Thursday May 2nd 2013 will see local elections for councils in parts of England. Harry Blackwell sets out his own views on the significance of these elections for the left, reviews recent council by-election results for left candidates and looks forward to the elections of 2014, the last big ones before the General Election in 2015.
Local Elections matter
In the highly centralised British state, most political power rests with central government and parliament with the partial exception of recent devolution to the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish assemblies/parliaments. Over the decades of successive Labour, Tory and now Coalition governments, the democratic structures, powers and responsibilities of local councils have been progressively reduced and this has resulted in a corresponding decrease in turnout and interest.
However, local elections do remain important. Despite their emasculation by central government, local councils do still have some abilities to make decisions on local matters and they can act as a barometer of local opinion. For political parties, they provide the opportunity to mobilise voters outside of a General Election period. For left wingers, they provide the opportunity to present an alternative approach to local and national issues alike. Local wards give us the opportunity of building support from the ‘bottom up’. Unlike parliamentary or European elections or even the recent elections for Police and Crime Commissioners, there are no financial deposits or barriers to standing candidates in local elections – typically you only need ten signatures of local people to get a candidate on the ballot paper.
Local government used to be a bastion of Labour influence, especially when they were out of central power. For example, despite losing the General Election in 1951 (though with more votes than the Tories, under distorted first past the post system), Labour swept the board in its ‘high water mark’ in the 1952 local elections and for the only time ever won over 50% of the popular vote in an illustration of the continuation of “The Spirit of ‘45”, so well depicted in Ken Loach’s recent film. During the decade of ‘Thatcherism’ in the 1980s, councils from the GLC to Liverpool provided a potent symbol of resistance. Today the Labour Party in office in local councils is committed to implementing the cuts and policies of the Coalition government and fails to organise resistance to the biggest onslaught on the welfare state ever seen.
The ‘Tory Shires’
The campaigns for the council elections on Thursday 2nd May 2013 have recently been launched by all the parties and nominations are now closed. Due to the succession of piecemeal reforms over the decades, English local government is now a patchwork quilt of different council types and responsibilities, each with their own timetable for election. This makes it difficult to gauge nationally what is going on. The main elections will be for councils covering a large minority of the English electorate – the so-called ‘Shire Counties’, of which there are 32 county councils. There will also be an election for one third of the seats in Bristol and for just one council in Wales (Anglesey), together with mayoral elections in Doncaster and North Tyneside.
There were efforts during the 1960s to reform completely the overall local government structure through a Royal Commission. This recommended a system of large scale ‘unitary’ authorities based on cities and their hinterlands. The policy was accepted by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government at the time, but despite this the incoming Tory government of Ted Heath looked out for their own vested interests and retained what have continued to be called the ‘Tory Shires’. The majority of cities and urban areas were kept outside of the ‘shires’. So, there are no elections in most of the major cities this time – London, Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Liverpool, Newcastle, Leeds and so on, will all sit this election out. Furthermore, successive changes to structure over the last decade have produced an even more bewildering array of modified shire councils, some of them based on rural areas forming a ‘donut’ around larger cities. So, for example, next month there are elections in Nottinghamshire, but not in Nottingham; elections in Leicestershire, but not in Leicester; elections in Hampshire, but not in Southampton and Portsmouth, and so on. Some county councils have smaller, less significant, local district councils under them – a so-called ‘two tier system’, which at least gives some degree of electoral plurality – but some are now unitary, responsible for all council services in their areas.
The removal of many of the urban centres from some of these shire counties has produced an even larger Tory majority in many of them. Coupled with this is the fact that the last time these councils were elected was in 2009, during the dog-days of the discredited Brown Labour government when Labour support was in free-fall. Labour was humiliated and only held one council and a massively reduced number of seats in many areas. Of the more than 2,000 seats up for election in 2009, Labour won only 178, coming a poor third nationally behind the Liberal Democrats. The likelihood for 2013 therefore is that Labour will make some modest gains, and possibly win back three or four of the councils that they lost in 2009 (Lancashire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire are the most likely). However, Labour purely sees this election in terms of preparing for the General Election – there is no sense from them of a movement of opposition or resistance to Coalition policies.
