Britain: English local elections – What do the results mean?

“SO MUCH has been transferred to the national level, and so much of the financial control is retained there, that being asked to vote in a local election is like being asked to select which crumbs you would prefer from the rich man’s table,” commented the Guardian’s Hugo Young on election day.

English local elections, 2002.

What do the results mean?

Add to this the lack of difference between the main political parties, who all support cuts and privatisation, and it is not hard to understand why only one in three people bothered to vote on 2 May.

Far from stemming from apathy, not voting has a perfectly rational basis. Why vote when there is no real choice between the candidates from the three main capitalist parties and none of them will make improvements? Despite the fact that a large majority of people did not vote, the government was relieved that the turnout did not sink to a new record low, as had been predicted by pre-election opinion polls.

The small increase in turnout to 35% , from the low of 29% in the year 2000, can be attributed to several factors.

The shock waves from France following Le Pen’s success in the first round of the Presidential elections caused a layer of voters to consider the potential dangers of a high abstention level, resulting in more people voting, especially in the 68 seats contested by the BNP.

The government’s recent budget, announcing an extra £40 billion for the NHS also had a certain effect. Anger is so great at the state of the NHS that a layer of voters were prepared to reward New Labour for their injection of funds with their vote, despite the fact that millions of workers will be worse off financially as a result of imposed National Insurance increases.

As well as national reasons for the slightly increased turnout, there were also local factors such as specific local issues and the introduction of postal voting in some areas.

Five years on

DESPITE NEW Labour’s overall vote being boosted by the temporary effect of their budget, disgust at the first five years of their government was a prime factor in their net loss of 339 seats and seven councils.

The growing gap between rich and poor, the impoverishment of students, a third of children living in poverty, privatisation, transport chaos and low pay are amongst Labour’s legacy of those five years.

John Pilger spelt out the truth in the Daily Mirror when he described how Blair had gone further than Thatcher in many attacks he has carried out and had created “a culture of profit and greed unmatched in Europe”. He added: “Certainly, he will be remembered, I believe, for his betrayal of the hopes of ordinary people who had the right to expect that after 18 years of the Tories he would be different”.

Brown has directly presided over a large injection of money into the NHS, but this merely reverses some of the under-funding of previous years. It is purely for electoral reasons and ordinary people are bearing most of the tax burden to pay for it.

His real attitude is shown in his warning to health workers not to expect significant pay rises, and his call for “an end to the sterile debate between the public and private sectors”. Much of the money he has promised to the NHS will end up in the pockets of private contractors and financiers.

He has been fortunate in presiding over a period of economic growth, but this situation is rapidly changing. Economists have poured scorn on his forcast of 2.5% growth for this year, following reports of virtual stagnation in the economy over the last two quarters.

In the US, the state of the economy has recently improved, but at a certain stage there will be a renewed worsening which will contribute to the growing problems in the British economy, disrupting Brown’s present plans.

His government has offered little enough to ordinary people so far, but much worse can come as he tries to make workers pay the price of recession.

Law and order

IN THE seven elections conducted for new mayors, Labour suffered embarrassment and ridicule. All were fought on traditional Labour ground, but Labour only managed to win three out of the seven.

In North Tyneside the position went to a Tory, in Watford to a Liberal Democrat, in Peter Mandelson’s Hartlepool to an ‘independent’ famous for dressing up as a monkey mascot and in Middlesbrough to ex-CID boss Ray Mallon, who had only been able to stand after pleading guilty to police disciplinary charges that he had strenuously denied.

These new mayors can put their success down to concerted campaigning on local issues. The vote for the latter two indicated an anti-party mood, and a degree of contempt for Labour’s introduction of mayors in the first place.

Having previously neglected the issue of crime, despite widespread concern over it, New Labour decided to fight the local elections by highlighting it. In the run-up to polling day, Home Secretary David Blunkett announced that an extra £340 million would be spent on counter-terrorism, street crime initiatives and extra prison places.

He gave support to the divisive propaganda of the ultra-right neo-fascist BNP, by saying that asylum seekers are ‘swamping’ schools and doctors surgeries and by linking aslyum seekers to crime using the example of an old lady in his constituency who he said had been mugged by three asylum seekers.

This was despite the fact that in France, National Front leader Le Pen made law and order and immigration his main election themes, exploiting revulsion at the level of crime and expressing ultra-right views on tackling it.

Incredibly, New Labour strategists criticised French Socialist Party presidential candidate Lionel Jospin for not following the example of Le Pen and Chirac by banging the drum on law and order, concluding that this was the reason why Jospin lost and determined not to make the same mistake.

In reality, Jospin lost because he refused to fight a socialist or even a left radical campaign. He stated bluntly that it would not be a campaign of this nature and instead just put forward a weaker version of right-wing policies.

