The Socialist 25 May 2006
Time to stand up to NHS cuts!
London: The political landscape after the local elections
FOLLOWING THE recent London local elections, PAULA MITCHELL examines the new political make-up of the capital and the prospects for working class political action over the burning issues of health, housing, transport and racism.
NEW LABOUR have been hammered in the council elections in London. The Tories have taken control of seven councils, while six have fallen to no overall control. The Tories now control 14 councils, Labour seven and the LibDems three. There are now eleven BNP councillors in Barking and Dagenham, and 15 Respect councillors, 12 in Tower Hamlets and three in Newham.
The Tory vote in London to a large extent is a 'return-to-the-fold' of voters who turned to Blair's New Labour temporarily. Most of the boroughs which have gone to the Tories this time have been Conservative more often than not for decades.
One exception to this is Hammersmith and Fulham, which has not been under Tory control since 1968 (when the majority of councils were Tory). It would appear that middle-class people and a small layer of workers may also have voted Tory because London, especially in terms of housing, transport and collapse of public services, is at the sharp end of New Labour's big business policies.
The Labour vote did not drop uniformly however. There is a big element of the vote which was simply against whoever was in power - in other words against big business policies. For example, in Islington, New Labour gained 12 councillors from the LibDems and the council went to no overall control; they took ten from the LibDems in Lambeth to take over the council.
In Richmond the Tories, despite making gains elsewhere, lost 16 councillors and control of the council to the LibDems. The Greens did very well in some parts of London, partly as an easy protest vote.
But significantly, the Socialist Party scored excellent results, getting Lewisham socialist councillors Ian Page and Chris Flood re-elected and a tremendous vote for Jess Leech, our third candidate in that ward.
We also achieved good results in our small campaigns in Walthamstow and Southwark, showing a definite increase in the number of people consciously wanting to vote socialist.
Big business policies
The election result which has generated most national comment has been the BNP winning eleven councillors in Barking and Dagenham. Sections of the press have even suggested that if the BNP had stood in every seat they would have taken control of the council. However, in one ward they only polled 106 votes, indicating that they probably picked their wards carefully.
But this result is no surprise. The BNP have achieved a similar level of votes for the last few years.
Labour MP Margaret Hodge, scapegoated by the government, was right when she said that white workers feel that Labour isn't listening to them. But of course she and others of her type do nothing to fight New Labour's big business policies.
Barking and Dagenham is an area that has been blighted by big business policies. The workforce at Fords at Dagenham has been decimated, losing thousands of local jobs over the last few years. There is a housing crisis due to privatisation and no new build.
The NHS cuts in the Barking, Havering and Redbridge Trust are the worst in London at over 600 job losses. Of course, it is not just white workers affected by this, but working-class people from all backgrounds. But fears and resentment about asylum seekers and immigrants has been whipped up by the New Labour politicians and their friends in the media.
However predictable, the BNP's election is a dangerous development. They masquerade as a party for white workers, but in fact they offer no alternative to the cuts and privatisation of our services, or to job losses and low pay. Where they have had councillors in other towns, they have failed to even vote against cuts and council tax rises, never mind organise campaigns against them.
In fact, it is impossible for the BNP to mobilise effective campaigns on such issues because to do so requires the unity of working people against the privateers and profit-seekers, whereas the BNP is based on dividing working people against each other.
What is also dangerous is that the BNP whip up racism and their election could encourage a minority to carry out racist attacks and abuse. On a more optimistic note, their election will probably lead to increasing numbers of people, particularly young people, wanting to combat the BNP in that area and elsewhere. Campaigning against racism amongst young people will be an essential part of the Socialist Party's work.
It is also possible that a layer of trade unionists and community activists in that area will now start to look for a more effective method to combat the BNP. 12 years ago the BNP won their first councillor in London, who was then defeated by a community and trade union campaign, in which the Socialist Party's predecessor the Militant and Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE) played a major part.
Then the BNP won a councillor in Dagenham two years ago. They were defeated again, but their vote did not go down. The main campaigns, conducted by a broad grouping called 'Barking and Dagenham Together' and by Unite Against Fascism, campaigned for a maximum Labour and "anti-racist" vote. The Liberals stood down on that occasion in favour of Labour.
We do not doubt the genuine anti-fascist and anti-racist views of those who participate in these campaigns and recognise that some of them have worked very hard. But we warned at the time that this approach would not be sufficient in future to keep the BNP from winning further seats in some parts of London.
It is vital that an alternative is built that fights in the interests of working-class people and which brings together workers from different communities, with campaigners, trade unionists, socialists and radical environmentalists.
Socialist Party members will be stepping up our campaigning in Barking and Dagenham for a new mass workers' party.
The defeat of New Labour councillors in Tower Hamlets by Respect is to be welcomed. But the perception of Respect as a party for Muslims, and the danger of divisions developing between different communities, will not be lessened by the fact that all their elected councillors are from a Muslim background and in Muslim areas.
Respect councillors, as the largest opposition group in Tower Hamlets, will now be severely tested.
The Socialist Party has a proud record of councillors posing a socialist alternative, in Lewisham and Coventry.
We have the experience of Liverpool city council in the 1980s, which, led by supporters of the Socialist Party's predecessor, Militant, built thousands of council houses, provided jobs on decent pay, built new schools, parks and leisure centres, and led a mass community and trade union campaign to force extra money from the Thatcher government.
In Tower Hamlets, our Socialist Party members are writing to the Respect councillors to propose discussions on how to pose a working-class, anti-cuts, anti-privatisation alternative in Tower Hamlets.
Some Respect councillors have a good record of campaigning and we hope to be able to work with them. These elections have given us a snapshot of developments in London. The reality is that large numbers of working-class and middle-class people in are increasingly disillusioned in all the main parties, and it is no surprise.
In this issue
Socialist Party NHS campaign
Environment: Nuclear power
Campaign for a New Workers Party
Socialist Party workplace news
International socialist news and analysis