National government danger comes with hung parliament
A hung parliament could shift British politics to the right, warns Eddie Ford
Now that the general election is only weeks away, with May 6 being widely touted, all the mainstream bourgeois parties are in full campaigning mode. All systems go. Engage every trick in the book.
Gordon Brown, of course, has recently been at the centre of a whole string of lurid allegations, which smack more of desperation than conviction, regarding his emotional stability and personal conduct towards those under his command - most notably, his supposed violent temper and propensity to bully those who displease him. As if Margaret Thatcher was all sweetness, light and toleration when she was the great helmswoman of state. But now there is a general election coming, any old dirt will do.
However, regardless of anti-bullying help lines and clapped out hacks trying to peddle books, it does not seem that the mud is sticking. That is to say, whilst Brown’s electoral auguries still look fairly bleak - so don’t bet the farm on an outright Labour victory - his political fortunes appear to have undergone a resuscitation over the last period. Maybe Brown is not necessarily heading for the political retirement home quite yet. Or, to put it another way, not everything is going the Conservatives’ way.
The gap between Labour and Tories in the opinion polls has been slowly but steadily decreasing - a Labour recovery, you could say. No more the stunning 20% or more leads for David Cameron. Rather, according to a Sunday Times/YouGov poll the Tories are on 37%, Labour 35% and the LibDems 17%. A ComRes poll for The Independent, gave the Tories a bigger lead. But a closing one. Their support is recorded as dropping one point to 37%, while Labour has correspondingly gone up one point to 32% - with the LibDems unchanged at 19%.
ComRes also found that 43% believed David Cameron had the “right skills to lead Britain back to economic health”, but 42% thought the same about Brown. When asked who is a “strong leader”, 48% went with the Tory leader and 43% opted for Brown. Revealingly, only 20% of people believed that our apparently mercurial - if not quixotic - Labour leader was an “unpleasant bully”, and 12% thought that in fact it was Cameron who displayed this undesirable character trait. Predictably, ComRes found that the Tories were ahead in the south-east and the Midlands, but trailed Labour in the north of England - where, of course, the Conservatives desperately need to win seats if they are to win an overall majority.
The ComRes findings could make dispiriting reading for the Tories if taken in conjunction with last year’s ICM poll conducted for The Guardian. So, yes, in that poll two-thirds of the electorate (65%) may well have said that even if there are “clear signs” of economic recovery by May it would still “make no difference” to their voting intentions. But that still leaves a significant - possible critical mass - 9% of Tory voters and 22% of Liberal Democrat saying they would be “more likely to consider voting Labour” if the economy entered some sort of upswing. All this indicates, albeit somewhat crudely, that some 8% of those voters currently planning to vote either Tory or Liberal Democrat could possibly end up transferring their electoral allegiance to the incumbents.
The ComRes poll was carried out before the revelations about Lord Michael Ashcroft - the Tory peer, the Conservatives’ multi-millionaire deputy chairman and, of course, their über-fundraiser - he personally part-funded and masterminded a £5 million campaign in key marginal seats. Ashcroft has finally fessed up, given that it has long been suspected that he is in fact a non-domicile and hence he does not have to pay tax on any earnings made abroad - most of which actually comes from his ‘ill-defined’ businesses based in Belize (Ashcroft has also promised to resign as the Belize representative to the United Nations on March 31). The return of Tory sleaze at a most inopportune moment for Cameron.
Now, if the ComRes survey is any way accurate - and there is no reason to think it is not - that 5% lead for the Tories would, according to ComRes, put Labour ahead in terms of seats: it would have 294, compared to 277 for the Tories, with the LibDems on 46 and 33 others. In such a scenario, Brown would find himself 32 seats short of an overall majority and thus there would be a hung parliament.
It goes without saying that the UK’s undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system does not even produce approximate proportionality between the big parties, let alone allow representation for small groups. After all, in the 2005 general election, Labour only won 3% more of the popular vote than the Tories - 35.3% against 32.3% - yet still romped home with 356 parliamentary seats against 198 for the Conservatives and an overall majority of 66. Remember also that the Tories need at least a 10% swing if they are to stand a chance of getting a working majority and thus be able to form a government of their own - yet the ComRes poll only has them leading by 5% and YouGov 2% with the clock loudly ticking. Not quite good enough, David.
It is not too difficult to discern the central reason for the Tories’ less than optimum position so close to the general election - disarray and confusion over the economy. Their initial reaction to the financial crisis and credit crunch was to instinctively respond with primordial laissez-faireism, declaring - do not bail out the banks, do not ‘throw money’ at the problem. Accordingly, Tory shadow chancellor George Osborne vehemently opposed the nationalisation of Northern Rock and any attempts to lessen the impact of the financial crisis through ‘quantitative easing’ and so on. Let the market decide.
