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Britain: Build opposition to the `slash and burn' coalition

British Prime Minister David Cameron with his ideological idol.

By Alan Thornett

August 18, 2010 -- Socialist Resistance -- Britain’s first coalition government since the war has completed its first parliamentary session. "Coalition", however, is something of a sick misnomer. What we have is a right-wing Thatcherite, small-state, slash-and-burn Tory government, propped up by the cringing Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems), with a cuts and privatisation agenda which goes well beyond anything Thatcher herself was able to envisage.

Prime Minister David Cameron has emerged as the most ideologically driven Conservative Party (Tory) leader of modern times.

The Tories took all the key ministerial positions in the "coalition", and even now, with parliament in recess, hardly a day goes by without the thud of axes and the chopping of services, without the slightest concern, or even knowledge of the consequences for those affected. It is put forward under the fraudulent smokescreen of the "big society" and the gut-retching mantra that we are "all in this together".

Cameron’s latest "announcement" is that the crisis in social housing is to be met by the introduction of short-term tenancy agreements for social housing tenants so that they can be evicted at the end of an agreement if they do not fit a set of new criteria.

Cuts

In the budget the "coalition" proposed £40 billion of spending cuts beyond the unacceptable cuts planned by New Labour, to start immediately. The Lib Dems — whose manifesto promised not to accelerate the cuts — justified their capitulation on the basis of the “firestorm” in Greece — which had been raging long before the coalition discussions and was in full force while they were still campaigning on their now discarded manifesto.

The result is a massive cuts agenda will hit the poorest and most vulnerable in society hardest — and is deliberately designed to do so. This will also have a sharply disproportional impact on women. The Fawcett Society is considering taking the government to court for failing to carry out an assessment of the impact of the emergency budget on women.

There is a bonfire of regulations and regulatory bodies from the Food Safety Agency, to health and safety regulations, ambulance response times, A&E completion times and National Health Service (NHS) treatment targets — with total disregard to the circumstances. Even speed cameras at accident black spots are being switched off.

The coalition plans to get its whole program out in the first few sessions of parliament and hope that it can then spin its way through the next election arguing that some of it has worked.

Neither the Tories or the Lib Dems have a mandate for the onslaught they are rushing out. They both talked about cuts before the election in order to prepare the ground for them, but didn’t specify either their extent or their targets.

In fact they systematically lied through their teeth. Neither suggested that the NHS would be a target, quite the reverse. Cameron cynically cultivated his social concerns image and talked about how much he loved the NHS while he was busy endorsing plans which will take it apart at the seams.

He was just as cynical over the environment, talking about taking the Conservative Party in an environmentally friendly direction. Now he is reversing even what little New Labour had begun to do on climate change -- while floods devastate Pakistan and fires rage in Russia.

Lib Dems

That the miserable Lib Dems have become human shields for such a right-wing agenda is remarkable — even in their own terms. They have been comprehensively taken over by their neoliberal wing led by Nick Clegg and David Laws in the course of the coalition negotiations. They have now swallowed everything the Tories rammed down their throats — from a racist cap on immigration to the expansion of nuclear power.

They supported the odious Michael Gove’s slashing the Building Schools for the Future Programme — which is already hitting the building industry as well as children’s education. They loyally voted for an increase in value-added tax (VAT) having campaigned against it in the election.

Their most dramatic capitulation was probably over proportional representation (PR) — their flagship policy — in return for a referendum on alternative vote system (AV, a preferential voting system), which is only marginally better than the corrupt first-past-the-post system (FPTP).

The Tories have now linked the referendum in May 2011 to a reduction of the number MPs (by 50) and the "equalisation of the constituencies". This is a serious threat to the Labour Party vote in England since it will wipe out the advantage they have enjoyed in the electoral system, give the Tories the chance to gerrymander the system in the reorganisation and reduction, and make it very much more difficult to win future elections. Maybe this will convince some of Labour’s FPTP diehards to support a fair voting system.

There is a more liberal civil rights/law and order agenda on the fringes of the coalition policy, which, to Labour’s shame, is well to the left of what the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown governments did. It is, however, little more than a crude attempt to keep the coalition together while its core agenda is carried through. Whether many of these liberal measures end up on the statute book we will have to see. The pledge not to lock up the children of asylum seekers has already been broken.

Debt

Chancellor George Osborne’s mantra is that he had no alternative than to introduce draconian cuts because of the level of debt left by the Labour government. This is rubbish. The idea of tackling an economic crisis through massive cuts is economically illiterate. It is pushing Britain towards a double-dip recession, which will make the debt even bigger.

The previous Labour government’s crime was not that it spent too much but too little. It was right to stimulate the economy and to nationalise banks in the face of the banking crisis – though it should have been all of them and under democratic control. Labour should have created a million green jobs by spending more on public projects in order to deal with the climate crisis and lay the basis for a sustainable society.

Osborne has made a deliberate ideological choice, designed both to make the working class pay for the crisis of the capitalist system and to facilitate a once-in-a-lifetime reorganisation of society along neoliberal lines. The Tories are not going to miss their chance.

Cameron made this clear when asked whether he would restore any of the cuts being made if economic conditions improve he said that this was the wrong way to look at it. The issue was not restoring the cuts but were making the cuts work and thinking about what further cuts could be made.

Ex-Tory minister Edwina Curry has been even blunter, saying on Any Questions that tackling Labour’s bloated public sector was long overdue and she enjoys every minute of it.

Remarkably even as they swing the axe the Tory-dominated coalition is currently winning the ideological argument on this. A majority of the population still think that the coalition have "got it about right" on the cuts! This is partly because the argument the coalition is putting forward is extremely simple (or simplistic): if you have a debt you have to pay it and if you don’t you will be in trouble: though the comparison between public debt and personal debt is patently ridiculous. This and blaming Labour for the entire crisis has been very effective.

Labour's dismal record

The real problem in combating this has been the virtual absence of any coherent counter-argument in general discourse. New Labour doesn’t argue its own case effectively and is hampered by its dismal record. The coalition are quick to point out that Labour was not only planning cuts but cutting when it was in office.

The media, which bought "the deficit must be reduced" argument immediately after the election, has never faltered since. This has allowed the coalition to roll out its measures with little criticism in the media.

The argument against cuts is not very complicated. It is clearly better to create debt than mass unemployment. There has been no clamour from the markets to repay the debt other than that generated by George Osborne himself for political reasons. In fact Britain’s debt is neither unprecedented nor unique.

If there was a need to repay the debt, that wouldn’t be difficult. Cancelling the Trident submarines, scrapping nuclear weapons and slashing the defence budget would be a good start. Raising taxation on the rich — who were responsible for the crisis in the first place — and collecting the taxes they are currently avoiding would also raise very large sums. But these arguments need to be got out far and wide

The virtual absence of the trade unions in the struggle is a huge difficulty. Most did nothing to oppose new Labour cuts and have done nothing yet about the coalition cuts other than wring their hands. Remarkably, as the coalition was rolling out its plans the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) general council invited Cameron to address its congress in September, though he declined the invitation!

The issue now for the whole movement is building the fight back and maximising resistance. Activity is beginning at local level to organise against the cuts. Many are already backed by local trade unions councils and trade union branches. This is very important and should be continued with the greatest possible unity. But maximum pressure has to be mounted on the TUC to decide at its congress in September to call a national demonstration before the end of the year around which the whole of the movement can unite.

[This article first appeared on the website of the British socialist newspaper Socialist Resistance.]

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