The 2010 British general elections: the lost meaning of ‘change’ and some progressive prospects

Spyros Themelis

In May 2010, something unusual happened in the UK: for the first time in many decades a hung parliament was pronounced and a coalition government was eventually formed between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, the first (36% of the total vote) and third (23%) party respectively. But was this something momentous and, if so, why?

In terms of government formation and power sharing, this was indeed a relatively rare event in the British electoral history. The last time the party with the most votes could not form a majority government was in 1974. Thirty six years is a long time in the electorate’s memory. Hence, the result of 2010 was seen as something ‘historic’ and for many it signaled a ‘big change’ in British political affairs. To some, it even registered as a progressive turn that heralded the beginning of an era of consensus.

Given their positions on some key issues before the election, the two parties seemed to be very far apart from each other, on many things, from the economy to the war in Iraq and from welfare state provision to surveillance. For example, while the Conservatives voted together with New Labour for the war in Iraq, the Liberal Democrats were aligned with the majority of the public opinion and opposed the war. While the Conservatives promised big cuts on public spending, the Liberal Democrats prioritised the economic recovery and the return to economic growth before any cuts were implemented. So, is this unlikely alliance between the two parties a step forward for the majority of people living in the UK? Has real change occurred? And what could ‘real change’ mean?

The more things change…

To start with the last question, we could loosely define ‘real change’ as a move to a new form of governing that serves the interests of the majority and is based on principles such as fairness, equality, equity. Real change has to mark a move away from old-style democracy, where bourgeois parties compete for power and has to be founded on people’s active participation in decision making and power sharing processes. In order for such a progressive transformation to occur, a set of inter-related changes needs to take place in all spheres of activity, including political, economic, social and financial. Further, these changes need to be coherent and consistent, in other words the political has to be linked to the economic and so on, so that changes in one sphere are not undermined by those in another. For example, one cannot support the war in Iraq and at the same time the peace process in the Middle East; neither can one simultaneously support drastic spending cuts that will potentially burden the poorer the most and purport to be politically progressive. Accordingly, progressivism requires new and different kinds of power relations, where the current and recent political elite has no raison d’être and is not merely replaced by a new one. In short, this type of ‘real change’ that could serve the many, not the few.

So, how progressive is the new UK government? In terms of its socio-economic composition, it turns out that the majority of the new cabinet ministers are privately educated (which correlates strongly with parents’ social class). In fact, 14 out of 23 ministers have been educated in private schools, an indicator of middle (and in some cases, upper) class background as well as family privilege. Of course, this also correlates positively with elitist university education: 15 of the 23 are Oxbridge educated (www.bbc.co.uk). This is indeed a change towards a more elitist Cabinet than the previous one, but not as radical as one might think. One third of the previous government was privately schooled and Oxbridge educated but this did not stop them from introducing top up fees, which ensured that middle class background would be even more firmly corresponding to elite education than previously. But by turning education into an expensive commodity the political elite secures its own reproduction, given that any party that is able to gain power will have a great deal of its members among the elite (and the rest being in thoroughly aligned with the interests of the elite). In addition, 18 members of the new Cabinet are millionaires, with a £50 million estimated worth overall. But a look at the previous government reveals a similar picture: 10 millionaires and a Cabinet approximately worth £35 million under New Labour (The Sunday Times).

It is more than clear that the UK, not unlike the many other European countries, has only nominally had a democratic system of electoral representation. In practice, what prevails is the rule of the elite, which alternates power approximately every five years. But, if it took a coalition of two not-recently-in-power parties and several pledges for a new form of governing to create one of the most elitist Cabinets in the post-Second World War British history, then what kind of hope is left for the voters? More importantly, if this development for a new form of governing was praised as a ‘real change’, at least in political terms, and was received with enthusiasm in financial and economic circles in the UK and abroad, what is the real meaning of ‘change’ in these neoliberal times?

The answer seems to me pretty straightforward but adeptly concealed from those who have every interest to find out: the working people of Britain, the ordinary individuals who struggle to get by under dire circumstances.

One could argue that the only real change that occurred with the May 2010 general election was of an aesthetic kind, virtually a change of faces but not of policies or priorities, let alone principles. True as it might be that under New Labour spending cuts would have been less severe and implemented gradually, the overall outcome remains the same. The ruling political elite in the UK, as is the case in neoliberal capitalism generally, was replaced by another one and, more importantly, this development has not and will not cause a rupture in the foundations of the establishment; it will not undermine or overthrow the status quo. The latter, the status quo, favours continuity through ‘change’, that is, change of the type attested to every five years (in the UK, four in many other countries).

That means, change that is controlled, expected and, to an extent, desired, which takes the form of general elections. Preference for one party over another acts as a seemingly empowering mechanism in the hands of the electorate who are left to believe that they can punish the party they dislike and reward the one they favour The ingenuity of the system also gives them the option to cast a ‘protest vote’, usually by voting for a small party, or even to abstain from their ‘civic duty’, that is not to vote altogether. Much like the market, voters can choose what suits them best, though from within set options, which, when formed, never took into account the voters’ interests. As Badiou puts it (2008) ‘electoral democracy is only representative in so far as it is first of all the consensual representation of capitalism, or of what today has been renamed the “market economy”‘. Hence, the voters are ‘interpellated’, as Althusser would say, they are constructed as interlocutors of the mechanism of power and, thusly, made complicit in the legitimisation of the outcome of the election.

