The Politics of the Coalition

MATTHEW BROWN reviews the birth and record of the Tory-led government and considers the current short-comings of the anti-cuts movement.

Let’s go back a year. In fact, let’s go back more than a year, to shortly before the general election when a Conservative majority appeared almost inevitable. It may seem difficult to believe now, but across the media and even among some on the left, there was genuine uncertainty about what kind of Tory government we were going to get.

At a Compass meeting in the Commons early in 2010 the likes of Neal Lawson, Polly Toynbee and Robert Skidelsky pondered whether David Cameron and George Osborne would form what they termed a ‘blue Tory government’, a ‘red Tory government’, or ‘a green Tory government’. Cameron’s efforts to de-toxify the nasty party’s brand genuinely had some people guessing, even some on the left. Many people were willing to believe his was the face of a new caring Conservatism.

When Cameron then failed to win a majority at the election, some on the left saw the hung parliament as an opportunity to achieve that long hankered-after goal of ‘progressive realignment’. In an editorial written after the election but before the final deal was signed between Clegg and Cameron, the New Statesman, talked in breathless terms about “all the excitement on the centre left about this hung parliament”.

It went on: “We would have liked to see more Liberal Democrat MPs in order to cement a progressive majority in the Commons. Clegg holds the future of British politics in his hands. If he opts for a deal with the Conservatives, progressives inside and outside his own party, will surely never forgive him. He will have squandered an unprecedented chance to break the political mould.”

Many on the left then, and even now, believe the Lib Dems and Labour together represent a ‘progressive majority’ in the country. This notion is widespread and often repeated by the likes of Compass and Labour leader Ed Miliband. Indeed, much of the support for the Alternative Vote, and electoral reform in general, is built on this understanding of the balance of political forces.

So when the Lib Dems did sign up to the Tories’ programme – sorry, became ‘partners’ to the coalition agreement – many on the broad left felt betrayed. When it became clear that programme involved deeper cuts to the public sector and more radical, marketising reforms of public services than even Margaret Thatcher dared, that sense of betrayal turned to shock and anger, much of it directed at Clegg as recent polls and the local election results have shown.

A marriage of true minds?

There wasn’t really any reason for such surprise, however, either at the coalition’s programme, or the Liberal Democrats’ compliance.

Since the moment of his election as Tory leader in 2005, Cameron has been proclaiming what is essentially a Thatcherite small-state agenda. Indeed, he and Osborne never missed an opportunity to blame government for the ills of the age.

When he said, back in 2005, “I do believe in society, it’s just not the same as the state”, most media focused on his apparent embrace of society, his carefully-phrased attempt to distance himself from Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum that there is “no such thing”. But he was actually declaring, ‘I don’t believe in the state, and it should have a minimal role in society’.

In his 2009 conference speech Cameron publicly announced his aim to tear down ‘big government’. In fact, he used the phrase 14 times in one speech. Commenting on the crash caused by the bankers, he said, quite straightforwardly, “It is more government that got us into this mess.”

As for the Liberal Democrats, Clegg and his cohorts also have a long history of support for the neoliberal agenda. David Laws, Clegg’s main coalition negotiator last May, was editor of The Orange Book, published in 2004, which he described as helping “to shift the centre of gravity in the party … from big government solutions and tax and spend”. Contributors to this new Lib Dem bible included Clegg, Chris Huhne and that one-time darling of the progressives, Vince Cable.

Clegg’s own commitment to the free market is pretty clear. In a speech to the London School of Economics in January 2008 – after the financial collapse was already well underway – he described the state as necessary to ensure proper funding of public services such as health and education. But once it has done that, he said, government should “back off” and allow services to be supplied privately.

As John Gray wrote in the London Review of Books last November: “Among Liberal Democrat activists and some on the Labour left, Clegg is often accused of compromising his principles and selling out for the sake of power. The charge is absurd, for the Con-Lib programme is in many respects a straightforward application of Clegg’s brand of liberalism. Very little compromise was necessary. The Liberal Democrat leader has few reasons to feel uncomfortable with a government that is implementing much of the programme he urged on his own party. Just as much as Blair and Cameron, Clegg aims to replace British social democracy with a version of Thatcher’s market-based settlement.”

This view is backed by Andrew Adonis, the former Labour minister, who reviewed Laws’ book on the coalition negotiations, 22 Days in May. Adonis was part of Labour’s negotiating team and described how quickly he realised there was only one likely outcome.

