI and workfare. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have squandered the best opportunity that Labour has had in a generation and now the Blair/Brown project is in meltdown. New Labour is likely to lose the election and badly - how badly is another question. The Tories aren’t so much going to win the election but have it handed to them on a plate. It’s not ruled out that the Tories might only manage a minority or coalition government.

All three major parties are committed to the swingeing cuts that will be brought to bear, particularly in local government and the civil service. But there will be differences, particularly in the attitude of the trade union leaders. It’s one thing to hold the line for a Labour Government, as UNISON have done in particular. It’s another thing to stand idly by while the Tories start tearing up national agreements and imposing wholesale privatisations and job cuts. Likewise, while many workers in the public sector have kept their heads down hoping for better times, the CWU was forced to make a stand against their management. That’s the music of the future.

The pace of change and the extent of the attacks in local government will depend on the political flavour and the local situation. There are likely to be disputes and crises popping up all over. The civil service was given the salami tactic years ago and is divided up into a myriad of negotiating units and bodies. This means again that any industrial action resulting from government attacks will be patchy. However, it is precisely this sort of patchy scenario where pressure from below will build up in the unions, and even at a later stage within the Labour Party.

On the other hand the Tories (or New Labour) could decide to go for a full frontal assault on pensions or national conditions of service or introduce widespread privatisation. That would inevitably produce a set-piece confrontation with the entire six-million strong public sector work force.

The right wing of the Labour Party has been utterly discredited and will rightly receive the blame for disillusioning Labour voters and letting the Tories in. A small growth in activity after the initial disillusionment of a Tory victory has evaporated could easily spark a development of the left, particularly if one or more better-known MPs break cover and present a left face.

Last year saw the struggles at Lindsey and the occupations at Vestas, Visteon and Waterford Crystal in Ireland against redundancy. This type of struggle breaks out when workers have their backs to the wall. 2010 doesn’t look like it’ll be radically different and so we can anticipate more of the same. The situation in the private sector is likely to change radically over the next period as well. While many workers are on the defensive just now, an upturn in the economy could see a big change in their outlook. Once the order books start to improve and production is stepped up, workers will want to regain the ground they’ve lost. This could lead to a significant upturn in industrial action.

Taking all these factors into account, the prospects for an incoming government of whatever shade will be bleak. There will be little opportunity for a honeymoon period or even a deep breath before the economic and political pressures begin to exert themselves on the government. They will go on the offensive against the working class. Under these conditions workers will have little option but to fight back and many will question the whole capitalist system. We must be there to answer their questions and provide a fighting Marxist alternative.