Tory government feels fury of electorate

Photos: Paul Mattsson, Crown Copyright, World Economic Forum

If anything, the beating the Tories took in the 2 May  local elections in parts of England and Wales was even greater than predicted, as voters vented their fury at the government. In the simultaneous Blackpool South parliamentary by-election there was a 26% swing against prime minister Sunak’s Tory party. They lost 474 council seats, almost half of those they were contesting. The only bright spot for Sunak was the victory of Ben Houchen, the Tory Mayor of Tees Valley facing allegations of ‘industrial-scale corruption’. But Houchen only won by disassociating himself from his own party; even so, his vote fell by 19%.

Post-election, Sunak’s sacked ultra-right wing home secretary, Suella Braverman, has led the attack on him. She declared that she regretted supporting him for leader, but she also said, “We must not change our leader. Changing leader now won’t work: the time to do so came and went. The hole to dig us out is the PM’s, and it is time for him to start shovelling.”

Braverman, and probably the others with leadership ambitions, would rather Sunak ‘walks into the guns’ and leads the party to defeat in the  general election due by the end of this year, while they get on with preparing for the inter-Tory civil war that is coming afterwards. Given this, right now it doesn’t appear likely that Sunak will be forced into a general election before the summer, although nothing is certain given the government’s fragile state.

Tory collapse

Regardless of when the general election takes place, 2 May was a further confirmation of what the outcome will be. Starmer’s New Labour was the main beneficiary of the Tories’ electoral collapse, as it will be in the general election. Sunak’s statement that Britain is heading towards a hung parliament with Labour as the largest party is not a serious attempt at  prediction, but it is an admission of the obvious: that his party cannot avoid humiliating defeat.

Nonetheless, as Peter Kellner, ex-president of the YouGov polling company, explained, this is not a repetition of the run-up to 1997, when Tony Blair’s New Labour Mark One won a landslide. As he explains: “The BBC estimates that Labour’s support in this week’s local elections was equivalent to 34% across Britain. In 1996, the last local elections before Labour returned to government, the party won 43%.” However, he concludes, Labour doesn’t need to be doing as well as in 1997 “to win a comfortable victory” because the Tory vote is set to fall much further.


Growing hatred of the Tories does not, however, equal enthusiasm for Starmer’s ‘Tory-lite’ New Labour. In Blackpool South, Labour’s candidate got almost 2,000 votes less than Labour did in 2019, to record its lowest result in the constituency since 1983. In the local elections, Labour’s support actually fell by one point from 2023.

Nor did the other mainstream ‘establishment’ party, the Liberal Democrats, make significant progress overall. They increased their tally of councillors by 104, but their vote share remains around 10%, and a number of ‘traditional Tory’ areas – like Rushmore in Hampshire – went Labour rather than Liberal Democrat.

Most importantly, the election was another demonstration of the depth of disillusionment with all the mainstream capitalist parties. Many voters stayed at home. Others, however, expressed their anger by voting for parties which they saw as anti-establishment. On the right, Reform UK scored an average of 12%, up from 7% in 2023, in the tenth of seats where they stood, but only got two new councillors elected.

Green gains

However, the biggest anti-establishment votes were to the left. The increased vote for the Green Party, which won a substantial 181 councillors, mainly represents a search by voters for an anti-austerity, anti-war alternative to Starmer’s Labour. But in reality the Greens are no such thing. Some socialists have joined the Greens, but as a party it accepts the constraints of the capitalist system. Where Greens have been in power at local level, they have implemented austerity.

In the 2019 general election, the Greens had an electoral arrangement with the Liberal Democrats – who were part of the vicious austerity coalition government from 2010-2015 – standing down for them in 40 seats; yet they stood against Jeremy Corbyn and other left Labour candidates. This time they are refusing to stand down in Islington North where Jeremy Corbyn is expected to run as a left independent, just as they stood against Jamie Driscoll, the left independent who stood for the North East Mayor.

Independents’ stand

Independents also made gains in these local elections, with an extra 93 councillors in that category. The label ‘independent’, of course, says nothing about the candidate’s politics or record. While some were ex-Tory right-wing populists, others, notably Jamie Driscoll who got 126,652 votes, 28%, for North East Mayor, were part of the left forced out of Labour under Starmer.

Others again were good activists, often from a Muslim background, standing in opposition to the onslaught on Gaza. Still others, in areas with large populations from Muslim backgrounds, were previously Labour career politicians who, under pressure from their electorates, broke with Labour and stood as independents. That is welcome, but only if they also break with Labour’s implementation of Tory cuts and start to stand up for the working-class communities they represent. However, even the best of the independents are standing as individuals, rather than the representatives of collective working-class interests which we are going to desperately need in the council chambers and parliament under the next government.

