What is my verdict on the local elections that took place in Britain on May 2, asks Susan Moore?
A catastrophe for the Tories with the loss of 1,269 seats out of around 8,500 that were up for election. The idea spun at one point during Friday morning on Radio 4 that a Tory spokesperson doctor had predicted 1000 seats in order to make the reality look better was dropped from news broadcasts once the number of losses soared above that.
A particular disaster for the Prime Minister: the drums demanding her immediate resignation have certainly got louder since the results came in – making their way onto the floor of Welsh Tory Party conference in Llangollen. And this is not just a verdict on the personal qualities (or lack of them) of Theresa May, but symptomatic of the deep chasm inside the Tory Party which seems to be reaching unbridgeable depths.
Labour were unable to capitalize on the worst Tory government since Margaret Thatcher (whose 40th anniversary the media has been bleating about all week), making a net loss of 63 seats. The decision of the Labour Party NEC refusing to commit to a second referendum in all circumstances was strongly rejected by many campaigners and voters – and predictably the party paid a serious price at this ballot box.
It’s true that mainstream journalism in Britain is becoming sloppier almost by the minute. The BBC for example, even after all the results were in were still ridiculously running headlines which make an equivalence between Labour and Tory seat losses. But this is scant consolation.
Brexit key issue
Overall, Brexit was the main determining factor as to how (or whether) people voted than national politics usually is in local elections. That’s the case for many people whether they voted leave or remain in the referendum. Leavers who are still committed to that view think we should have left already. Remainers in our majority think that the best way of securing victory from the jaws of defeat is to commit to a second referendum – obviously with Remain as an option for which we fight.
And its not just that Brexit has been dominating both the media and conversation for almost as long as anyone can remember. These elections take place in the context that local government has less and less capacity to make a difference in the context of austerity and relentless cuts to funding from central government.
Labour councilors in general are as much a bastion for the right and the machine as the Parliamentary Labour Party but the Corbyn leadership have not made challenging this a political priority, not organizing to make this a point of resistance to the Tories – which would have meant confronting this conservative layer.
There were therefore places where people were not motivated to vote Labour because they don’t see that it makes any difference…. And saying as much of the media has done that opposition parties should be doing well ignores the fact that in some places Labour is the establishment not the opposition. t’s not true everywhere – there were definitely positive votes for Labour candidates particularly where they have been involved in local campaigns or supporting those at the sharp end of austerity – but not enough.
Back to the results. It was a moderately good showing for the Liberal Democrats, who while they are not back to their pre-coalition high point have recovered a bit from the toxicity they accrued from going along with austerity generally – and their betrayal over tuition fees in particular.
No two elections are identical in terms of their political context. These elections didn’t take place across the whole of Britain. There were no elections in Scotland, Wales, London or Birmingham. The system of local government in Britain is possibly the most complicated anywhere in the world – you would need to go back probably 12 years to have the same organizational pattern of seats – and of course very different political circumstances. And the graph of what happened in the metropolitan authorities looks almost like a straight line in comparison with the results in the traditionally Tory shires and in the Unitaries.
In these latter two categories the big swings were from the Tories to the Lib Dems. Some of these represent Tory remainers switching their support to a Remain party, but there were also many leavers deciding to punish their traditional party and voting for the most credible alternative.
The Green results were excellent – the best ever results in local government in their 46 years, building on previous successes but breaking new ground in many other areas and ending up with seats won on 53 new councils. It seems evident that the party not only benefitted from their clear position in supporting a second referendum but also from increasing militancy and public debate around the environmental emergency.
In the week that Jeremy Corbyn, fulfilling his promise to Greta Thunberg, tabled a successful Climate emergency resolution in the Commons on May Day, Labour doesn’t seem to have benefited from strong policy and initiatives on this question. And its not just nationally that Labour has been active – many Labour councilors have taken the initiative to get their local councils to declare climate emergencies, though proportionately the Greens have been even more active there. And in terms of visibility on the streets, whether in #YouthStrike4Climate or XR, not to mention anti-fracking protests, the Greens have been far more visible as a collective than Labour. This is something that environmentalists in the party need urgently to address.
For those parts of Britain where local elections took place, many activists have had scant time to catch their breathe before going out to work in the Euros. But of course, while there will be important continuities between the two campaigns – with Brexit being even more the determinant issue, there will also be significant differences.
