After a seemingly guaranteed Tory victory, now the opinion polls indicate that the coming elections could produce a hung parliament with the Liberal-Democrats holding the balance of power. The voters have not forgotten what the Tories did when they were in power but are also disappointed with Labour. This unprecedented volatility, is a reflection of the crisis of British capitalism, and a yearning for social change, that was denied after 1997.
Given the colossal volatility within the electorate in the recent period, the outcome of the general election has become impossible to predict. With only 10 days to go, opinion polls point to some kind of hung Parliament with the Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power.
This has been a remarkable turnaround since the beginning of the election where a Tory government seemed the most likely option. The first televised election debate certainly touched a nerve, when some 10 million tuned in to see the contest. Nick Clegg, whose party was trailing in the polls, was hailed the winner with the Sunday Times saying he was the most popular party leader since Winston Churchill!
This set off huge swings in the opinion polls to the Liberal Democrats, who attempted to portray themselves as the clean, honest party as opposed to the two “establishment” parties. This swing caused a loss of support for Labour and the Tories, but the Tories appeared to be the main losers. The Tory support was slashed to the mid-30s, as the support for Liberal Democrats rose from 20% to 30%.
Brown’s support is now where Michael Foot’s was in 1982. Let us not forget that Labour under Michael Foot was deemed to be “unelectable” because of its left-wing stance on several issues. As we have a right-wing leadership under Blair and Brown for over a decade how do these people explain the present decline in Labour popularity?
According to a string of opinion polls, assuming a uniform national swing, the Tories would have the largest share of the vote but Labour the most seats. Polls put Labour in third place, and even suggested in some that the Liberal Democrats were ahead of the Tories.
Despite the attempt of Cameron to change the image of the Tories from the Nasty Party to a gentle form of Toryism, many people have not forgotten the time when the Tories were in power. This is still very much in the memory of the working class and even layers of the middle class.
We have had something like over 30 years of governments (Tories 1979-97 and Labour 1997-2010) with very similar policies. While it is true that Labour introduced measures such as the minimum wage and tax credits, which benefited the poorest layers, the Blair/Brown government did not bring about any real meaningful change, despite all their promises. The big hopes in 1997 have been dashed. People now feel that there is very little to choose between the main parties.
Big business rested on the Blair government, which based itself on the market economy, to carry out a pro-business agenda at least until the Tories had recovered. The Tory recovery took years to bring about after a succession of leaders. Finally Cameron seemed to fit the bill. By this time, under Brown, the Labour government had passed its usefulness and a new Tory government was in order. The Sun newspaper dutifully changed its allegiance to the Tories.
The Tories were riding high at one point, with a lead of 20% in the polls. With a massive austerity programme needed to be implemented after the unprecedented bail-out of the banks, a majority Tory government was the best option for big business. But in the words of Robert Burns, "the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray"!
There were clearly problems with this strategy when Labour began to recover in the polls, coming between 2 and 5 points behind Cameron. With a press campaign against Labour during the election, they hoped to pull off their goal. Some bright spark suggested a televised debate of the party leaders as a means of promoting Cameron at Brown’s expense. Nobody had ever heard of Clegg, so there was no danger there.
The debate provided the catalyst for a massive change in opinion which had been simmering for a long time. Profound discontent with Labour and Tories, especially over the MPs’ expenses scandal, burst to the surface, providing the political establishment with a massive problem so close to polling day.
The MPs expenses scandal was initially launched clearly to do as much damage to Labour as possible and boost the Tories. The bourgeoisie was doing everything to strengthen the Tories in order to guarantee a big parliamentary majority and a “strong” government that could then go onto the offensive against the working class.
However, things have backfired on the ruling class. The MPs’ expenses scandal had the effect of discrediting both Labour and the Tories, creating the idea that “they are all rotten”. Given the British electoral system, this means that the only party with any chance of challenging the two main parties are the Liberal Democrats.
Therefore, the Liberal Democrats, who have been out of power for generations, unexpectedly benefited from this discontent. The attempts to retrieve the situation with attacks on Nick Clegg simply backfired even more, resulting in increased support. Younger voters and those who do not usually vote have been attracted to the Lib-Dems.
In the past, the ruling class, with its control over the media, were able to manipulate the outcome of elections. The Sun bragged in 1992, “it was we wot won it”. Now, both major parties are “damaged goods”. They are perceived by many as corrupt and dishonest. What a condemnation of 13 years of Labour government and right-wing policies.
In the past, the British establishment looked down their nose at the political instability on the continent with its coalition politics. Britain, with its first-past-the post electoral system provided stability, the envy of Europe. However, now with the unprecedented volatility, especially amongst the middle class, the whole political process has been thrown into the melting-pot. This volatility is a reflection of the crisis of British capitalism, and a yearning for social change, that was denied them in 1997.
It has to be stated clearly that the present volatile situation is a direct result of the economic crisis of the recent period, combined with the discrediting of the two major parties. This is not a normal situation and that can be seen by the fact that the Tory campaign, which in the past would have had an impact, is not producing the desired results. As we said, the working people of this country have the memory of what the Tories did when they were last in power. The Tory campaign therefore lacks credibility.
