By Mark L Thomas
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 359

Fracture lines

This article is over 10 years, 7 months old
The outcome of the elections in early May has deepened the fracture lines inside the government Coalition.
Issue 359

The big losers in the elections were the Liberal Democrats. Their base in big city councils built up over the last two decades by posing to the left of Labour, were sharply eroded as Labour revived.

And the referendum on the Alternative Voting (AV) system went down to a comprehensive defeat. The Lib Dems were particularly bitter that David Cameron reneged on his agreement to take a back seat in the referendum campaign. Instead he chose to appease the Tory right, leading the arguments in favour of the current system and mobilising funding from Tory backers for the No campaign. Opposition to AV also helped boost the Tory turnout on 5 May – though at roughly 35 percent it still offers little prospect for forming a majority government.

The Coalition is likely to continue, but the rows look set to worsen as the Lib Dems desperately try to reassert their “progressive” image. The move by Tory health secretary Andrew Lansley to accelerate the free market transformation of the NHS has become a key flashpoint. Despite originally signing up the plans, Nick Clegg pointedly told a meeting of Lib Dem MPs, “People get confused when, one day, they hear politicians declare that they love the NHS, and the next they hear people describing themselves as government advisers saying that reform is a huge opportunity for healthcare corporations to make big profits.”

That animosity is matched by the Tories, especially those on the right. A meeting of backbench Tory MPs cheered beleaguered health secretary Andrew Lansley to the rafters, with one Tory MP describing the Lib Dems as “yellow bastards”.

The government looks weak and this can serve to boost confidence that a fightback is possible.

One sign of this is that Labour took back a swathe of councils as people looked to the party to provide some defence against cuts – though it gained less than the 1,000 council seats many had anticipated. And results in Scotland were a disaster for Labour.

This has left Ed Miliband looking unconvincing and his party remains uncertain about how to position itself towards the cuts. Labour’s weakness and tensions in turn have an impact on the debate inside the unions about how to resist the cuts.

On the platform in Hyde Park on 26 March the key argument from the trade union leaders was between those – such as Unison’s Dave Prentis and Paul Kenny of the GMB – who looked to voting Labour as the next step and those like Unite’s Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka of the PCS, who argued for co-ordinated strikes.

The argument about relying on Labour – always an important alibi for avoiding action by the trade union bureaucracy – currently looks threadbare. Miliband’s apparent lack of authority weakens his ability to rein in those union leaders who want to give some expression to a fight back – although this can change, especially when a general election looms.

And the feeling that Labour can’t protect us can feed the mood for action that has followed the huge TUC march.

One sign of that mood is the growing list of trade union conferences backing calls for a general strike, with the CWU joining the NUT, NUJ and PCS in voting for it. And while turning this into action is another matter, the prospect of coordinated strike action over attacks to public sector pensions by the NUT, ATL, PCS and UCU unions on 30 June offers the prospect of translating the mood for action into a significant step forward.

That date needs to become a day of class rage against austerity that involves other workers and every campaign against the cuts. The recent disability rights march – the biggest ever – and the 2,000 strong NHS march called by health activists in London point to that potential. The bigger the ballot results and the bigger the pickets, rallies and marches on June 30, the greater the prospect of drawing in one or more of the bigger trade union battalions in the autumn.

The trade union leaders are also split. When McCluskey spoke at the PCS conference he called unions to champion “fighting-back trade unionism” committed to “taking on bad employers, not our own activists.” Some people will have taken this as a veiled criticism of Prentis. McCluskey also reiterated Unite’s support for joining coordinated strikes.

McCluskey’s rhetoric is not yet matched by action. No ballot of its members across the public sector is yet underway (though Unite members at the MoD are set to join the strikes on June 30), and the terrible settlement at British Airways is a warning that there can be a gulf between words and deeds.

But, nevertheless, there is a real chance to open up a major front of resistance to the cuts where workers have their greatest power – in the workplace. It needs to be seized with both hands.

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