Elections are simply a snapshot of the mood at any particular moment in time, but they can reveal a lot about the real underlying processes taking place in society. That was the case with the May local elections, which marked the first anniversary in power of the Coalition government and from which we can draw important lessons.
The media sought to play down the big gains made by Labour in England and Wales, while at the same time, given the advance of the SNP, raising the spectre of an independent Scotland. This was intended to spread confusion about what had happened. Some even went so far as to suggest, with the overwhelming rejection of AV, that it was Cameron and the Tories who were the big winners in these elections.
“The Tories emerged as the decisive winners in the local elections on Friday”, explained the normally sober Financial Times. The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph were all crowing. While maintaining these distortions, what they were unable to hide was the utter humiliation of the Liberal Democrats, which took the brunt of the hostility towards the Tory-led Coalition. The Financial Times editorial put it more honestly: “This [the electoral pummelling] amounts to a crisis not just for the party but for the government of which it is a part.” (7/5/11)
As we explained, the Coalition government was the least bad option for the ruling class. What was needed, from their point of view, was a strong single-minded government that would carry through, without wavering, the austerity programme that was required. However, they could only patch together a weak and shaky coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the first time since the 1930s.
The fragility of this deal was quickly revealed in the national backlash over the increase in tuition fees, which the Lib Dems had originally opposed. Now they were in government, they supported the move, to the anger of millions of voters who had voted for the party in the general election.
They were regarded as traitors and unprincipled charlatans, who got into bed with the Tories for sake of their ministerial careers. They fell over themselves, starting with Nick Clegg, to collect their thirty pieces of silver and play the role allotted to them.
Clegg told his party to “embrace” the Coalition and its cuts. It had to be all or nothing. The austerity programme was the decisive issue. As a party pledged to capitalism, urgent measures were needed in the “national interest” to cut some £81bn in public spending. This austerity programme, despite all the denials, would fall on the weakest and most vulnerable sections of society. Even Clegg acknowledged that these cuts would be “spine chilling”. This revealed the party’s real colours and represented a betrayal of the trust millions of voters had placed in the Lib Dems.