Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Worst. Election. Ever.

The 2010 general election will result in a victory for the nasty party, whoever wins. All three major parties, having supported the mammoth bank bailouts, stand for the deepest cuts in the public sector for over 50 years, far outstripping anything accomplished by Thatcher. Outdoing Thatcher in the cuts stakes is, in case the point passed you by, as nasty as can be. The chancellors' debate - which, underscoring the poverty of alternatives, was won by the drab former Shell economist Vincent Cable - reinforced this quite starkly. There is only a difference of emphasis and timing between the parties, and these differences all sound eminently reasonable and plausible within the terms of the discussion - but they are largely technocratic differences with policy flavours attached. And even if New Labour pretends to be protecting frontline services, the fact is that it is already driving cuts through the education sector. It is continuing its savage cuts in the civil service. Health departments are already budgeting for big cuts. For example, the London NHS Trust is conducting secret meetings behind locked doors, in which no notes are taken, in order to plan approximately £5bn in cuts. And that's just one city. Already, cutbacks in other areas, such as maternity wards and A&E departments in the north-east are causing difficulties for sitting Labour MPs - Gordon Prentice, the left-wing Burnley MP, is having to fight his own government over the closure of an A&E department in Burnley. To which the other parties say, amen, and faster, please!

The narrowness of the choice between the major parties is underscored by the scramble by both New Labour and the Tories to prove that their plans are the best for businesses. Mark New Labour's pain on discovering that dozens of capitalists (69 individually so far, plus all the employers' lobby groups) are swinging behind the Tories. The issue at stake is rather pitiful. New Labour plans to raise National Insurance contributions, which the Tories and the employers (and, in Scotland, the SNP) say is a tax on jobs. There is a distinct whiff of hypocrisy about employers who are always happy to cut staff for the sake of increased profits now complaining that a modest tax on profits (and earnings) will cause them to hire fewer people. Nonetheless, the Tories' pledge-of-the-week is to reverse this, and - sotto voce - cut spending in its stead. The total amount affected by this is £6bn per annum. It's not an insignificant sum, roughly equivalent to Job Seekers' Allowance for 1.5m people (that's £4k per annum per person for those over 25, in case you were wondering). But the government is in deficit to the tune of £167bn. It intends to cut spending over the next four or five years to reduce the deficit from 12.6% of GDP to 4% of GDP, which will mean cuts of up to a quarter in some departments. If the economy stops growing or falls into negative growth again, the deficit will expand and, with it, the cuts and/or tax rises deemed necessary to pay off the deficit. That £6bn is a relatively small amount of the money that will have to be found to pay off the holders of bonds and gilts, with interest, whether by means of taxes or spending cuts.

Consider the controversy in light of another fact. Since June 2009, national income has grown by £27bn. Of that, £24bn went to profits, and only £2bn to labour (the rest, presumably, went to taxes and other costs). That is, approximately 89% of all new income produced went straight into the pockets of capital. This has been possible in part because of the way the recession put organised labour on the back foot, undermining collective resistance to wage cuts, and making individual resistance - in the form of, say, seeking new employers on better terms - effectively impossible. But that in turn is due to a large extent to the accumulated outcomes of previous class struggles, in which the working class has not yet overturned the legacy of defeats in the 1980s. In the US, reflecting a graver situation for the working class organisation, matters are even worse: national income rose by $200bn, but profits rose by $280bn - meaning that an extra $80bn came out of workers' wages. The economic recovery, fragile though it is, has been bought at the expense of a massive attack on working class living standards.

This class offensive by the rich is hardly a trival matter. Nor is the fact that the Anglophone centre-left, led by Obama and Brown, have presided over the most socially unjust economic recovery in modern history. Yet it will not be an issue in this election - except in the sense that the hitherto disaggregated acts of resistance to this attack, whether at BA or Network Rail, will not fail to generate gasps of affronted respectability from the party leaders. It falls to the fractious forces of the Left to raise the matter, but the Left's resources, electorally, are divided. This is not a terrain on which we can expect big returns. Respect has some solid pockets of strength, and I wish them well, but I do not anticipate that they will pull off the hat trick of victories that they aim at. The Greens have a solid chance in Brighton, but they have to overcome a gap of some 6,000 votes between themselves and New Labour. TUSC is an experimental alliance involving the SWP, the Socialist Party and trade unionists, and it is not going to win any seats - though it does have the advantage of putting support for trade unions and opposition to the cuts at the forefront of its campaigning. So, what is looking increasingly likely is either a Tory administration, or a de facto national government with little support and less enthusiasm, with at best some limited signs of left-wing dissent and at worst new strongholds for the far right.

This election, then, could hardly be less inspiring. At most, it punctuates the processes leading toward a ferocious class conflict, accentuating one or other facet of it, handing the advantage briefly to one or other force. But of itself, it is hard to see democracy's summit, the conscientious register of public opinion on all vital matters, in this emaciated ritual.