“Once Cameron had conceded a referendum on electoral reform, economic policy was the essential Labour/Tory dividing line,” he writes. “And the key point to emerge from Laws’ account is that the Lib Dem negotiators did not seek to negotiate with the Tories on the central issue of economic policy – ie. the pace of deficit reduction. They simply accepted Osborne’s plan for eliminating the structural deficit within a single parliament, in preference to Alistair Darling’s – and their own – policy of halving the overall deficit within a parliament.”

Of course, the Tory-Lib Dem marriage hasn’t been entirely harmonious with tensions emerging around particular issues such as tuition fees, health service reform, and the AV referendum. While we can speculate what these may mean for the long-term future of the coalition, the main point here is that the Lib Dem leadership had few, if any, qualms about signing up to the main thrust of Tory economic policy.

The Tory-led programme

Indeed, even in the wake of their disastrous election results, no Liberal Democrat has suggested they should abandon the cuts programme which was agreed, in sketch at least, in the coalition agreement. This effectively cemented what the BBC website described as “a Conservative clean sweep on economic policy”, including a commitment to an emergency budget within 50 days and “accelerated action to cut the deficit”, specifying £6bn of spending cuts in the first year.

In fact, Osborne’s emergency budget last June announced plans for £32 billion of cuts by 2014/15, plus an £8bn increase in taxes above the Labour government’s plans, and included a commitment to make 25% cuts in every government department bar health and international development, the details of which were spelt out in the Comprehensive Spending Review last October.

The Tories, of course, argued – and the Lib Dems agreed – that all this was unavoidable, that a bloated public sector has been crowding out the private sector, that once it was stripped back, the private sector would expand to fill the gap and generate jobs and growth. In the meantime, said Osborne, we all have to endure a period of “austerity” – “We’re all in it together”, as he so infamously put it.

In fact, what this government has unleashed is the deepest and fastest programme of cuts to public spending in living memory, the impact of which the Institute of Fiscal Studies declared will undoubtedly be “regressive”, hitting poorer households “significantly harder than richer households”.

Altogether, the Tory programme amounts to £81 billion of cuts to frontline public services, including the loss of an estimated half a million public sector jobs.

Among the many measures announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review were:

  • plans to cut local government spending by 27%, meaning council budgets will fall by an average of more than 7% per year (although communities minister Eric Pickles has since front-loaded that burden onto the current financial year)
  • a cut to social housing of more than 60%
  • a 41% cut to arts admin and 15% to core funding
  • a 60% cut to new school building projects, and the end of the Educational Maintenance Allowance
  • £20bn ‘savings’ in the NHS, to go alongside Andrew Lansley’s plans for GP commissioning
  • a 4% cut in the police budget
  • a commitment to raise the retirement age from 65 to 66 by 2020
  • £7bn in additional welfare budget cuts, making £18bn in total
  • a 10% cut in council tax benefit
  • a freeze on pension credit savings
  • and changes to housing benefit rules and other areas of welfare and pensions such as the threshold for working tax credits.

It’s worth remembering that this is all built on a much-repeated lie, namely that the structural deficit is a direct result of government overspending, whereas in fact, the deficit rose from just 2% of GDP to more than 10% as a result of the financial crisis. In other words, it was the banks that caused it.

But it’s us who are paying. And, despite Cameron’s barefaced election claim  that he would never do anything to hurt the poorest, under the Tory programme it’s specifically the poorer among us, the benefit claimants, the low paid, women in particular, young people, public service workers, and northern communities who are suffering, and will suffer, the most.

The impact of the cuts is already being felt far and wide right across the public sector. The False Economy website lists examples of cuts as they are reported locally around the country. It now has 23 pages of reports since it started last October, covering every sector from arts and culture to education, housing, transport and the voluntary sector, not to mention social care, police, benefits and pensions.

A political project

But it’s not just the extent of the cuts that should concern the left, it’s the way they being implemented and the type of reforms that go with them. As New Statesman columnist Mehdi Hasan wrote back in June: “The Tories’ war on the public sector has never been about cutting the deficit or promoting growth. The economic vandalism unveiled in the budget is part of a political project to roll back the state. It is the fulfillment of a Thatcherite dream, which Cameron has never renounced.”

Polly Toynbee wrote in the Guardian at the end of April that: “Few yet realise the scale of the conservative revolution in progress. Professors Peter Taylor-Gooby and Gerry Stoker have just revealed that by 2013 public spending will be a lower proportion of GDP in Britain than in the US. They write in Political Quarterly: ‘A profound shift in our understanding of the role of the state and the nature of our welfare system is taking place without serious debate.’”

