Britain: Anger, disenchantment and voting shifts

On local elections day, 5 May, none of the main parties offered any escape from the escalating, unrelenting cost-of-living crisis. No surprise then that the turnout was low. Those who did vote gave a snapshot of the general mood, with a central feature being anger at the Tory government’s hypocrisy, shambles, and driving down of living standards.

Two days before polling day, prime minister Boris Johnson was the first head of state to address the Ukrainian parliament, no doubt hoping he would appeal to voters in Britain as a strong leader and lynchpin of support for the Ukrainians. But that didn’t protect him and his party from voters’ fury – the Tories lost over 400 council seats and control of a net eleven councils.

Tory losses

Attempts by local Conservative associations to distance themselves from their national party – including by using the name ‘Local Conservative’ – were also not enough to prevent those losses. The Tories suffered the historic affront of losing two of their three central London councils to Labour: Wandsworth, after 44 years of Tory rule, and Westminster after 58 years.

Very alarming for them too was a significant fracturing of their support base across their usual strongholds elsewhere in the south of England. For many traditionally Tory voters the ‘partygate’ revelations came as the last straw, on top of the long catalogue of other scandals.

The Tories also had less support in Scotland and lost their only council in Wales – Monmouthshire.

They can comfort themselves with the lack of general interest in the local elections: Socialist Party campaigners out on the streets, even on election day, found that many people hadn’t registered they were even taking place. But the results can only add to the turmoil within the Tory party and the plotting among Tory MPs against Johnson’s leadership.

The jury is still out, however, on whether concrete moves to remove him will come soon or whether there will be more of a time delay. Tory MPs will be observing how events go over the coming weeks, including likely further partygate fines by the Metropolitan Police of top Tories; the ‘Queen’s Speech’ legislation plans; the Sue Gray partygate investigation report; the by-election in Tiverton and Honiton following Tory MP Neil Parish viewing porn in parliament; and a by-election in Wakefield after the Tory MP there had to resign over a conviction for sexual assault.

One major issue staying their hands is their lack of good options regarding an alternative leader, especially one who would be seen as suitable for retaining electoral support, both by Tory MPs representing the previous ‘red-wall’ constituencies in the north and those who represent the ‘blue-wall’ heartlands. They can feel the ground slipping from under their feet everywhere – and this is a party with a history of being the longest-serving, successful and stable political representatives of big business on the planet.

Labour’s vote

Considering the nightmare financial situation now facing ordinary people, and the fact that the Tories preside over it and are ridden with sleaze, the Labour Party should have been able to pick up all the seats lost by the Tories and many more. Yet the anti-Tory protest votes went in many directions – to the Lib Dems, Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, as well as Labour and others. Labour gained over 200 seats and had a net gain of six councils, a weak success which didn’t indicate the party held any real attraction.

How could it, when under Starmer’s shifting of the party to the right it promises nothing but a similar diet of austerity as the Tories? Its vote actually fell overall in the north of England, and its better performance in London and a number of other cities was less due to a working-class vote, and more to that of anti-Tory middle-class people, especially in gentrified areas. A large section of the working class simply abstained, not seeing anything worth voting for.

‘Blame Corbyn’

Following the elections, political journalist Laura Kuenssberg quoted a shadow cabinet minister as blaming “long Corbyn” for Labour’s mediocre results – a common refrain in one form or another in the pro-capitalist press. In the Observer (8.5.22) Andrew Rawnsley wrote: “Labour made gains that put the electoral catastrophe of the Corbyn years behind them”.

Using any possible distortion as propaganda to denigrate Jeremy Corbyn is still an ongoing theme by the Labour right and mainstream media.  They still fear the attraction his left policies held and whether he could be elected as an independent MP in the next general election, now that he’s banned from sitting as a Labour MP in parliament.

In fact, the last time the same council seats were contested was in 2018 when Corbyn was Labour leader, and the party’s share of the vote was around the same level as it has been this time.

During Corbyn’s years as leader, Labour councils – dominated by right-wing Blairites – continued to inflict cuts in local services, which was a key reason why Labour’s local election results in 2018 were not better than they were. They were certainly not a verdict on Corbyn’s national policies for nationalisation of energy companies, mass council housebuilding and free education, which were very popular, and would be even more so today.

The same issue of the Observer – in its editorial – dragged back the slur made after the 2019 Labour general election defeat under Corbyn that it was the “worst election defeat since 1935”. Although Labour’s vote share in 2019 was lower than in the 2017 general election – when, also under Corbyn, Labour took 40% of the vote – in 2019, Labour gained a higher vote share than it did in the general election of 2010 under Gordon Brown or in 2015 under Ed Miliband.

However much the political pundits try to big up Labour’s performance under Starmer relative to Corbyn, they all agree that although local elections involve different factors to national elections, Labour’s 5 May results were not good enough to suggest that the party is on course for a majority in the next general election.