There is little likelihood of significant Labour gains in places like Buckinghamshire and Surrey, where the Tory monopoly is likely to be fought out in a depressing three way battle between Tory, Liberal Democrat and a newly invigorated UK Independence Party. Buoyed by their recent by-election successes, UKIP could do well and are standing a very large body of candidates for the first time in English local elections. A strong showing by UKIP would be interpreted as a shift to the right in the Tory heartlands.
Left prospects in May
However, there will some left candidates challenging the establishment consensus in some of the more urban areas.
The Green Party will be contesting over one third of the seats nationally and will be fighting hard to defend the small number of seats that they won in 2009 in places like Norwich, Lancaster and Oxford. It will be an uphill battle though – in their stronghold of Norwich, the leader of the Green group on Norfolk County Council defected to the Tories in 2011, and is standing again to win back his seat under his new colours. The Greens have won the possibly dubious backing of a former (disgraced) Labour MP in Norwich. The Greens much criticised record in Brighton Council (which is not up for election this year), where they run a minority administration and have implemented cuts, have sadly tainted their record for principled opposition to public expenditure cuts. The Greens joining of the coalition administration in Bristol is another very worrying sign. Nevertheless, many individual Green candidates will have far stronger records of campaigning around anti-war, environmental, economic and social issues in their localities than their Labour opponents.
The strongest hard left challenge in the elections comes from the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), which is comprised of two of the largest ‘far left’ groups – the Socialist Party (SP – formerly the Militant Tendency) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – together with the backing of the 80,000 strong RMT trade union and a small group of independent socialists in the Independent Socialist Network. Although originally somewhat unrealistically promising to stand 400 candidates, TUSC will stand a significant 120 candidates, approximately one in 20 (5%) of the seats up for election. The number of candidates varies a lot around the country, depending on local support for the TUSC affiliates and groups. There are an impressive range of candidates in Warwickshire (22), Hertfordshire (13), Staffordshire (11) and the City of Bristol (14). But everywhere else the number of candidates is in in single figures for councils having 60-80+ seats up for election. Most disappointing is the lack of candidates in Lancashire, despite the SWP holding a district council seat and targeting a parliamentary seat for TUSC there, there are only four TUSC candidates out of 84 seats– including one standing against one of only two sitting Green councillors, an unnecessary confrontation. In neighbouring Cumbria, there are four TUSC candidates in Carlisle, a key working class area in the county. TUSC are also standing a candidate for the Mayor of Doncaster and for several by-elections due on the same day.
There are only handful of candidates for other left wing parties – the Communist Party have a few candidates, as do the Socialist Labour Party, and the Socialist People’s Party have a candidate in Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria, where they could hold a seat. The pacifist Peace Party has four candidates in Sussex and Surrey. Respect have no candidates in these elections that I am aware of.
Sadly, despite initial promise, the National Health Action Party has failed to build on their campaign in the Eastleigh by-election and have no candidates anywhere that I am aware of. At least TUSC has stood one candidate in Eastleigh in these elections, despite doing so badly in the by-election. But for the majority of Eastleigh voters, having been presented with no less than three (!) apparently left wing candidates in the by-election only a few weeks ago, they are back to a choice between the main three parties plus UKIP. It is this sort of ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ electoral activity that gives left wing parties a bad reputation among many sympathetic voters who want somebody fighting for them all year round.
So how well can we expect left wing candidates to do?
The Greens have a wide range of candidates including some sitting councillors and strongholds, but a lot of ‘paper candidates’ too. They are likely to have very varied results, and of course despite their left wing programme sometimes appear in rural areas as more akin to liberals than socialists. The defection of their leader in Norfolk to the Tories is sad evidence of this. Nevertheless in many parts of the country they will be the only repository for a left wing voter.
