Austerity and Resistance: After the ‘ConDem’ Election
Scottish Socialist Youth protest Cameron visit to Edinburgh. Photo: Eddie Truman
The 2010 election saw the UK state enter a new period dominated by the consequences of the capitalist economic crisis. The incoming Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition have made no bones about their intentions to cut public spending to the bone. Kevin McVey looks at what lies ahead and how to build resistance.
It was meant to be the election that would clean out the stables, rid parliament of corruption, greed and careerism. It ushered in a Coalition government that would offer a ‘new politics’ that would break from the tired politics of the past.
In truth, what we have ended up with is another set of parliamentary place seekers and a Con Dem Coalition that has set out its stall as a viciously anti-working class and reactionary government, committed to dismantling the welfare state and making the most vulnerable pay the price for economic crisis and the orgy of greed of the banks.
It was an election campaign that played out like an episode of ‘Britain’s Got No Talent’ as acres of newsprint was devoted to the minutiae of each leader’s performance in the televised debate to disguise the fact that they disagreed on little of any substance. In an election whose backdrop was the most serious economic crisis in decades, the argument focused less on who should pay to clear up the mess than on when working people should start to pay the bills. Amongst all of them there was a dismal consensus that the poor will pay for the economic crimes of the rich and the Con Dem coalition has set about making sure that this is exactly what happens.
This process of the imposition of savage austerity has begun with an almost indecent haste. Within weeks of the election, £6 billion worth of cuts were announced, on the 22nd June amongst the most vicious and unfair Budgets in living memory was proposed and in October the implications of a 25% cut in spending across government departments will be spelled out. With predictions already being made about the loss of over one million jobs, the devastation that will be visited to working class communities across Britain, and how it can be resisted, is what will define this Coalition government.
An extremely significant feature of the election was the parallel but quite different elections that took place in Scotland and other parts of the UK. The most graphic illustration of this was in Labour’s dramatic decrease of the share of the vote to 28% in England, whilst in Scotland their share of the vote increased to 42%. In practical terms this meant that in the number of seats won there was no difference in the distribution of seats from the 2005 General Election. Significantly, however it meant that Labour reclaimed Glasgow East from the SNP and the much anticipated loss of different seats targeted by the other parties never took place, indeed in almost the seats that they held, Labour increased their majority.
Reflecting a trend first identified in the Glasgow North East by-election, this was indicative of the over arching fear that millions felt in Scotland about the return of a Tory government. This was a fear that was mercilessly exploited by Labour who sought to turn the election into a straight forward contest between Cameron and Brown. Playing on the deep seated fear that people feel in Scotland about a re-run of the brutality of the Thatcher years, this became for many the defining issue of the election and people accordingly turned out to vote Labour to stop the Tories.
These votes went to Labour despite there being no real substantive difference between the main parties about the need for savage public spending cuts. Labour’s disagreement centres mainly on the timing of the cuts, not on whether they are necessary or whether the rich should pay for their crisis. A key question for the immediate future is whether the anti-Tory mood will largely be reflected in the continued support for Labour or whether it may become more diffuse as people look elsewhere to see if there are political forces more interested in challenging the Coalition than Labour. One thing that seems fairly certain is that the anti-cuts, anti-Tory, rhetoric of Labour will be stepped up as they seek to continue to position themselves as the only opposition to the brutality of the Coalition government. Prepare for more stark hypocrisy as Labour MP’s and MSP’s speak out vociferously against cuts whilst Labour councils across the country slash services and close schools. Despite this, in the short term, indications are that electorally Labour’s support has increased and may well hold up into the 2011 elections.
This clearly has consequences for the other parties in Scotland. Although the SNP slightly increased their vote, they were damaged by their failure to retain Glasgow East, again failing to consolidate their gains in Labour’s heartland and by falling far short of the twenty seats predicted by Salmond. Carrying only a one seat advantage over Labour into the 2011 Scottish elections they will be fearful of losing their ministerial positions, particularly as there has been a sense of progress being stalled through the difficulties they have encountered in implementing policies like reducing class sizes and scrapping the Council Tax. Their problems will be sharply exacerbated by their position of offering largely verbal opposition to Westminster’s cuts whilst largely concerning themselves with how they can carry them out. They have already committed themselves to no compulsory redundancies and to postponing the cuts until next year in an attempt to distance themselves from the worst of the ‘age of austerity’, but again they will be hampered by the fact that without directly building a movement of resistance to the cuts they will be seen as wielding the axe like the rest of them.
Most contemptible of all has been the role of the Lib Dems. The pretence of being a radical alternative to Labour and the Tories that they tried to trade on in Scotland through their stance against war in Iraq and their claims to support progressive taxation, has been exposed by their shameless courting of power and willingness to provide cover for the Tories, particularly in Scotland. The sight of Danny Alexander, being shepherded about the Scottish parliament by Cameron in the days immediately after the election, perfectly symbolised the perception of the Lib Dems as the Tories junior partners. Through acting like their colonial administrators in Scotland this will mean much of the contempt felt by Scots towards the Tories will rebound to Clegg’s Lib Dems. Attempts to justify their stance by claiming that they’ve shifted their position only after being shocked once they saw the true state of the economy, will only add to people’s disgust and it can only be hoped that this fateful decision is the beginning of the Lib Dems descent into oblivion in Scotland.