Writing about the proposed health service reforms (which have since been ‘paused’ by Cameron), Toynbee put her finger on the underlying nature of the changes being forced upon us. “The miss-selling of this modernisation is breathtaking,” she wrote. “Cameron, the great charlatan, draws public attention to GP commissioning to distract it from what he is really doing – marketising the NHS. Go to the Tory party website and see all the great things the reforms will do, all of it motherhood and apple pie, with not a word about cut-throat competition. . . His false prospectus never once uses the word that drives the whole plan – competition.”

Of course, marketisation is not exactly new. It was the basis of the Thatcherite privatisation and de-regulation revolution of the 1980s; and was the dominant ideology absorbed by new Labour, one which Blair and his believers did precious little to challenge let alone attempt to turn back.

The threat to public services is clear, after all we’ve lived with the consequences of privatisations and endured the short-comings of market-based solutions to service provision in many sectors. The novelist and doctor Phil Whitaker recently described the tussles he’d had to go through with British Telecom after moving house. It’s a familiar tale.

BT, he said, had “royally loused up the redirections we had commissioned on our old phone numbers. Disgruntled and non-plussed by BT’s failure to make amends, we investigated switching providers, only to find that our contracts render any move prohibitively expensive. We are stuck, at least for the next year. Never mind, it really doesn’t matter – it’s only phones.

“But what if it did matter? What if this was a matter of life and death, or of life-enhancing care? What price would we then put on a health service that was there for us – not for profit – no matter how threatening or scary things were, no matter the time of day or night, and which asked nothing of us in return?”

Ideological impact

The social impact of the cuts is going to be bad enough, but in many ways the ideological and political consequences are just as worrying.

We only have to think back to Thatcher’s reforms to remember how difficult it is to reverse such changes, even if a subsequent government has the desire and will to do so. In many ways, we are still living with the market ideology of the 1980s Conservative Party which, as John Gray remarked, “has been internalised across the British political class so that it now seems no more than common sense”.

As Soundings editor Jonathan Rutherford wrote: “Market transactions disentangle people from their social relations and disassociate them from one another in order to frame them as distinct consumers.”

The current wave of marketising reforms will reframe our social relations even further, pushing us still further from one another, making society more atomistic and individualised, and making the political possibility of achieving support for public and collective solutions to social problems even more remote.

Cameron’s response is the ‘big society’, the idea that volunteers, self-organised communities and charities will fill the gaps where state services whither. This process will have an ideological impact too as the author Phillip Pullman suggested when writing about threatened public libraries this January.

Pullman bemoaned the cultural impact of the new drive to push commodification ever further into unreached corners of our lives. Talking about suggestions that libraries should be run by volunteers who could bid for money from a central pot, he wrote: “This bidding culture sets one community, one group, one school, against another. If one wins, the other loses. It’s imported the worst excesses of market fundamentalism into the one part of our public and social life that used to be free of the commercial pressure to win or to lose, to survive or to die, which is the very essence of the religion of the market.

“Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life. We’re coming to see that old Karl Marx had his finger on the heart of the matter when he pointed out that the market in the end will destroy everything we thought was safe and solid.”

Pullman cystallised what’s at stake when he said: “I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and as an adult. I love it because its presence reminds us that there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about, things that have the power to baffle the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism, things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight.”

Labour and the left

So what should Labour and the left be doing? How can this process be resisted?

A lot is already being done, of course. And, in many ways, the extent and variety of opposition that has emerged to the government programme is heartening. Few on the left can have failed to have been lifted by the sight of all those apathetic, apolitical young people we’d been told about suddenly taking to the streets in protest, occupying their schools and colleges and pretending like it was 1968 all over again.

Similarly, through humour, innovation and direct action, groups like UK Uncut have managed to raise issues around profit, taxation and wealth distribution that few Labour politicians would dare expose.

People have organised collectively in many areas and sectors, some for the first time and often with imagination, as when people opposing library closures withdrew all their libraries’ books in one day to demonstrate the gap it would leave. There have been many others.

And, in many ways, the TUC demonstration on 26 March was a huge success, bringing together people from all across the labour movement and beyond.

But on their own all of those initiatives are limited. The march for the alternative had no alternative to march for. And even the student uprisings seem to have settled, if not into apathy, maybe into something like resignation.

And, of course, we have witnessed the usual tensions between those who think the only opposition that counts is the most radical, direct or violent, and those who believe in building a broader and deeper movement for change.

There is an urgent need for leadership, coherence, and direction. And here, you’d hope, would be the Labour Party. But Labour seems unable, or unwilling to lead.

The problem for Labour is that it would have to implement cuts too. It appears trapped by its own record. Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, it also pursued a marketising agenda. There were some important differences, of course, but the Tories can, with some legitimacy, claim they are simply going further down the paths already marked out by Labour ministers.

