Friday, 17 December 2010


Honeymoon of Conservative-Lib Dem coalition ends in protests

There are times when politics appears to be in suspended animation for years on end, and then there are years when developments tumble over each other in rapid succession. The last 12 months in Britain have been one of those periods of accelerated change, as the election has changed the political hue of the country decisively, the party system has been upended, a new political generation has taken centre stage and reputations have risen and fallen with dizzying speed.

In the space of barely six months, we have seen the end of New Labour and the Blair-Brown era, officially pronounced dead by the party's new leader; the first peacetime coalition government since the 1930s; the imposition of the most drastic spending cuts for 90 years; the dramatic rise and fall in the popularity of Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats; and the return of mass student protest to cities and campuses across the country.

It is less than a year since a beleaguered Gordon Brown saw off the last of the comic-opera Blairite coup attempts, but only at the price of concessions to a cuts agenda that suited David Cameron and stalled Labour's poll recovery. Brown's government had been forced by the economic maelstrom of 2008 to move away from New Labour's neoliberalism towards more recognisably social-democratic policies of Keynesian intervention and progressive taxation. But, hobbled by his own record and weaknesses, Brown was unable to turn that shift into a new political narrative, and it was too little, too late to win back the millions of voters who had kept Labour in government from 1997.

Come the May 2010 election, what was remarkable was the signal failure of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to capitalise on that weakness. Despite outspending Labour by two to one, with the media overwhelmingly behind them, a surge of TV debate-driven support for Clegg, an unpopular prime minister and falling living standards, Cameron only managed to win 36% of the vote and the Lib Dems actually lost seats.

Fear of a Conservative government committed to slashing the deficit ahead of economic recovery delivered a last-minute Labour rally and the first hung parliament for a generation. But it was the sure-footed repositioning of Cameron and Clegg that turned their setback into a revival of coalition government after 65 years, underpinned by a comprehensive programme agreed with startling alacrity.

For the Tory leader, the coalition was a masterstroke, marginalising internal opposition to his own brand of liberal conservatism, while entrenching a Conservative-dominated government despite the lack of an electoral mandate. On the Liberal Democrat side, the signals had been clear for some time that the "Orange Book" neoliberal group around Clegg – in contrast with Lib Dem members and voters – had much in common with the free-market, socially liberal Cameron Conservatives.

It may have been a government of multimillionaires, with rightwingers such as George Osborne and William Hague in pole position, and the Lib Dems may have had to stage a bonfire of commitments, from rejection of early cuts to opposition to tuition fee increases, to square the circle, but in the honeyed days of May, the coalition could be seen as something genuinely different. Large sections of the public warmed to the novelty of politicians of different parties working together.

By the time of Osborne's emergency June budget, however, it was already clear that the Tory leadership was determined to use the deficit to advance the Thatcherite goal of shrinking the state – and that the poorest section of the population would shoulder the heaviest burden, despite ministers' insistence that "we're all in this together". That was rammed home in the spending review in October, which unveiled average 19% real-terms departmental cuts, with welfare benefits facing the largest share of a $109.5bn deflationary squeeze.

They were to be combined with a radical acceleration in the privatisation of public services, education and health, going far beyond Thatcher – or, in some cases, the coalition agreement drawn up only a few months earlier. Meanwhile, as Cameron pledged to keep British troops in Afghanistan until at least 2015 after the bloodiest year of the war yet, the prospect of economic stagnation – or worse – grew.

By the autumn, the coalition's honeymoon was over and the political landscape had already been recast. The Conservative lead over Labour had evaporated, Lib Dem support as good as halved and public opinion hardened against the speed, depth and economic danger of government cuts. The Trades Union Congress found a new sense of purpose as unions prepared to make common cause with community and user groups to resist attacks on jobs, living standards and services. And the shifting political tide helped propel Ed Miliband into the Labour leadership on the back of a growing rejection of market orthodoxy and social authoritarianism of New Labour.

In the closing weeks of the year, the decision to cut higher education funding by 80% and treble tuition fees translated into the first real backlash on the streets against the government. Resistance to a programme for which there is no accepted mandate and pressure on the government to change course seem certain to grow. To be effective, this opposition will also need a clear political focus and alternative, at a time when New Labour nostalgics are still acting as a brake on Miliband's leadership. But it is the economy that is likely to be decisive: if growth stalls or even goes into reverse in 2011, the government will pay a heavy political price.

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