Whatever the exact outcome of the general election, we are heading towards a Starmer-led government. Millions will vote Labour because they see it as the best means to get rid of the Tories, and there will be huge relief when they are finally booted out. But it is already clear that Starmer’s Labour will not stand in the interests of the working-class majority.

Starmer workers’ rights pledge

Correctly, Sharon Graham, Unite the union general secretary; Mick Lynch, Rail Maritime and Transport union general secretary; and Matt Wrack, Fire Brigades Union general secretary and currently President of the TUC, have publicly warned Starmer against rolling back the very limited ‘workers’ rights’ that have been promised. They should go further, and pile the pressure on Starmer to commit to other measures that would improve workers’ rights, including increasing the minimum wage to the TUC demand of £15 an hour, repealing all the anti-trade union laws – not just the 2016 Trade Union Act pledge – and nationalising Tata Steel and Royal Mail.

Starmer’s Labour, like any pro-capitalist government, could be forced to give concessions under mass pressure from the working class. However, to achieve that, the trade union movement will need to be prepared to take industrial action against Starmer’s Labour, as it has done against the Tories. And it will also need its own independent political voice.

Last week the ex-Tory health minister, Dan Poulter, crossed over to the Labour benches confident that, “thanks to Keir Starmer Labour has changed fundamentally. The Labour Party of 2019”, as he accurately declared, “has been consigned to history.”  The growth in support for Greens and anti-war, anti-austerity independents is a sign of the search for a party that, as a minimum, stands for the kind of programme – including mass council house building, rent controls, scrapping tuition fees, and nationalisation of Royal Mail, the energy supply companies and more – that has been ‘consigned to history’ by Starmer.

Workers’ general election stand

As anger grows with a Starmer government’s defence of the capitalists’ interests, demands for the affiliated trade unions to stop funding Labour and begin to build a new party will also grow. What is needed is a mass democratic workers’ party, based on the organised working class, with socialist policies.

That is not likely to be achieved before the general election, but further steps to prepare the ground can be taken now. It is entirely possible that a bloc of workers’ MPs, including Jeremy Corbyn and others, could be elected and from day one force Starmer to at least look over his left shoulder.


In these elections, the Socialist Party stood as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). TUSC is an electoral coalition which was co-founded by the late Bob Crow, then general secretary of the RMT transport workers’ union. Its primary goal is to enable trade unionists, community campaigners and socialists who are fighting for a new mass workers’ party to stand candidates against pro-austerity establishment politicians under a clear banner. In the 10% of council seats where TUSC stood, voters had the opportunity to support a clear anti-austerity, anti-war candidate.

It is no coincidence that these were the best results for TUSC since it was relaunched in 2020 after Corbyn’s defeat inside Labour. In total, TUSC was able to achieve over 40,000 votes on 2 May. In the local elections it had a post-relaunch record 46 candidates who got 5% or more, with ten getting over 10% and two – Socialist Party member Nadia Ditta in Southampton Bevois and Hasan Tunay in Deepdale, Preston – scoring over 30%. In the London Greater London Authority North East seat, candidate Nancy Taaffe increased her vote from 3,236 to 5,595. The TUSC candidate for the Salford Mayor, Sally Griffiths, won 2,681 votes, 5.4%. (For full report on TUSC votes see

While TUSC’s results were still modest, they point towards the growing search for a socialist alternative to Starmer’s New Labour, even before the advent of a Starmer-led government. They are also a positive demonstration of the benefits of democratic collaboration between different forces, around a minimum anti-austerity programme, with trade unionists playing a central role.

Not all left forces that stood in these elections did so under the TUSC umbrella. Of those who stood outside it, the most significant was the Workers’ Party who sit as observers on the TUSC steering committee, but stand outside its umbrella. They got a total of 27,000 votes and four councillors elected. The Workers’ Party has begun announcing prospective candidates for the general election. However, maximising the strength of the independent workers’ voice in the general election will not be achieved by unilateral declarations by any organisation. Instead, discussions among trade union and socialist organisations locally will need to take place to coordinate the general election challenge. TUSC’s ‘umbrella’ approach is designed to facilitate this method.

On 2 May modest but important steps forward were taken in the fight for working-class political representation. Now the battle is on to build on that for the general election to help prepare the working class for the storms ahead under Starmer.

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May 2024