Starmer, however, rather than arming Labour with a programme that could begin to respond to the needs of workers in Britain, is still more intent on doing the bidding of the capitalist class. The Times newspaper elaborated on this in its 3 May editorial, when it said: “Though Sir Keir Starmer has made some progress in restoring the party’s credibility, he should move faster and further against his internal critics” – ie expel the few left-wing MPs remaining in Labour as the editorial went on to urge, for the crime of not supporting the Nato military alliance.

It also advised on the political programme: “Having won the leadership by persuading party members that he was an authentic upholder of left-wing verities, Sir Keir should make a virtue of boldness in jettisoning these, just as Sir Tony did on becoming leader in 1994”. This is a prominent pro-capitalist paper openly advocating that Starmer – a party leader in parliament – should dismiss the democratic basis on which he was elected and act in the opposite class interests.

Voting against the incumbent was one of the features on 5 May. Among the recipients were the Lib Dems, who were boosted by protest votes against the Tories, and gained nearly 200 extra council seats and control of several councils. The Greens also benefited from the voting fragmentation, increasing their seats by over 80.

Unlike the Lib Dems, the Greens are ‘left-leaning’, although that might not have been noticed from many of their election leaflets. However, they picked up votes due to simply being seen as not one of the main parties – who have delivered nothing in power – and due to hopes that they might at least implement some measures against environmental degradation.

Unfortunately, though, whenever the Greens have achieved positions of power or influence in elected bodies, in Britain or internationally, they have bowed down to capitalist restraints and failed to protect workers’ interests.  In Sheffield in March 2022, for example, their councillors aided the passing of a budget which contained cuts in services.

Regarding the environment, when in power they have only carried out woefully inadequate measures and don’t have a socialist programme that will be essential to stop and reverse climate change.

While mentioning the smaller parties, it’s worth noting that there were no reports of the far right – or populists to the right of the Tories – winning any seats. As well as being welcome news in itself, this also means that the Tories did badly despite a lack of competition for votes on the right.

Struggles to come

This article has been written before the government outlines its legislation plans in the Queen’s Speech on 10 May. Johnson is expected to try to bolster support for his leadership by making some policy pledges on that day. But the ideas that have been coming from cabinet ministers on how to respond to the cost-of-living crisis have been derisory.

There is unease about that within the Tories and fears about the consequences; former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith has called for an emergency budget to cut taxes and boost Universal Credit. But the government has no intention of taking the degree of measures that would be necessary to protect low-paid workers and people on benefits from all the hits from spiralling energy bills, mortgages, rents and food prices.

The latest economic predictions from the Bank of England – of negligible growth, contraction, and even higher inflation and interest rates – worsen the scenario. The global economy is facing great difficulties, linked to the effects of the pandemic lockdowns, the Ukraine war and the boom-bust cycles of the capitalist system. Within that, the UK faces a particularly acute crisis, because of the weakness of British capitalism relative to other major economies, and the impact of Brexit in multiple ways.

One Brexit related issue, the Northern Ireland protocol, came back to the fore of the news when the Catholic-based Sinn Fein became the biggest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly on 5 May. This wasn’t due to substantially increased support for Sinn Fein, but a fall in votes for the Protestant-based Democratic Unionist Party, which is now stepping up its insistence that the Tory government change the post-Brexit protocol of having border checks in the Irish sea.

The price of the worsening economic situation will be paid by more attacks on the living standards of working-class and middle-class people if the government thinks it can get away with them. Many workers and trade unionists have already had to emerge from the Covid pandemic with struggles against their bosses, or preparations for them, in the private and public sector. Now is the time to apply pressure on the trade union leaders for these actions to be coordinated for maximum impact and expanded into a movement that the government won’t be able to ride out.

The national trade union demonstration called by the Trades Union Congress for 18 June, ‘We demand better’, can play an important part in building that movement – with its focus on the need for pay rises higher than inflation.

In addition, the large vacuum on the left in the local elections once again brings home the urgent need for workers to have their own political representation.

In Tower Hamlets in London, the ‘Aspire’ group, mainly former Labour members, won control of the council from Labour with a programme of seizing long-term empty homes to turn into social housing, creating thousands of new jobs, expanding breakfast clubs for primary school children, and bringing outsourced public services back into public hands, among other pledges.

TUSC stand

A number of other left groups stood candidates against Labour and the other pro-capitalist parties. The largest stand among them – over 270 candidates – was presented by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which includes the Socialist Party (see page 5).

These are initial steps towards building a political challenge to the establishment parties on a mass national basis – which will require the building of a new mass workers’ party. The support of hundreds of thousands of workers and youth for Corbyn’s policies during his period as Labour leader showed how a new party could rapidly take on flesh.

With the trade unions playing a key role as part of a democratic party structure and equipped with a programme for socialist change, workers would be able to lead the way forward to an entirely different society.

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May 2022