The concept of a coalition government lends itself towards instability and is somewhat problematic for the ruling class. But this becomes twofold in a period of economic crisis where the traditional party of the bosses has been unable to do its job of winning an outright majority. Rachel Gibbs looks at the latest attacks from the Tory-led government, which demonstrate the weakness of the coalition.
The Tories and Liberal Democrats can be said to be going through something of a bad patch, if last week’s county council election results are anything to go by. The same can also be said of their coalition government. The concept of a coalition government lends itself towards instability and is somewhat problematic for the ruling class. But this becomes twofold in a period of economic crisis where the traditional party of the bosses has been unable to do its job of winning an outright majority.
Having opportunistically grabbed at power the Liberal Democrats have been left virtually unelectable (in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election they were reduced from 16 to 5 MSPs) after turning their backs on general election pledges such as the scrapping of tuition fees. This has led to a situation encapsulated in Nick Clegg’s response to proposed childcare plans from Tory education under-secretary Elizabeth Truss.
These plans involve raising the number of children per adult supervisor from 3:1 to 4:1 for babies aged one year and younger and from 4:1 to 6:1 for two year-olds. The plans have been put forward on the grounds that this could lead to lower childcare costs and in turn encourage mothers to return to work.
There are clearly several flaws within this claim. It is doubtlessly true that high childcare costs in Britain, amongst the highest in Europe, often lead to a situation where work simply does not pay for mothers of young children. However, this scheme is unlikely to actually reduce childcare costs and is coupled with fears over the quality of care that will be provided with one adult caring for six toddlers.
Last week the BBC reported that a National Children’s Bureau survey found 95% of early years staff to be concerned by the policy. Nurseries have stated that plans are unlikely to reduce prices due to high fixed costs. One must also consider that these nurseries are predominantly private businesses run for profit. They are not interested in passing any savings on to parents.
This is the crux of the problem. In Britain childcare is predominantly provided by the private sector where profit is the key. Childcare receives 50% less funding than in Scandinavian countries and the only free nursery hours available are restricted to 3 and 4 year olds, with a maximum of 15 hours per week. This scheme does nothing to change that, instead it risks reducing standards of care with any cost cutting relying on businesses choosing to lower prices rather than increase profits.
As socialists we would advocate a massively expanded, publically owned and ran childcare system offering free, full-time nursery places for all pre-school children. This would not only relieve the financial burden of childcare, but also the social burden of childcare, which is placed overwhelmingly on women.
After having considered the gaping flaws in this plan it could be argued that Nick Clegg is simply showing good sense in stating his intention to block the policy from going through government. Firstly, however, we must consider Clegg’s record up until now. Back in the early days of the coalition, November 2010, Clegg was not exactly interested in taking the moral high ground over the question of tripling tuition fees, when 6 months before his party had campaigned on a policy of scrapping fees altogether! It would seem that the Liberal Democrats have decided that now is the time to take action due to their desperately low ratings.
February saw the Liberal Democrats reach 8% in the polls, their lowest ever rating. Nick Clegg is clearly becoming increasingly desperate so, rather than taking any stand based on political feeling, his actions are once again based on opportunism. For the first time (and what will probably be the only time) in my life I am inclined to agree with Michael Gove in his stating that Clegg’s dramatic shift from appearing to support the plans in December is based on an attempt to increase his popularity with his party (and the public) in fear of a possible leadership contest. The Liberal Democrats are desperate to distinguish themselves from the Tories, who they have sold their soul to, in a vain attempt to save themselves at the next general election.
This policy has worked to underline several weaknesses within the British ruling class. Firstly, it has shown the inability of a childcare system run by the private sector to provide cheap, high quality care. Secondly it has revealed the weakness of a coalition government where the Tories are forced to rely on the support of the ever weaker Liberal Democrats to push through austerity measures.