For the SSP the election results were in line with expectations. Ranging from 0.5 to 1.5% of the vote this reflects the expected position of the party electorally, particularly when like most of the smaller parties, it was squeezed by the blanket coverage for the three main Westminster parties. However, it was also understood that the primary focus in this election was to challenge the anti-cuts consensus from the left and to develop the party in the areas we stood. Reports from party activists suggest that our focus on making the rich pay for economic crisis was positively received, but people felt that as the chances of SSP candidates winning were negligible then their vote would go to one of the bigger parties. Not unlike in 1997, when we stood as the Scottish Socialist Alliance and were being told that people might agree with some of our arguments but would vote Labour to get rid of the Tories, this time it was similar but it was vote Labour to stop the Tories getting back in. There has been growth as a result of the election and certainly for those directly involved in the campaign a sense that the party has benefited from the experience, through blooding people into campaigns and developing our collective ability to advance the case for socialism.
Clearly however the focus is now on how the party responds to the new political situation and how that situation will allow for the further development of socialist ideas in Scotland. As stated previously, the defining issue that will shape the immediate future of political developments in Scotland is the cuts being pursued by the ConDems. All possible political developments will be shaped by the reaction to these cuts and what forms resistance will take to the myriad of issues presented by the full frontal assault on jobs and services.
One in four people in Scotland are employed in the public sector. That fact alone should cause everyone to stop and consider the potential consequences of the likely cuts of this government. During the election campaign the SSP predicted as many as 100 000 jobs could go as a result of the cuts being threatened. This was derided as scaremongering and an exaggeration by other parties, who all spoke of the need for cuts but were not willing to spell out the consequences to the electorate. Far from being an exaggeration it could be argued that the SSP was being cautious in predicting the scale of the devastation now being planned. Job cuts on this scale will be catastrophic for countless communities around Scotland both in terms of increased unemployment and the damage done to the support structures provided by social services in communities. It is no cliché to speak of a return to the damage done during the nineteen eighties by Thatcher’s systematic destruction of industries like steel and coal and no less than then it requires a massive response from the left in Scotland.
The SSP has already identified building resistance to the cuts as the key political priority for the immediate future. Whether it was immediately initiating anti-Tory protests on the day after the election, through to recent protests around Budget day, SSP members have been involved in beginning to challenge the cuts consensus. Further, we have sought to take the need for building popular resistance into organisations like the STUC through our proposal that they lead an all Scotland, united demonstration against cuts in October. Our approach has been centred on the need for maximum unity in communities and workplaces against the onslaught of the Coalition. It is apparent that many see the need for a united campaign against the cuts, but workers need to build confidence in the face of a cuts programme that is unprecedented in recent memory.
An important part of that process of building confidence is action being taken to resist cuts, but alongside that is the urgent need for a battle of ideas that will challenge the political hegemony which states that there is no alternative to the need for cuts. On a daily basis, the bombardment continues that the only option to solving economic crisis is austerity as people are softened up to quietly accept their fate. Accordingly, it is important that an alternative is elaborated to undermine this agenda and an alternative future is spelt out. For this reason, the SSP has produced an ‘Alternative Budget’ that offers an different narrative that is about developing an economy that puts the collective well being of society at its core through emphasising sustainability and provision of genuine need before profit. By explaining how measures of wealth re-distribution and pursuing a fairer tax regime can pay off the debt, it posits a completely different future than a re-run of increased youth unemployment and inequality. This idea of developing an alternative is central, as the battle against cuts will be played out in people’s heads as much as in the streets and through protests.
Another element in the attempted imposition of these cuts is the fact that it is being carried out by a government with no real mandate in Scotland. 85% of Scots voted for parties other than the Tories and a fair percentage of these votes will have been quite deliberately cast in different areas of the country precisely with the idea of keeping the Tories out of power. The Lib Dems offer little by way of credibility to the coalition after coming third in the popular vote. Indeed their position will be even further undermined by effectively being the Coalition’s representatives in Scotland, strengthening the perception of them as the Tories little helpers and hence worthy only of contempt.
This raises various questions around the prospects for support for independence growing and whether this will see any developments of a broader movement for independence in the next few years. Support for independence has fluctuated over the last few years with a settled support of at least one third of the population. Debate around independence has been defined by the polarisation between Labour and SNP, with the focus on constitutional issues, largely ignoring the wider social questions of what type of independent Scotland people would wish to see. Indeed, much of the debate around the SNP’s referendum proposal seems to be more about political positioning for the 2011 elections than any real attempt to create any mass movement around the demand for independence. Questions are raised now about how that process may change as the question of the democratic legitimacy of the scorched earth policy of the Coalition government to Scotland’s public services raises pressing questions, not only about the Union, but also about how the devolved structures in Scotland become implicated in imposing cuts without attempting to develop any popular resistance against them.
The 2010 election has ushered in a changed political situation that will be defined by the disastrous situation that capitalism has placed society in. The precise processes around how opposition to cuts will be manifested and how that will shape the political landscape in Scotland are difficult to predict. However for the left in Scotland the need has never been greater to now elaborate a coherent and creditable alternative to ‘cuts are the only option’ position of the free market political parties. Alongside this battle of ideas there has to be the battles involved in building a viable resistance that will convince people that the Coalition juggernaut need not simply steamroll its austerity agenda through. The vital experience accumulated by the SSP over the last 10 years can be an invaluable part of the process of building the kind of mass resistance in Scotland that created the anti-poll tax movement. It was that movement that was ultimately so critical in stopping Thatcher and paving the way for her downfall. A similar scale of movement will be required and the task that now urgently confronts socialists in Scotland is to be at heart of building it.