In Britain, the stance of New Labour leaders like Blunkett, together with the complete failure of the government to provide decently funded local public services while at the same time, in councils, placing an intolerable council tax burden on people, contributed heavily to the gains made by the BNP, in particular to their victory in three seats in Burnley.

Tories and Lib Dems

NEW LABOUR were not alone in trying to exploit the issues of immigration and crime. The Tories gained control of Enfield council, mainly by campaigning against a 12% rise in council tax. During the campaign they claimed that the borough had too many asylum seekers.

Overall, the Tories made a net gain of only 237 seats and nine councils. This is nowhere near enough to indicate that they could do well in the next general election. Their share of the vote was only one percentage point higher than in the equivalent elections in 1998 and was four points lower than their result in 2000.

They control just a quarter of London boroughs and not a single large city in Britain. Blair has stolen the Tory agenda to such an extent that they are still floundering with no sense of purpose or direction.

The Liberal Democrats received their highest share of the vote for nine years, winning six councils. A layer of voters clearly used them as a protest vote against the other two parties in some areas. But the disillusionment that quickly sets in when they get into power and prove they are no different to the other main parties was shown in their loss of four councils, including Sheffield and Richmond, and their reduced average vote in wards across the country which they were defending.

Postal voting

“YOU CAN’T vote here” was the election day headline on posters outside Hackney’s usual polling stations. Instead the only way to vote was by post, or by taking the postal vote forms into a council office. Each voter had to fill in two forms, one to vote and one to confirm identity, the latter requiring the signature of a witness.

The voting form had to be separated into two parts by the voter and placed in separate envelopes, one for the mayoral referendum and one for the council elections. This type of ballot disenfranchised a significant layer of the electorate, as many were confused by the forms or simply saw them as an obstacle too far.

Postal ballots were not conducted in this way in other voting ‘experiments’; for example, in Stevenage, the signature of a witness was not required. A system of postal votes contributes to disengagement from elections and is open to large-scale vote-rigging.

It can also be abused on a smaller scale, for example, in Lewisham, where postal votes were an option, Socialist Party canvassers were told by some voters that they had filled in and sent off forms for everyone in their family, taking a personal decision out of the hands of others.

However, in areas where postal votes were enforced, the numbers voting tended to be higher than usual – almost double the national average in some cases, showing that this method is easier for a layer of voters.

But abolishing the right to vote at polling stations must be strongly opposed, as voting in person encourages a more active and full participation, and there are electoral officers on hand to give advice on the form, the number of votes to be cast etc.

Other methods of voting were also tried, such as telephone and internet voting, and voting at supermarkets. These do not appear to have made much difference to turnout. Internet and text messaging increased the vote in Liverpool’s Everton ward from 15.9% to 18.3%!

In Newham in London, people had to queue for 20 minutes to vote by touching a computer screen, and everyone else could see who they voted for. In any case, whatever method is adopted in future elections, changes of this nature cannot overcome the fundamental reasons that are putting people off casting their vote.

Independents and socialists

ALTHOUGH ‘INDEPENDENT’ candidates suffered an overall loss of seats, there were some notable successes where particular issues hit home. The Health Concern group in Kidderminster took five seats from Labour to gain control of Wyre Forest district council in the West Midlands.

The Independent Working Class Association won a seat in Oxford and achieved high votes in three other areas.

The Socialist Party achieved some outstanding results (see page five for more details), and is still the only socialist organisation in England and Wales with elected councillors. Dave Nellist was re-elected in Coventry with 52% of the vote in the St Michaels ward and Ian Page was re-elected in Telegraph Hill, Lewisham.

Excellent results were achieved by Socialist Party candidates elsewhere too, such as the 822 votes (32%) gained by Peter Glover in Orrell, Bootle. These prove that posing a clear and bold socialist alternative wins support, especially as they come after long-term campaigning work conducted by Socialist Party members in these areas as well as in many other towns and cities.

A Financial Times editorial, published two days after the elections, lamented the numbers who did not see a reason to vote and added: “Yet the triumph of market capitalism and liberal democracy means there are few big issues to divide nations”. Our response must be that one big issue has not been swept away.

The divide described by Karl Marx over 150 years ago between the capitalist class and working class remains today, and the wealth gap is becoming ever greater.

In their articles, media commentators and careerist politicians speculate gloomily on why ordinary people have become so disengaged and alienated from existing ‘democratic’ processes.

However, they rarely recognise the simple truth: the widespread awareness amongst ordinary people that no politician from the main parties will serve their interests.

It is vital that the Socialist Party is built, and that we continue to raise the need for the building of a new mass workers’ party that can begin to challenge the capitalist parties and the profit-based system they represent.

Ordinary people will then be inspired with an alternative to which they can turn.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, CWI in England and Wales

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May 2002