At large, their approval or disapproval of policies that affect them only occurs inside the political system that is created by and serves the interests of the elite. Each and every election creates the illusion that the voters can choose the best candidates for them; it is an illusion because, in reality, it is the candidates and their parties who choose their voters! With election turnout at its lowest levels since the Second World War, for example from 84% in 1950 to just 65% in 2010 (www.ukpolitical.info), a very large part of people are very disillusioned with the political situation and do not even turn up to vote, knowing that voting will not bring any change in their lives. Yet this does not merely leave the status quo unaltered, but it strengthens it. As Žižek (2009) lucidly argued: ‘[m]ulti-party liberal democracy ‘represents’ a precise vision of social life in which politics is organised so that parties compete in elections to exert control over the state legislative and executive apparatus’.

New government, same old tricks?

In UK terms, with the departure of the New Labour party from power and the formation of a coalition government, the continuity and longevity of the system was ensured and renewed. This is because the election result did not signal any significant change but it was the seal of continuity of the existing system, despite the different approaches of the previous and the current government with respect to tackling the budget deficit through the implementation of austerity measures.

For example, the previous government a bit less than two months before the general election announced cuts that for some only compare to those implemented by Thatcher in the 1980s. More specifically, the budget that was brought to parliament in March 2010, included a 6% decrease in public spending in four years, from 48% in 2010 to 42% in 2014. With the new government in place, an emergency budget was announced in June 2010, which proposed severe cuts across the public sector and other public money-saving measures that attack the foundations of the welfare state and hit hardest the poor (among other things, child tax credits will be cut, child benefits and public sector workers’ pay will be frozen, public sector jobs will be lost, the pension age will be increased and so on) (Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2010).

Coincidentally, both governments had a unique opportunity to discipline the banks for the damage they caused to the economy and the emiseration they brought to hundreds of thousands of households, but they chose to exempt them from any responsibility. The bank levy, which the coalition government will introduce in January 2011, is estimated to yield approximately £2bn annually, that is to say a mere drop in the ocean compared to the money the banks have been receiving in the last two years in the form of bail out packages, guarantees, loans and other types of funding. According to an estimate by the National Audit Office at the end of 2009, the support from the UK government to the banks cost the taxpayer £850bn. In other words, the banks that are largely responsible for the current crisis are heavily subsidised in order to continue their destructive job, while those who bear the brunt of their actions, the vast majority of British people, are paying for it! Indeed, the phrase ‘socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor’ could not ring any more true.

Can anything new emerge?

Clearly, the parties alternating in power are bourgeois parties in that they have a commitment to protect the interests of the political and economic elites. As Marx and Engels suggested (1948/1977) ‘the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’. In other words, the elected governments in capitalism are nothing else but committees that represent the interests of the bourgeoisie. The elections then, as shown through the example of the most recent ones in the UK, are, practically, a process whereby the bourgeoisie renews the contract of the managing committee of its common affairs. Symbolically, though, the elections also act as a tranquiliser of radical transformations, by giving the impression of change as well as by offering the illusion that the voters’ choices matter.

Nowadays, people fully realise this, hence their disillusionment with the current system of political representation. However, and this is the biggest benefit that can be gained from the otherwise disheartening reality, for every hope lost in the current system, a hope for an alternative, truly democratic, progressive and representative of people’s needs system, might be generated. In France, Greece, Italy and other European countries anti-cuts protests have been increasingly gathering pace, with some of them ending tragically (in May 2010, 3 people were killed in Athens during several days of unrests that were organised against the severe austerity measures that the IMF, the European Union and the European Central Bank imposed to Greece). In the UK, rising mobilisation has also been taking place. Universities were occupied and online campaigns gathered international support when cuts threatened jobs, courses and academic freedom, redundancies mobilised workers and their unions, and various campaigns, rallies and coalitions sprung up. The ‘Stop the War’ coalition, the ‘Right to Work’ campaign, the ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ rally, the ‘Coalition of Resistance Against Cuts and Privatisation’ are only some examples of the organised resistance people are showing to the rule of the elites and their supposedly democratically-elected governments. Who knows, this could be the beginning of the creation of the ‘conditions for the collective production of realistic utopias’ that Bourdieu (2003, p. 21) fervently advocated but failed to see while still alive. Realistic utopias entail the rejection of the neoliberal hegemony, the strive for the creation of conditions for true democratic representation and participation, and the abolition of the rule of the elites. In a nutshell, they are utopias (outopia means non-existing place) because nobody has ever been to these places before, at least not in recent British history, and realistic because their creation is possible, thus realistic to imagine and strive for as they can only be achieved by real people who are currently powerless and disillusioned by the current system.

References

Badiou, A. (2008) The Meaning of Sarkozy. London: Verso.

Bourdieu (2003) Firing Back: Against the Tyranny of the Market 2. London: The New Press.

Marx, K. and Engels, F. [1848] (1977) Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels,Selected Works. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Browne, J. and Levell, P. (2010) ‘The distributional effect of tax and benefit reforms to be introduced between June 2010 and April 2014: a revised assessment’. London: Institute for Fiscal Studies.

National Audit Office (2009) ‘What happened and why: Maintaining financial stability across the United Kingdom’s banking system’. London: National Audit Office.

Milland, G. and Warren, G.  (2010) ‘Austerity cabinet has 18 millionaires’. The Sunday Times.

UKpolitical.Info (2010) ‘General Election Turn Out 1945-2010’. www.ukpolitical.info

Žižek, S. (2009) ‘Berlusconi in Tehran’. London Review of Books, Vol. 31 No. 14.23, pp. 3-7.

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