Then, after grudgingly conceding that - well, maybe the Tories would have broadly followed the same measure as Labour and other governments throughout the world - they proceeded to declare that “balancing the books” must be the number one political priory for the UK, for which there needed to be a new age of austerity. Even an ‘emergency budget’. Hence with near relish Osborne and company outlined how there would be cut after cut - deep and savage - under a new Tory government, with one of the first moves being to impose a one-year pay freeze in 2011 for those four million public sector workers living the life of largesse on more than £18,000 a year. Not to mention the night of the long knives for services across the board.
Yet the Tory approach does not add up, for all Osborne’s claimed economic and financial acumen. The problem being, of course, that, while this ‘slash and burn’ rhetoric might find favour amongst certain rightwing and business circles, the economy remains in the doldrums - with gross domestic product only increasing by 0.3% in the fourth quarter of 2009, meaning output is 3.3% lower than the fourth quarter of 2008. This leads many mainstream economists and analysts to fear we could be on the verge of a classic ‘double-dip’ recession. A new evangelical government determined to roll back and reverse Labour’s Keynesian-type emergency measures - which just about prevented the whole economy going into meltdown - could easily trigger that recession. A self-fulfilling prophecy.
Reflecting this fear, and conflict within the establishment about the best way to proceed under these pressing economic circumstances, we have had the recent ‘war of economists’. The first salvo was fired by 20 luminaries - most prominently former deputy governor of the Bank of England Howard Davies and the Labour peer, Lord Desai - in a robust letter to The Sunday Times deriding the government for not battening down the fiscal hatches fast enough. As urged by the International Monetary Fund, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and the various credit ratings agencies, the UK needs to cut its structural budget deficit quicker and further, even if the current government does not seem to have the stomach for it.
In the words of the letter, the UK’s budget deficit is “now the largest in our peacetime history” and under these circumstances a “credible medium-term fiscal consolidation plan would make a sustainable recovery more likely”. But in the “absence” of such a “credible plan”, there is a great risk that a “loss of confidence in the UK’s economic policy framework” will contribute to “higher long-term interest rates and/or currency instability” - all of which will act to “undermine the recovery”. Needless to say, the “bulk of this fiscal consolidation should be borne by reductions in government spending” - though, of course, this “process should be mindful of its impact on society’s more vulnerable groups”.
These proposals for “fiscal consolidation” drew a stinging riposte from 60 economists four days later in the pages of the Financial Times, which is generally regarded as no slouch when it comes to economic and financial matters. Rather, stopping a ‘double-dip’ recession should be the top priority, argue the economists in two letters to the newspaper, and they back Alistair Darling’s “sensible” decision to delay spending cuts until 2011. Britain’s fragile recovery - if indeed that is what it is - would be damaged by “reckless” early cuts or “fiscal consolidation”. Lord Skidelsky, a cross-bench peer, questioned how “foreign creditors will react if implementing fierce spending cuts tips the economy back into recession” - hence endangering the UK’s triple-A rating.
The signatories to the Financial Times letters include two Nobel laureates, Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Solow, and five former members of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee. Their position was immediately supported by another Nobel laureate, Paul Krugman, who commented on the New York Times website that the “crucial thing to understand” is that “fiscal contraction of an additional one or two percent of GDP” represents - when all is said and done - “essentially no significance for the sustainability of government finances, either in Britain or here”.
So David Cameron, flanked by George Osborne and Kenneth Clarke, may have told a City audience over the weekend that massive borrowing had to be tackled by making “difficult decisions” to avert the risk of the country “tipping back into recession” - and that the deficit is a “dark black cloud holding back our economy”. However, he needs to do a lot of convincing in order to win over large sections of economic/fiscal opinion to the idea that the Tories have the right formula to banish that “dark black cloud” hanging over the UK.
Furthermore, as we have discussed before in this paper, there does not seem to be much public appetite for large-scale public spending cuts - something that should seriously worry Cameron, the power-hungry politician, if he is to secure his working majority in the new parliament. Bluntly, there are not too many votes in a ‘slash and burn’ manifesto. Thus a survey for PoliticsHome published on March 3 - yet more gloomy reading for the Tories - showed that their plans to reduce the £178 billion deficit by making early spending cuts were causing jitters, with 40% expressing concern that public services might be cut back “too deeply”. Only 25% said they were worried that the deficit would not be tackled “quickly enough”.
As we have seen, a hung parliament is a very real possibility at the next general election. This, of course, is the dream scenario for the smaller bourgeois parties like Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National Party and most of all the Liberal Democrats, who relish the idea of acting as ‘king-maker’.