Developing a language of opposition that defends the role of the state but doesn’t leave it open to the Tories’ well-rehearsed and much-echoed accusations of big government is only one of the many tricky tasks facing Ed Miliband and his team.

Labour’s embrace of markets, the financial markets in particular, has become a straitjacket which will be increasingly difficult to shake off, even if it wants to. In a sense, the ideological binds are too tight.

Doreen Massey described this well in Soundings last year when writing about the financial crisis. Massey pointed out that “there is an amazing fit between the characteristics of finance and the wider feel of society. Finance’s nature of pure exchange, its apparent (only apparent) disembeddedness, its prioritisation of flow over territory, of movement over stability, its (again only apparent) non-materiality, the individual(istic) character of its ‘production process’. All of this chimed somehow with the spirit of the times…

“The public bail-out of the banks led to talk of the end of neoliberalism. We know now – at policy level – it is not so. But more importantly, in popular discourse there is a lot left of neoliberalism. There is a profound embedded resignation to the naturalness of market forces. There is a pervasive negativity towards the state. These things are deep within popular discourse, even if often contradictorily so.”

She adds, “Any effective strategy to reduce the dominance of finance over the rest of the economy will involve challenging its hegemonic stories… What is at issue here is directly taking on class interests. It means defining enemies; it means delineating political frontiers. And this is something Labour has persistently refused to do.”

Indeed, Labour has rarely made the political case for public provision, or collectivism, or the common wealth. As Rutherford wrote: “It never built a case for an alternative model, so the market is still seen as the only way of measuring value.”

Of course, anyone who remembers their Gramsci will know that common sense is never the only sense, that historic blocs are not solid, that hegemony shifts a bit sometimes. There are many chinks and strands of opposition, not only to the coalition’s cuts but to the marketising agenda itself.

The challenge for Labour, and for the left more widely, including us, is to build out of these disparate, and sometimes desperate, campaigns what Rutherford calls “a cultural movement for radical democracy with a vision of the good society that engages with people’s everyday lives”.

Whether we have the will and capacity to do so, remains to be seen.


This was the introduction to a discussion on ‘The politics of the conservative-led government: personal experiences of the coalition’s policies and the anti-cuts movement’ at the ILP’s 2011 Weekend School.

Other talks from the weekend, on The ILP: Our Politics and the Refounding Labour process, are also available.


  1. Jonathan
    10 June 2011

    I agree that the Lib Dems were always likely to be comfortable with the Tories because of the attitude of the Liberal wing of the party to the state. I disagree that the coalition government are just ultra Thatcherites, however. Of course, they are the children of Thatcher and clearly believe that economic recovery depends on restoring competitiveness to the private sector. They reason that the best way for that to happen is for the state to withdraw and allow businesses to develop themselves. Given the ridiculous levels of bureaucracy which thrived in the Brown years in particular, many people think they have a point, particularly as so much state money was so badly spent (e.g. GP’s contracts, RDAs and so on)

    However, Cameron would not be as unpopular with the Daily Telegraph if he was Thatcher mark 2. Socially, this government is much more liberal than Thatcher’s was – in some ways, it is to the left of New Labour. On the quiet, notwithstanding the politically motivated curtailment of the Building Schools for the Future programme, there are also some remarkably Keynesian initiatives happening: millions being spent on public works, including the darling economic programme of the Left (in fact, its only one) the green New Deal!

    Personally, I think the only re-run of the eighties is on the Left. in the eighties, it took the left years to change its economic perspective and admit it had got it badly wrong on questions such as the nationalisation of industry, the need to control inflation and the role of the market. Similarly, it is in denial at the moment as to the economic situation of the UK. The deficit is real and unsustainable. Yes, growth is the best way to deal with it but where will growth come from, especially now that basic commodities such as food and power are becoming so expensive as the environmental impacts of consumer societies start to take root and economic development shifts to China, India and South America? In an economy where capitalist financial services account for 30% of GDP (as opposed to 9% in the USA) ,the left has no answers.

    If it ever got into power the deficit would double overnight because Standard and Poor would downrate UK government bonds and bond interest rates would increase. We would be faced with a similar situation to Greece. Now that might be a reason to call for Standard and Poor’s democratisation, but such a call would in practice lead to very little since there is no political movement with the power to achieve this aim. In the meantime, there would be a financial crisis far more serious than the one we experienced in 2009.

    I loathe capitalism and want to see an end to it, but we need to be more objective if we are to start to challenge it seriously.

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