Local elections in England are run under First Past the Post while the Euros use a form of proportional representation, the D’Hont method, with only 12 multi-member constituencies (electing different numbers of members) across Scotland, Wales and England. (The North of Ireland, which has a single constituency uses STV).
And there will be parties in this contest who didn’t participate in the local elections. In Scotland, the SNP are standing are standing a full list of six, while in Wales, Plaid are standing a complete slate of four. Across Britain two new parties have thrown their hats in the ring – Change UK and the Brexit Party. The former can’t be very happy to see Lib Dems successes in the locals and have not had much media exposure since the heady days of their launch – so its difficult to predict how they will do.
On the other hand, Nigel Farage and his Brexit party will be rubbing their hands with glee at the local results. The last European elections in 2014 saw Farage, then at the helm of UKIP, win the greatest number of seats (24 to Labour’s 20) and the highest percentage of the vote (26.6% to Labour’s 24.4%). His former party UKIP had a poor showing in the local elections, loosing a total of 36 seats, leaving Farage with a reasonable expectation that he can again top the poll.
But, of course, the dominant question since the local election results came in has been the issue of the discussions between the Tories and Labour over Brexit, due to start again on Tuesday. In an article in the Mail on Sunday, Theresa May appeals to the Labour leadership: “let’s listen to what the voters said in the local elections and put our
differences aside for a moment. Let’s do a deal.”
Many Labour members and supporters have been holding their breaths as to whether such a disastrous capitulation was being contemplated by the leadership. Such a fear was grounded not only in the deeply problematic NEC decision to continue to fudge on April 30 but also in John McDonnell’s tweet on Friday as the results came in which seemed to suggest an agreement could be being contemplated. While McDonnell was quick to reject such an interpretation, his next offering didn’t shed much more light on his approach: I was simply making the point we need to get on with sorting this out whichever way.
So those watching the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday morning with trepidation were mighty relieved to hear McDonnell both lay into the Prime Minister – whose article in fact suggested that it was Labour that should compromise in order to do a deal, as well as be more positive about the prospects of a second referendum.
Labour must lead
No one who is campaigning for Labour to unequivocally support a second referendum thinksmthat doing that would be a straightforward thing for the party to do – let alone that remain would be a certain outcome. Many of us have been long- term campaigners against many of the neoliberal policies promoted by the European Union – we fought for Remain last time without illusions because of the political context, because we saw fighting against Brexit in this situation as the best way to fight racism and reaction.
Many of us argued that the last referendum was deeply undemocratic – excluding 16-17-year olds, whose future will be deeply scarred if Britain goes into not so splendid isolation, not to mention EU citizens currently living here who absolutely should have had a say. In any future referendum, it will be critical to campaign that both these groups have a voice.
While racism, islamophobia and scapegoating of migrants was at the heart of the Brexit campaign and the strongest motivating factor in the Leave victory, that doesn’t mean people should write off every individual who voted leave as an irredeemable reactionary. I agree with the Labour leadership when it argues that Labour’s progressive anti-austerity policies can reach out to many of those people.
And I understand the frustration of some Corbynistas that many of those who are most vocally calling for a second referendum are happy to use any opportunity to attack the current leadership of the party. Arguing the same way as either Tom Watson or Jess Philipps is neither something I expect or relish.
But in the end the issue is more important than that.
I desperately worry that comrades for whom I have the greatest respect at every level of the party seriously underestimate the damage that any form of Brexit would do both by further undermining working class living standards and reinforcing racism and zenophobia . It would strengthen reactionary and racist ideas and cause even greater economic devastation – especially to the very communities that have suffered most from austerity.
And if Labour is seen as even the partial nursemaid of such an outcome, the long-term electoral prospects for the party and its current leadership could easily mean that the difficulties we endured at the local elections will pale into insignificance.
I worry too that there are two damaging responses to the divisions that undoubtedly exist within the Labour movement on the question of Brexit. Those that support a second referendum – including large numbers of particularly young people who joined to support Corbyn are too often dismissed by those on the left who don’t.
More than that though there is a fundamental difficulty about the formal approach of Labour’s leading bodies. It is one thing to say that Labour wants and need to win support both from those who voted remain and those who voted leave last time. I agree. But it is another thing to say you can compromise on a binary choice of actually leaving or actually remaining.
The best way – and in all probability the only way – of getting Corbyn into number 10 is for Labour to put itself at the head of a campaign to repeal Article 50 as soon as possible, to commit itself to a second referendum – and to campaign vigorously to stay in the European Union.