Unsurprisingly, the latter are now busily rehearsing various ‘war game’ scenarios that could result from a hung parliament. Indeed, by all accounts, steely-eyed Lib Dems are bunkered down in HQ preparing for various contingencies, using the principles of game theory developed by Nobel prize-winning mathematician John Nash and regularly employed by the likes of the CIA. This technique, where ‘mind trees’ are drawn on whiteboards, has long being championed by Vince Cable - the Lib Dems’ main economic spokesperson - and who for many years deployed such methods when he was chief economist at Shell.
These Lib Dem-extrapolated scenarios include planning for what to do if a minority government dissolves within months and hence there needs to be another, snap general election - which in turn will throw up a whole new set of choices or dilemmas. While there is little enthusiasm amongst many grassroots Lib Dems for working with the Tories in a hung parliament, to put it mildly, the party tops are essentially united in their belief that they must remain equidistant from Labour and the Tories in order to maximise their negotiating hand. And, of course, if that ‘equidistancing’ effectively means that the Tories are handed power, then so be it ...
To this end, Nick Clegg has made statements to the effect that he would not prop up Gordon Brown if the Conservatives won the popular vote but failed to secure an overall majority in parliament. In what was a surprise move to some - though probably not to the LibDems’ discontented ‘Red Guard’ - Clegg told the BBC that it was “an inevitable fact” that the party with the ‘strongest mandate’ - the biggest share of the popular vote - should be allowed to “try and govern”.
Already sounding statesmanlike - does he know something we don’t? - Clegg has attempted to calm the nervous financial markets by ‘promising’ not to use the Liberal Democrats’ possible pivotal position in a hung parliament to plunge Britain back into the maelstrom of another general election. Warming to this theme, Clegg went on to inform the Financial Times that his party would act as the “guarantors of fiscal stability” if the next election did not produce a clear victor. He would endeavour to strike a deal, to offer at least tacit support, to any minority Conservative or Labour government in pursuance of this “stability” - given that, as Clegg said in an interview to the paper, people are “entitled to expect a sensible” and “stable government” at a time when the country is “facing very acute choices”. The Liberal Democrats, he affirmed, will not take any “risk with the creditworthiness of the economy.”
All this points to the grave dangers of a hung parliament - and any minority government, or governments, that might arise from such an eventuality. Of course, many people might well look favourably upon such a stalemate - perhaps feeling that it would help see an end to the yah-boo politics of Westminster. Naturally, communists too find the parliamentary antics and rituals an unedifying spectacle. However, we in the CPGB feel obliged to nail the idea that a hung parliament would be in any way desirable for working class and progressive democratic politics in general.
The plain fact of the matter is that a post-May minority government, if one emerges, will need to do deals if it is to cling on to power - lots of deals, lots of furtive meetings in Westminster corridors, lots of back rooms. But the City, and the ruling class as a whole, might demand - insist - that under such conditions, economic and political, the real job of the parliamentary parties and leaders is to get together under the big umbrella of a national government: a government of ‘national unity’ determined to “balance the books” and get UK plc back on its feet. A stronger nation. In other words, bang heads together and begin savage attacks on the working class - intimations of which, both positive and negative, we have already seen, especially in Greece.
After all, this is hardly alternative-history science fiction - it happened before under the 1931-35 national government of Ramsay MacDonald, who was also very determined to “balance the books” (he proposed a 20% cut in the dole). However, he failed to get his budget balancing measures agreed in cabinet - there was a 12-9 split. MacDonald could though push things through parliament with the assistance of the Tories and Liberals. So, following the resignation of his minority Labour administration in 1931, and under the direct ‘encouragement’ of George V, MacDonald formed a wretched cross-party administration when the main body of the Labour Party refused to cooperate with his anti-working class schemes.
MacDonald’s national government, a government of “all talents” perhaps, was composed of National Labour, the Conservative Party, Liberal Party and Liberal Nationals. As we all know, under this government of ‘national unity’ unemployment was allowed to rocket up, wages were driven down and the Labour Party was politically decimated - taking a decade or more to recover. In short, the national government represented a massive setback for the interests of the working class.
Similarly, any analogous political development - perhaps a Peter Mandelson, Nick Clegg, David Cameron government of all the talents - would signal a deleterious and reactionary realignment of British politics, temporarily shifting the balance of class forces sharply towards the ruling class and the bourgeoisie.
Whatever agreement the parties of the establishment do or do not reach amongst themselves, the left must single-mindedly fight for independent working class politics.
- The Sunday Times February 14.
- Financial Times February 18.
- www.politicshome.com/uk/article/6107/voters_shielding_public_services_more_important_th an_reducing_the_deficit.html
- Financial Times March 2.