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Cracks grow in Con-Dem coalition
National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) on the May Day 2011 in central London, photo Paul Mattsson (Click to enlarge)
From the start the Con-Dem government has been weak. The Tories were forced into a coalition because they could not win a mandate for massive cuts in public spending. With the biggest drop in family income since 1977, and the cuts starting to bite, the unpopularity of the government has grown dramatically. As a result, the cracks in the coalition are widening.
Like rats in a trap, the Liberal Democrats are spitting invective at their coalition partners. Nick Clegg has accused David Cameron of being a 'liar' and part of a 'right-wing clique'. Lib Dem energy minister Chris Huhne has threatened legal action against chancellor George Osborne for his claim that the Alternative Vote (AV) would require expensive voting machines.
Clegg and Co are kicking out in frustration because they are facing electoral disaster at the local government elections and in the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections on 5 May as ex-Lib Dem voters punish them for joining the hated Con-Dem government.
If, as is likely, the Lib Dems also lose the AV referendum, the growing pressure on the leadership of the party from its rank and file could become intolerable. It is not excluded that Clegg could be removed as leader of the party or that the party could split. As a result of that growing pressure Clegg has already had to promise that his party will be more "independent of the Conservatives after the referendum".
But what would this mean in practice? If the Liberal Democrats attempted to seriously oppose their coalition partners on any major issue, the government could become unworkable and a general election could be on the cards before the end of the year. If, on the other hand, Clegg and the rest continue to sign up to huge cuts in public services and workers' living conditions, the party is guaranteeing its own demise. Against this background, the claim by both Clegg and Cameron that the coalition will return to 'business as usual' after the election will be difficult to achieve.
Even if the 'yes to AV' campaign manages to scrape a victory by convincing Labour voters that voting 'yes' will damage the Tories, there will also be problems for the coalition government as right-wing Tory backbenchers would attempt to sabotage the introduction of AV.
Anger against cuts
AV is the issue around which the cracks in the coalition show most clearly, but the root cause is the growing movement against the cuts. The effects of the gigantic trade union demonstration against cuts on 26 March are continuing to be felt.
The demonstration will be followed by coordinated strike action at the end of June by some public sector unions, including the PCS civil servants' union and teachers' unions NUT and the ATL. Even the head teachers' union, NAHT, is threatening strike action.
Pressure is growing on the leaders of other trade unions to take part in a 24-hour public sector general strike. Regional demonstrations will give other workers a chance to show their opposition to cuts and support for strike action.
For millions of working class - and many middle class - voters the election is their first chance to punish the Con-Dems at the ballot box. There is no question that Labour will be the main beneficiaries of this trend. However, this does not reflect enthusiasm for the policies that Labour puts forward, but rather a hope that it is 'not as bad' as the Con-Dems.
In reality, Ed Miliband et al are also fully in support of massive cuts in public services, albeit at a slightly slower pace than the Tories. At local level Labour councils have voted through cuts just as large as those carried out by Liberal and Tory councils. Many of the government's policies - including increasing tuition fees and the destruction of the NHS - are a continuation of those carried out by Labour governments.
If, as is possible, New Labour is thrown back into government within months, it - like the ex-social democratic governments of Spain and Greece - will attempt to carry out the will of the markets, of capitalism, and savage public services. They would, however, face massive and determined resistance. No doubt the leadership of New Labour dread such a prospect and are hoping that the Con-Dems will last a few more years.
To stop the cuts a mass working class struggle is needed, starting with coordinated public sector strike action. The National Shop Stewards Network conference on 11 June (see page 6) will discuss how to develop the struggle against cuts. However, it is also crucial that the working class begins to build a party which stands in its own interests.
The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition challenge in the local elections and the Welsh Assembly elections, along with Coalition Against Cuts in Scotland, are steps in the direction of such a party.
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