An enemy that should be treated seriously

Many comrades insist that the Con-Lib Dem government is a coalition of 'profound weakness and division' that will be easy to beat and thus almost automatically lead to advances by the left. Eddie Ford believes that this approach is complacent and profoundly mistaken

We in the CPGB have warned that a hung parliament, which for months looked the most likely outcome of the election, contained grave dangers for the working class. Far from being a sure sign of bourgeois weakness, it could represent an opportunity for the ruling class to form an ‘emergency government’ of all the bourgeois talents - or at least many of them.

Which is exactly what we got in the shape of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition. You could even argue, to push the point, that the Cleggameron government has some of the feel of a ‘national unity’ government about it - now that Frank ‘Doctor Death’ Field has become David Cameron’s “poverty tsar” - an appropriate term for Field, given his consistent history of extreme rightwing views (in Labourite terms).

Yet large sections of the non-Labour left, in the run-up to the May 6 election, told us that a hung parliament would actually favour the working class, that to one degree or another it would throw the ruling class into “crisis” and deal a strong hand to the left. Perhaps even enable us to deliver a fatal knock-out blow to the newly formed government itself, and thus create even more problems for the bourgeoisie. Revolution surely beckons.

Obviously, these were always fantasies - the ‘optimism’ of dogmatic fools. But, quite incredibly, we are still hearing the same nonsense now, despite the brutal, in-your-face fact that the non-Labour or far left was virtually wiped off the electoral map - the results could not have been more pathetic. Far from facing a weak and divided government, as dreamed about by the left, we are now facing a confident - almost cocksure - government committed to savage cuts and all-round attacks on the working class movement. British Airways workers can vouch for that.

However, in the topsy-turvy world of the Micawber-like revolutionary left, something will always turn up. There can only be one glorious advance after another. Well, those whom the gods wish to destroy ...

Let us start with the Socialist Party in England and Wales. Of course, our indefatigable SPEW comrades want us to believe that the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition ran an “excellent campaign” and received “enthusiastic support” - 0.7% of the vote, in fact.[1] And naturally we are still eagerly awaiting Tusc’s official verdict and analysis of the election results. No hurry, comrades, no hurry.

Nothing seems to have changed in the SPEW cosmos, electoral humiliation or not. Failure or otherwise. Indeed, it seems to be more or less business as usual. Hence party boss Peter Taaffe - in a myopic piece written after May 6 but before the formation of the new coalition government - informed us that the “disorderly outcome” to the election, which is supposedly how “all” the main party leaders and big business see it, has “torpedoed” the bourgeoisie’s “wish for a ‘stable government’ that could proceed quickly to slash the government deficit” and generally attack the living standards of the masses.[2]

Subsequently it fell to comrade Taaffe’s loyal lieutenant, Hannah Sell, to correct her master’s badly misjudged argument. After all, not only do we have the Con-Lib Dem coalition, but the government of Cameron and Clegg looks stable, at least in the short term; and, equally to the point, it is committed to introducing immediate cuts. Comrade Sell quite rightly points out that this is bound to provoke resistance. Here is the silver lining to the attack on living standards and democratic right. Thus the comrade tells us that “we will see mass movements of the working class in opposition to the cuts” and that “such movements can force even strong governments to retreat” - which is true, of course.[3]

It might also be true that the “profound weakness and division of this ‘government of losers’ will be revealed” in the very near future. She writes: “Despite all the efforts of Clegg and Cameron to create a stable government, this weak and rickety coalition is likely to shatter under the pressure of events at a certain point, probably in response to mass movements of the working class.”

But coalition governments are not necessarily weak. They can successfully attack the working class and inflict defeats. Historically we have the example of the 1931 national government headed first by the Labour turncoat Ramsay MacDonald and then the Tory, Stanley Baldwin. Despite fierce opposition, it imposed swingeing cuts and presided over soaring unemployment.  The working class fought back painfully and very slowly. It was only the economic upturn associated with preparations for World War II that revived trade union strength.

From a bourgeois point of view the outcome of May 6 was not that bad. Not as bad as comrade Taaffe imagined, that is for sure. The Con-Lib Dem coalition is certainly stronger than a minority Tory government would have been (or even a Tory government with a small majority). A Labour-led rainbow coalition would have been extraordinarily weak from a bourgeois point of view … and that is why it was never really a starter.

As is well known, at least to readers of the Weekly Worker, comrade John Rees, the cardigan-clad former Socialist Workers Party firebrand - well, on a good day - also recommended the virtues of a hung parliament. His April 22 Counterfire article, in the words of the strap-line, “argues that a hung parliament could be an opportunity for the left because it will alter the balance between parliamentary and extra-parliamentary politics”. Helpfully, his article was illustrated with a picture of a slightly anxious-looking David Cameron next to a menacing hangman’s rope.[4]

Comrade Rees asked: “... would a cobbled together coalition or a government with a small majority be bad for the left?” He notes that the establishment “now faces a level of popular discontent not seen since the 1970s” and speculates that “perhaps extra-parliamentary politics will carry more weight under a weak government” - it is hard to see a government with such a slim parliamentary majority “withstanding a mass movement outside parliament in the way in which Tony Blair’s massive majority protected him from the mass movement against the Iraq war”.

