Is the coalition government tearing itself apart? Alex Snowdon examines its latest crisis and argues for mass action to crack the coalition.
Is the current unstable government doomed to collapse before the general election scheduled for 2015? Many people certainly think so. A new opinion poll shows that only 16% of those polled think it will make it to the scheduled general election intact.
David Cameron hoped for an Olympic bounce. It hasn't happened. Boris Johnson is the only Tory who appears to have been boosted by the Games - something that surely won't last long - adding to speculation about him being a possible sometime challenger for the leadership of the Tory party. That is not what Cameron wanted.
Tensions in the coalition
The Olympics were punctuated - on Monday 6 August - by the news that the coalition would have to abandon both reform of the House of Lords and proposed changes to constituency boundaries. This may appear trivial - Lords reform is hardly the NHS, is it? - but it is very significant. Tim Montgomerie, editor of Conservative Home website, claimed it was the worst single event for the Tories since Black Wednesday in 1992.
Is that an exaggeration? Actually he might just be right. The boundary changes – reducing the number of Commons seats to 600 - would have improved the Tories' chances of winning seats at the next general election. Scrapping them is bad news for them. But it's more than that: the apparent collapse of these plans indicates a new low in relations between Tories and Liberal Democrats. It also increases the turmoil on the Tory backbenches in the here and now - it's not just about what will or won't happen in 2015.
Tory backbenchers were indignant about plans to reform the House of Lords so it would have at least a semblance of democracy. Scuppering those plans infuriated Lib Dems, who have spent over two years repeatedly caving in to the Tories. So they retaliated by withdrawing support for boundary changes.
This doesn't make any of them look good. Nick Clegg’s party might have earned respect for taking a stand over student fees or the NHS, but Lords reform? It's hardly the burning issue for voters suffering from cuts, growing unemployment, pay restraint and rising inflation. Tory backbenchers are unable to grasp that their pet subjects - gay marriage is another one - are not the things that animate most people they hope to win over.
The Tory leadership looks weak because they can't contain their own backbench MPs. Boris Johnson is, however preposterous it may seem, acting as a rallying point for the disaffected. And all of this appears to be happening in a Westminster bubble, drifting free from the concerns of those who MPs are supposed to represent.
We should also pause to note that the Tories have a grossly inflated view of their electoral chances anyway. To form a majority government in 2015 they would need to increase their support on their 2010 results. Every indicator suggests they have lost support and are unlikely - considering the impact of austerity and lack of an economic recovery in sight - to regain it. It is unlikely they will even be in a position to form another Tory-led coalition next time around, whether that's in 2015 or sooner.
The Tories still aren’t reconciled to the fact they didn’t win the last general election. Having failed to achieve a majority they had to accept governing in coalition, but tend to see their junior partners as an unwanted nuisance. The more hard-right elements constantly bemoan the Lib Dems’ moderating influence, something which must have passed the rest of us by.
It is also absurd for them to promote Johnson as an alternative. As mayor of London until 2016, it is stretching credibility that he could challenge for the leadership before a general election, but it’s tenuous even to suggest he could do so immediately after that. This promotion of Johnson has developed partly because there are no other serious alternatives to Cameron – the other name sometimes floated is Michael Gove, which tells us something about Tory MPs’ grasp of political reality.
Austerity isn’t working
There has also been the lowering of growth forecasts by the Bank of England and reports of rising inflation, both of them indicators of the economic trough we're in. There is polling evidence that a growing number of people blame this government and regard austerity as a failure, seeking a 'Plan B' involving job creation and investment.
The Tories have also suffered declines in both membership and income, with many millionaire donors apparently deserting them. As for the coalition's junior partners, nothing seems to be going the Liberal Democrats' way. It was recently reported that their membership fell by a quarter during 2011, thought to be an unprecedented decline in a single year for a mainstream party.
So their side is a mess: ill-disciplined and fighting each other; losing votes, money and members; increasingly blamed for the gloomy economic outlook; and failing to capitalise on a widely popular Olympic Games. But, despite all that, they need each other and will cling on for dear life. An early election would benefit neither coalition party. The only thing that allows them to keep imposing cuts is the weakness of the opposition.
This is where we come in. Ed Miliband will continue to be mostly ineffectual. We can't rely on him and the official Opposition to mount effective opposition to cuts and privatisation. The key determinant is extra-parliamentary action: our power is on the streets and in the workplaces.
The TUC's national anti-cuts demonstration on 20 October can be even bigger than the demo on 26 March 2011, which drew half a million people. It will be confronting a government that is weaker - more fractious, discredited and despised - than last March. A massive turnout can further damage the coalition.
It is, however, unlikely to be a killer blow. We will need sustained action - local protests, co-ordinated strikes, further national mobilisations - to build on the demonstration and amplify its voice. We have to constantly champion the alternative to austerity: create jobs, tax the rich, democratise the banks. We will need to strengthen the links with those fighting austerity across Europe and lay the ground for co-ordinated mobilisations.
Their side is weak. It is time for our side to use its strength.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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