Later this month, hundreds of thousands of people are expected to turn out for the TUC’s march in London, billed as an opportunity to “tell the government they need to change course”. It’s a call that no longer seems adequate. What is becoming increasingly apparent is that this government is enforcing what is possibly the biggest ‘shock’ ever attempted in a developed democracy. A “revolution” is how David Cameron described it in his speech to his party conference last October, “breaking apart the old system”.
The question is, was this revolution in any way what the electorate voted for in May? I don’t believe so, and nor do many others. The fundamental contract of consent between the governed and the government is buckling. Eunice Goes points out that the ‘law’ of coalition government across Europe is that they seek common ground and consensus with the views of an electorate that has refused to back one party. Instead, here in the UK, the current coalition is governing as if it is a single party whose agreement to act in what it regards as the national interest gives it permission to enjoy the UK’s notorious elective dictatorship and impose a strategy that goes well beyond mere deficit reduction.
George Monbiot asks of those intending to join the March 26th demonstration, what do we want? Protesting, he said, is not enough. He sets out what he thinks should be a set of positive demands. But who is going to implement them? Obviously not the present government. In my view, the only adequate demand is for a general election.
Of course, it is possible that the Conservatives or the Coalition would win, particularly if Labour were unable to set out a credible alternative. But at least this time the Conservatives (and Liberal Democrats) would, one hopes, have to set before the electorate the reality of what they intend to do.
The central question then remains: has this government indeed broken the democratic contract?
On the causes of our fiscal situation, the Coalition narrative is falling apart. The public is told that there is no alternative and that this is the only way to remedy years of Labour’s overspending. These claims have worn thin; the facts tell a different story. Last week the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, laid the blame squarely at the feet of the banks:
“The price of this financial crisis is being borne by people who absolutely did not cause it. Now is the period when the cost is being paid, I'm surprised that the degree of public anger has not been greater than it has."
In January, the Office for National Statistics released figures showing that of the £2.3tn public sector net debt, £1.3tn is attributable to the bank bailouts. Furthermore, the Conservatives supported Labour spending plans right up until the crisis broke. The reality of what we are witnessing is not an effort to save the country from Labour’s policies. To lay the blame for the crisis on public sector spending and present the cuts as an inevitable consequence bears little resemblance to the facts.
Because of this fiction, the banks themselves remain almost entirely unreformed. Bonuses remain astronomical, the public continues to subsidise their gains to the tune of £100bn a year and tax avoidance remains widespread. Barclays paid only £113m in corporation tax for 2009, on £4.6bn global annual profit: a rate of just 2.4%. The failure to hold banks to account shouldn’t be surprising; last year over half the donations to the Conservative party came from the City.
Since the Coalition refuses to address the actual cause of the crisis, what have they done instead? With banking losses socialised, they have busied themselves dismantling the British state - decimating jobs, livelihoods and the services that society’s most vulnerable rely upon. Barely a day now passes without some new conflict of interest coming to light, another privatisation floated, or yet more job losses announced.
Since covering the highly controversial NHS reforms last month, for example, Channel 4 has revealed plans by private consortiums to turn GP’s savings into profits. What is described as improved efficiency and cost savings will in reality be poorer patient care driving private profit. The firm proposing the arrangement, IHP, plans to float within three to five years.
The same week, the BMA described a central part of the NHS reforms as “disgracefully unethical”. Responding to government proposals for GP’s earnings to be linked to savings, Dr Buckman, Chairman of the BMA’s General Practitioners Committee, said:
"What I'm not prepared to do is receive pay … on the basis that I withdraw treatment from a patient. That is disgracefully unethical and most GPs will have nothing to do with that.”
Coalition moves to effectively privatise both health and education alone would be a serious breach of the democratic contract, but the true nature of their ambitions is greater still. Writing in the Telegraph, Cameron announced:
“Public services should be open to a range of providers competing to offer a better service. Of course there are some areas – such as national security or the judiciary – where this wouldn't make sense. But everywhere else should be open to diversity…”
If previous ‘modernisations’ are any guide, a “range of providers” will likely mean a handful of private firms monitored by weak regulators, operating in largely uncompetitive markets. Costs, subsidies and profits will be high, services and accountability poor. While the poor and disabled are weaned off taxpayer dependence, private firms will be invited to take their place. Radically altering the whole character of the state, these reforms would see true public service become a thing of the past.
Having failed to maintain growth, and indeed actually shrunk the economy, a new front is being opened up on regulation, taxation and employee rights. “Pro-enterprise” measures being discussed include widespread deregulation, lowering business tax rates and making it easier to hire (fire) people. In other words, take the failed model that got us into this mess and radically extend it.
A crisis of deregulation and market extremism has not only seen the public take on over a trillion pounds of private debt, it is now being used to implement an even more extreme version of the very same system.
John Harris suggests that a political coup is unfolding – the second national heist within as many years. The bailout of the banks is to be reinforced with a radical restructuring of the state, reforms that will again transfer vast amounts of wealth from public to private hands.
“Welcome, then, to a new phase of history, when a crisis of laissez-faire capitalism begets that same system triumphant,”
Harris sees this as the culmination of Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine”: the implementation of Chicago School fundamentalism amid financial collapse means it is now the solution to its own crises. But Britain is neither Chile nor Iraq; this is being attempted in a developed and stable democracy, where the primary tool is not death squads but the control of ideas. The Coalition narrative then, credulously repeated in much of the media, serves two functions, not only obscuring the actual root of the crisis but conjuring the evils of statism in its place.
Against this fiction they are attempting the most radical transformation of the political landscape for decades. Reform of this scale requires a clear public mandate. It would almost certainly not be granted. Cameron seemed to acknowledge this both in the nature of his manifesto and in his repeated references to Blair’s memoirs, the regret of “not having gone far enough in his first term”. What both he and Blair appreciate is that you have only very rare opportunities to override the public will on such scale. Cameron’s window is small, as is the public’s; these measures will be exceptionally hard to reverse.
An election is no panacea. Labour needs more time to recover from the sins of its thirteen years in power. It too has failed to shake off the discredited economic orthodoxies that brought the world economy to its knees. What desperately needs to be established is public or citizen power, both so that we can exercise control over our government and to defend the public sphere. It is members of the public, not Labour, who have led the resistance to date. Securing an election, however imperfect, would be the clearest reaffirmation of democratic principle. On March 26th, a mass demand for an election would go beyond a simple plea to change course; it would articulate a visible, and justified, withdrawal of consent.