His conclusion, then, is that a “weak government may alter the balance between parliamentary government and extra-parliamentary action to the benefit of the latter” - that is, the left “could benefit from this fact”. Sadly, the comrade’s hopes have been cruelly dashed already - as have those of his Counterfire colleague and fellow ex-SWP leader Lindsey German, who ventured the thought that the “cobbled together coalition” has “little legitimacy”.[5] Well, comrade German, tell that to the ruling class or the establishment - they seem quite happy with it, and why shouldn’t they be? The Cameron-Clegg coalition  has an agreed programme of cuts and can survive till the point where 84 right wing Tory MPs abstain, or 41 Lib Dems vote with the opposition - which, to put it mildly, is unlikely to happen. So this looks like it could be a full-term government. In purely parliamentary terms the Con-Lib Dem government is strong, and though the Lib Dems could be in for a drubbing in 2015, there is no reason to believe that the Tories could not emerge with a clear majority of MPs if faced with a left-moving Labour Party.

As for the SWP, though more realistic than the Counterfire comrades, it too seems unable to fully confront the truth head on. So we read in Socialist Worker online that the ruling class “wanted a stable and strong government to ram through their austerity measures” - but “even now they have not got one”.[6] Rather the new government is “very nasty, but also very weak” - which “means we can beat it”.[7] Once again, the optimism is to be commended. But there is no sense of urgency that the left needs to radically reorganise if we are to beat the Cleggameron government.

Most of the left are equally complacent. The government is weak - and, after Cleggameronism, us. Stuart King, in his usual inimitable way, said as much on the Permanent Revolution website. Comrade King insisted that the election result “places the ruling class in a real hole”. Why? Because they needed a “firm majority government” in order to “push through the swingeing attacks on the working class necessary to reassure the international capitalist markets”. Instead the “schema is blown up” - smashed to smithereens. So now, according to the comrade, we have entered a “period of instability and weak minority governments”, which is a “much better outcome for the working class than a stable anti-working class coalition”. In a rousing finale, comrade King declared that “with a bit of luck we could be moving into a period of ruling class crisis”.[8]

Permanent Revolution’s parent, Workers Power, repeated the mantra. Thus we read: “There is a tremendous opportunity provided by the current situation, because of the political instability inherent in coalition rule and because the Tories lack any credible popular mandate for their austerity programme”.[9]

But these comrades too are fooling themselves. There is nothing to indicate that political instability or crisis is “inherent” to coalition governments - let alone the actual Cameron-Clegg government that stands before us. Equally dubious is the notion that the new government lacks any “credible” mandate for its policies and programme. Unfortunate though it is, the constant, propagandising stream of commentary about acting in the ‘national interest’ does have a certain popularity - if only on the level of ‘Why don’t you stop squabbling like schoolchildren and muck in together?’ It is a common enough sentiment. In fact there is a danger that the first tranche of cuts could receive a definite level of support from the population.

Then we have the Labour entrists of the Grantite Socialist Appeal, the British section of the International Marxist Tendency. Once again we discover that the election produced “precisely the opposite of what the ruling class wanted”. Did it, comrades? Yes, the “ruling class was quite clear what it wanted and needed”, but it did not get it and now there is a “crisis”.[10]

Of course, communists would be the very last to deny that the world capitalist system as a whole is currently in deep crisis - as the Weekly Worker has extensively catalogued. And, yes, from a strictly electoral stance, none of the bourgeois parties won the general election: rather they all lost. But politically and ideologically the bourgeoisie and the establishment in Britain is very much in the driving seat. Self-evidently, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition could last for some time and appears to be exactly what it says on the tin - a strong and relatively stable government of the bourgeoisie. Rather it is the left that is in crisis - but it is currently in a state of denial about this all too obvious fact.

Now, it almost goes without saying that communists seek to take advantage of all the splits and divisions within the ruling class - hence the CPGB’s insistence on studying and mastering high politics. But in order to make the left - both within and outside the Labour Party - into a real force that can manoeuvre and follow a plan that culminates in a working class government, we need to begin by looking at what is and stop dishing out leftist snake-oil, let alone rely on “luck”. The working class will start to make its own luck once its advanced elements unite in a Marxist party.


  1. Statement, May 7: www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/9498/07-05-2010/election-results-tusc-stands-for-socialism-prepares-for-battles-ahead
  2. www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/9499/07-05-2010/electoral-deadlock-all-capitalist-parties-losers
  3. www.socialistparty.org.uk/latest/9537/14-05-2010/time-for-the-fight-of-our-lives
  4. www.counterfire.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=4718&Itemid=54
  5. www.counterfire.org/index.php/features/131/5162
  6. www.swp.org.uk/after-elections-what-do-socialists-say
  7. www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=21269
  8. www.permanentrevolution.net/entry/3033
  9. www.workerspower.com/index.php?id=212,2375,0,0,1,0
  10. www.marxist.com/britain-after-election-crisis-and-tasks-of-labour.htm