Brown, meanwhile, is playing on the fact that the recession is over, albeit with a very weak recovery. His main message is the Labour government has managed to pull the country out of recession and if the Tories get in they will cut and slash public spending, pushing the country back into recession. This seems to have had a certain effect on some layers of the electorate.
The whole election is therefore now up in the air. If the Tories, in spite of everything, manage to lose the elections, or at least not gain an overall working majority, Cameron’s neck will be on the line. Already the right-wing Tories, most notably Norman Tebbitt, are demanding he goes onto the offensive – or else! The knives are already out and ready to be used. The failure to win the election would see internal civil war inside the Tory party. Cameron would be ditched as the party moved to the right.
Given this huge volatility, we can only speculate as to the possible final outcome of the election. If the Tories squeeze in with a tiny majority, this will be seen as a weak government with little mandate. It will feel the brunt of the working class as they attempt to carry out austerity policies.
However, a hung parliament is now looking more likely. This will be a disaster for the ruling class which needs a strong government to take on the working class. It would be the worst of all possible worlds. We could see Labour, despite having the lowest share of the vote, having more seats in parliament. The Liberals could prop up a minority Labour government, as in the late 1970s. They could even get some ministers, as Blair wanted in 1997. Such a coalition would be unstable given the draconian cuts that they will need to implement. Brown has already started to appeal to the Liberals with promised electoral reform.
Should Brown manage to stay in office we have to consider the effects this would have inside the Labour movement. After a couple of years in which the members of the Labour Party have gotten accustomed to the idea that the party was facing a massive defeat and that the Tories would inevitably get in, many would breathe a sigh of relief, in particular the trade union leaders. Brown would be seen as the man who (accidentally) stopped the Tories! It would strengthen his position in the short term.
Brown would play on this and should he then achieve a coalition with the Liberals, he would use this to justify cuts and attacks. He would say that the only way of keeping the Tories out would be to keep the coalition with the Liberals. For a period this could hold the workers back, as the Trade Union leaders would jump on this opportunity to call for calm and social peace within their rank and file.
However, this could not last for long. The huge overhang of debt means that whatever government is formed it must proceed to huge cuts in spending and therefore would come into conflict with the working class. This will lead at some stage to big movements, particularly in the public sector, and a possible government crisis, given its weakness.
The Tories have always been firm supporters of the first-past-the-post electoral system. However, the prospect of not winning a majority has prompted them into talking about offering the Liberals a deal on proportional representation. The result could be a minority Tory government, propped up by Liberal support. This would also be very unstable. There could be a run on the pound, as the speculators attacked sterling. “Investors fear effects of hung parliament”, was the heading in the ‘Financial Times’, a clear warning for the future.
Whatever the outcome, given the swings in the polls, we are looking at the prospect of a weak government emerging from these elections. There could be either a minority Labour or Tory government backed by the Liberals, or coalition governments involving the Liberals with either of the two main parties. Whichever of these two options emerges from these elections, they will only produce a weak and unstable government.
It should also be remembered that Liberal Democrat support for either of the two main parties in order to carry through an austerity package will serve to rapidly discredit them. They have no independent future. For now, they are riding on a wave of popularity, but their policies do not differ from those of the Tories or the Blair/Brown leadership of the Labour Party. An experience of the Liberals in government would be a salutary lesson for many, and show them in practice what this party really stands for.
After a period of unstable government, new elections could soon be in the offing. We could even have a scenario like in 1931, when the ruling class brought down the Labour government for failing to carry through the necessary cuts, bringing to power instead a National government. This could happen again. The bourgeois would be seeking a way out of the mess, and one way of doing this would be to raise the question of bringing Labour, Tories and Liberals together into one grand coalition government, given that all the parties agree the budget deficit should be slashed. This, however, is more likely to happen after the experience of a crisis government which emerges from this election.
Because of the lack of a powerful subjective factor, of a strong Marxist tendency within the labour movement, there is much confusion as to the way forward. Many are prepared to try the Liberals, as the thinking is “they can’t be worse than either Labour or Tories”. But experience will teach that the Liberals are no option.
At some stage in the very near future we will see a huge rise in the class struggle. Already there are rumblings within the trade union movement. The grip of the Labour and trade union leaders over the ranks of the labour movement is not as strong as it was. We have seen the post workers’ strikes, the strikes at BA, ballots for action in several unions, such as UCU. We have seen the radicalisation and anger of PCS members. These are all signs of what is to come.
British politics has entered a new period of crisis and volatility. This is a reflection of the crisis of British capitalism. Huge events are on the order of the day. The class struggle is back on the agenda, as throughout Europe. The bankrupt policies of patching up capitalism – whichever government comes into office will be exposed. Millions of workers will be thrown into struggle and will inevitably seek a way out of this impasse.
These trade union struggles will lead to a radicalisation within the ranks of the unions, with more left-wing leaders being elected at all levels. This will then spill over into the Labour Party where a radical mood will lead to the emergence of a left wing. The ranks of the labour movement will be seeking a real way out of the present crisis, and that can only be found in genuine socialist policies, with the main demand being the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under democratic workers’ control and management. There is no other way out! Either the Labour leaders attempt to “manage” this crisis, which means attacks on the working class, or they decide to make the bosses pay and that means taking their accumulated wealth and putting it at the disposal of working people, who would then proceed to plan the economy according to the interests of the many and not the few.