Recent council by-elections have shown the potential for newer left wing parties. The Lewisham People Before Profit group achieved a magnificent result in March’s Evelyn by-election, coming second to Labour and taking nearly 24% of the vote. TUSC recently won its first by-election in the Yorkshire town of Maltby; albeit a parish council and with only one opponent (notionally independent), it was nevertheless a good result for them. TUSC also won over 8% of the vote in an election last week in Prescot, Merseyside. Even though this was slightly down on their result in the election last year, the sudden appearance of a Green candidate, who only got 14 votes, explains most of the small decline. In Lewisham Evelyn ward, the People Before Profit group came to an agreement with the Green Party to highlight campaigning on local environmental issues in return for their support. TUSC does not have a record of campaigning on environmental issues, though at least it does appear in their programme for these elections. TUSC’s previous depiction in its election literature of the Green Party as the ‘Reluctant Cuts’ party has not helped to build alliances with those members of the Green Party who are active trade unionists, socialists and anti-cuts activists, though in a possibly significant move, it appears to have been dropped from the most recent national poster.
TUSC’s election results have varied significantly in the last 12 months – from an impressive 4,792 votes, nearly 5%, for disqualified former Labour councillor Tony Mulhearn in the Liverpool Mayoral, to a dismal 14 votes in a council by-election in Stoke (you need ten voters to get on the ballot paper!). The difficulty for TUSC is that it only exists as an electoral flag of convenience wheeled out at election time. During the rest of the time, it reverts back to its constituent parts, running their own campaigns through their own organisation. Where TUSC has consistently built a presence or has high profile local figures, it can do well. But as was seen in some of the parliamentary by-elections, parachuting in candidates does it no favours. However these are local elections and to stand you must be local and get nominations, so it is to be hoped that TUSC candidates do well, though there will be some areas where there will be pressure to cast a more useful vote for the Greens. Unfortunately, for a large proportion of potential left voters in this May’s electorate, a vote for Labour will be the only option on offer.
Limited as they are, the May 2013 elections are not going to set the world alight. However, there is a much bigger prospect in store in the elections in 2014. The government is out for consultation on dates at the moment, but the most likely situation is that the local elections and European parliament elections will take place on the same day – Thursday 22nd May 2014. This time the scope of the elections will be massive and it will be the last set of elections before the next General Election in 2015.
All voters will get a vote in the European elections and in addition there will be major local elections across England, including all the major cities – all 32 London boroughs will face ‘all out’ elections and there will be four borough-wide Mayoral elections, and there will be other elections in the other major cities – the so-called Metropolitan Boroughs of Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool etc – and other elections elsewhere.
A key task will be to sort out the mess of left wing parties standing against each other. This is unlikely to be achieved in the European elections where the Greens will want an election broadcast to promote their two sitting MEPs, but at ward and borough level there ought to be discussions and, where possible, agreement. In the last London elections in 2010, the left was virtually annihilated with just 1 Respect and 2 Green Councillors. Yet the ‘all-out’ nature of the London elections where there are 3 votes per ward raises the prospect of tactical candidacies to maximise the left opposition with 1-2 or 2-1 or even 1-1-1 splits of candidates to avoid left-inclined voters having to vote against each other. Respect has already announced that it is to contest every seat in Newham; TUSC will aim to stand extensively in Hackney; Lewisham is likely to see a spate of candidacies. Assuming that the 7,000+ people who have signed the Left Unity want to see a campaign by a new ‘Left Party’ in these elections, local Left Unity groups that are springing up need to discuss whether to stand candidates, and whether it is possible to put together pacts or arrangements that maximise the left votes. An ‘Electoral Strategy Working Group’ of Left Unity, or similar, needs to be set up as soon as possible to prepare the way for this.
As Ken Loach has pointed out, it is UKIP that is currently the main beneficiary of electoral hostility to the three main establishment parties. We need a left that can present itself as a single force in elections and win voters to an alternative, and that includes both a new party and dealing with unnecessary electoral conflicts between the existing left parties and the Greens.