Barely a week into the “new politics” coalition and it is revealing its old, ugly colours.
Alongside plans to create 100 new peers for the unelected House of Lords are proposals to restrict Parliament’s ability to hold governments to account.
The Lib-Cons are proposing to destroy its ability to remove a failing government, increasing the majority needed in a vote of confidence to 55 per cent.
So the government could lose the support of a majority in Parliament - and yet still remain in office.
And now George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, wants to break the elected government’s powers to set its own budgets.
He is setting up a new ‘Office for Budget Responsibility’ to oversee the government’s tax and spending plans.
This will, he says, offer advice to the Chancellor on the government’s finances. It will provide forecasts for future economic growth.
But it will also hold the Chancellor to account if he or she steps outside its ‘fiscal framework’.
Osborne claims it will provide an ‘independent audit’ of the ‘national balance sheet’ during the Chancellor’s Budget, checking the sums add up.
This is rotten nonsense. There is no such thing as an ‘independent audit’ of the ‘national balance sheet’. Economics is all about value judgements, even if economists often try and pretend otherwise.
‘No taxation without representation’
Decisions about taxing and spending are inherently political. Who and what we tax, and how government spends its money, are hugely contentious matters.
Do we tax the rich, or do we raise VAT? Do we close hospitals, or fund Trident?
It’s hard to imagine decisions more political than this. People have fought and died for the right to have those decisions made democratically.
An outside body should not be supervising those choices. Osborne’s tawdry scheme is an attack on our democratic rights.
‘No taxation without representation’ was the battle-cry of the American Revolution. The rebels were absolutely right to raise it.
Hiding from the electorate
Osborne has an ulterior motive. He wants to cut public services to pay for debts arising from the bankers’ crisis.
He knows this will be unpopular, so he wants to hide his decisions behind the Office for Budget Responsibility. Supposedly ‘neutral’ economists will be lined up, demanding the rest of us suffer to fund fat City bonuses.
The OBR will be headed by Sir Alan Budd, former head of the banker-friendly Monetary Policy Committee at the Bank of England. He will be joined by Geoffrey Dicks, former chief UK economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland. The Office’s sole criterion for judging economic policy will be whether the national debt is being repaid quickly.
In other words, the OBR will be bankers judging Budgets by the bankers’ standard. It won’t care about the misery public spending cuts create.
Choosing to pay bankers instead of public sector workers is a political decision. It should be made democratically, with an elected government taking responsibility for it.
The Chancellor, like the government, should be accountable to the electorate - not to an unelected gaggle of economists.
An anti-democratic coalition
But this coalition is anti-democratic to its core. It wormed its way into power in a backroom deal.
No-one voted for this lash-up. The Tories, despite New Labour’s 13-year record, failed to achieve a majority in Parliament. The Lib Dems lost seats.
Now hardline Tory voters won’t like hanging around with wishy-washy Lib Dems.
And tens of thousands of Lib Dems supporters are absolutely horrified at seeing their votes used to prop up a Tory government. Lib Dems are already recording a slump in their opinion poll ratings.
Neither of the old opposition parties won this election because both are committed to making ordinary people pay for the bankers’ crisis.
That’s what cutting public spending to pay the national debt means. By cutting public spending, we can pay for the massive costs of the bank bailout, and so keep the City of London happy.
Credible estimates suggest a further £67bn of spending cuts will be needed, a bigger squeeze than at any time since the war. These are not just ‘cuts’. Whole chunks of the welfare state could be amputated. That’s what the Lib-Cons promise us.
But millions of people in Britain don’t see the world like this. They believe that a welfare state is part of a humane society. For decades, the annual British Social Attitudes survey has shown mass, popular support for the NHS, free education, and redistribution of wealth.
Thatcher and Major could not break that firm belief. Blair and Brown did not. Neither Tory nor Lib Dems managed it in this election.
That commitment to the welfare state is now an obstacle to their plans. It could easily turn into mass opposition to spending cuts.
Greece shows the way
So instead of trying to win a political argument about cuts, the Lib-Cons are manoeuvring to exclude the rest of us from influence. Parliament is being deprived of its historic rights, and government trying to hide from accountability.
If Parliament cannot represent the people, the streets will take its place. Greece has shown the way. Protests and strikes there are resisting a massive programme of spending cuts being forced on ordinary Greeks by the International Monetary Fund and the EU. A huge political crisis has been created.
We must show our solidarity with the people of Greece. But we must also prepare to defend jobs and public services here.
CAN’T PAY WON’T PAY
Wednesday 26 May
7pm Conway Hall Red Lion Sq
Tony Benn • Caroline Lucas MP
• Christos Giovanopoulos coalition of the Radical Left SYRIZA • Aris Vasilopoulos SYRIZA • Penny White BASSA • Paul Mackney fmr general secretary NATFHE • Clare Solomon president-elect, University of London Union • John Rees Counterfire • Michael Bradley Right to Work Campaign
Radical economist James Meadway has been an important critic of austerity economics and at the forefront of efforts to promulgate an alternative. James is co-author of Crisis in the Eurozone (2012) and Marx for Today (2014).