Peter Taaffe, Socialist Party general secretary
Austerity rejected, photo Paul Mattsson

Austerity rejected, photo Paul Mattsson   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The Con-Dem government suffered a crushing defeat in last Thursday’s elections for local authorities and in the mayoral contests apart from London.

The Tories lost a total of 405 seats, the Liberal Democrats lost 336 seats, while Labour gained 823 seats.

The share of the vote put Labour at 38%, the Tories at 31% and the Liberal Democrats at 16%. Cameron cannot dismiss these results, as he has tried to do, as an example of ‘mid-term blues’, something which all governments experience.

The tide of opposition to the coalition’s policies – particularly its programme of austerity and accompanying cuts – has shattered the legitimacy of Cameron and his partner in crime, Clegg.

Cameron even saw Labour councillors elected in his own rural backyard of Chipping Norton, where even the local burghers rose up against the Tories against the arbitrary imposition of the building of an unwanted local road.

Equally, the shattered and discredited Liberal Democrats were humiliated when a penguin – Professor Pongo, the disguise of a local climate activist – defeated a Liberal Democrat candidate in Edinburgh!

This anti-government tsunami seemed to sweep all before it, touching all corners of Britain. In Wales, Labour gained and the Welsh nationalists of Plaid Cymru – despite selecting a radical leader recently – lost out.

A Scottish National Party ‘surge’ – where they expected to win a majority in Glasgow City Council – never fully materialised. ‘Murdochgate’ probably politically damaged the SNP, with its leader, Alex Salmond, exposed as a collaborator – writing a regular column in the Scottish Sun – with the unspeakable Rupert Murdoch.

In the North, where the Tories are already an endangered species, the tide further eroded the few positions that they hold. In Liverpool, for instance, they came seventh in the mayoral contest!

No enthusiasm for Labour

But these results cannot be taken as an endorsement of New Labour or of Ed Miliband and his policies.

His personal ratings before the election stood at -41%! It was primarily a massive rejection of the Con-Dem government and especially of the savage cuts.

There was nothing in this election campaign of the enthusiasm witnessed in France where the left, particularly the Left Front of Mélenchon, fired up millions of working people with radical policies and a glimpse of changing society.

All that Miliband offers, at most, is a change of curtains: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Will newly-elected or strengthened Labour councils pursue a policy of resistance by refusing to implement the cuts? Up to now, they have unfortunately aped the Tories and Liberal Democrats by acting as transmission belts for the government’s attacks on working-class people.

But if they were to take a stand – even at this late hour – in refusing to implement the eye-watering measures coming down the line, then the anti-cuts movement would be prepared to form a united front with them. If, however, they don’t, their new-found ‘popularity’ will rapidly evaporate.

In reality, working people expressed on the doorstep, on television and in newspapers their complete exasperation with ‘all the main parties’, who are perceived to be ‘all the same’.

This mood has not been dissipated by these elections. This is indicated by the turnout of 31%, the lowest for 12 years.

In other words, the worse the economic and social situation gets, the less the mass of the population is prepared to engage in politics.

If New Labour was really offering something new – a fighting anti-cuts programme allied to the idea of changing society – then working people would come out in their droves to support them.

But, in fact, the votes of all the main parties went down but New Labour just decreased less than the Tories or Lib Dems.

Previous Tory and Lib Dem voters did not swing over to New Labour but tended to abstain. The unavoidable fact is that 70% of the electorate are disengaged on a local level from politics.

They do not believe that what happens in these elections has a major bearing on their lives. This is a very dangerous situation for the capitalists.

The seeds of new riots are being sown. The poor, disenfranchised, jobless young people and working class generally are increasingly excluded from real democratic participation through their own mass party. They will then seek to express themselves by other means.

City mayors

Where the main parties are indistinguishable from one another, it leads to 50% or more of the electorate refusing to vote.

The attempt to further railroad through mayors is another step in the direction of eroding what remains of local democracy.

Nine out of the 10 cities that held referenda for mayors rejected them. Only Bristol was in favour. Clearly, it was a fear that the same thing could have happened in Liverpool that prompted the Labour majority there to undemocratically dispense with a referendum and go straight for an election.

This was a pre-emptive move, a kind of dictatorial coup, to give power to one man who would be better able to ride roughshod over opposition.

With only a month to prepare, Tony Mulhearn (the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition candidate) nevertheless conducted a very effective mayoral campaign in Liverpool, which touched the most combative and advanced layers of the working class, securing a very creditable vote upon which a new campaign of mass opposition to the cuts can develop.

Labour’s council leader Joe Anderson, who rammed through the mayoral contest without popular endorsement, received the near unanimity of the local press and media who, in the main, disgracefully excluded Tony Mulhearn from even being heard.

The lack of enthusiasm for this contest was indicated by the poor turnout, whereas the authors of the contest predicted a big participation by the electorate.

Nevertheless, Joe Anderson, it is claimed, didn’t just receive a good vote but a ‘coronation’. Gordon Brown also received the same kind of accolade when he was elected unopposed as Labour leader and prime minister. He was defeated in his first election as leader.

History has a way of concentrating power in the hands of one individual – this time through the semi-dictatorial Joe Anderson – only then to set in motion the forces of disintegration.

In Liverpool, this will come from the powerful movement of working people – which will echo the magnificent movement of the Liverpool City Council in the 1980s – this time concentrating on defending what has been gained and preventing the city from being plunged further into misery and decay.

However, the struggle locally will this time not be against the Tories and Liberals but primarily against a ‘Labour’ council trying to bulldoze through Tory cuts.

The only crumb of comfort which Cameron can take from these elections was in the London mayoral contest, where Boris Johnson – consistently 6% ahead in the opinion polls – just snatched victory from Ken Livingstone when second preference votes were redistributed, by 51.53% to 48.47%.

But even this is somewhat of a double-edged sword for Cameron. Johnson’s victory was due to a mixture of calculated buffoonery and evasiveness which allowed him incredibly to present himself as ‘different’, more ‘human’ than the Tory party itself.

Also, he conducted a dishonest campaign with the help of the capitalist media bias which covered up his pro-cuts position.

The spotlight was turned on Ken Livingstone for alleged tax evasion – which he never really rebutted effectively – but Johnson was never seriously challenged about his millionaire lifestyle.

This ‘man of the people’, according to his biographer, is “obsessed with making money”. In addition to a mayoral salary of £144,000 and his lucrative TV work, he “earns” £250,000 a year from the Daily Telegraph, which he describes as “chickenfeed”.

When it was suggested to him that he donate 20% of his vast income to charity, he reportedly replied: “It’s outrageous, I’ve been raped”.

If anything, he is to the right of Cameron and Osborne and yet he was allowed to present himself as a ‘populist’.

He criticised the government for not giving more tax cuts to the rich, suggesting a 40p tax rate rather than the 45p implemented by Osborne.

Yet Osborne’s concession to the rich in the recent budget provoked mass outrage and contributed heavily to the Tories’ defeat in this election.

However, Livingstone, trapped in the New Labour ‘straitjacket’ did not fight an effective, radical campaign which could have aroused working people to come out and vote for him.

When he was expelled from New Labour, this was seen as a positive advantage by Londoners. Allied to a campaign on fares and other radical measures, he triumphed.

This time, even his proposals for reducing fares and restoring EMA were muffled. This was because voters were sceptical about whether he would be prepared to carry them out, precisely because he was back in the New Labour fold. Miliband and Balls accept the Tory cuts.

Cameron thinks he can use Johnson’s narrow victory to burnish the image of the Tory party and allow him to ride back to power at the next election, either in tandem with the Liberal Democrats or by winning separately.

However, on the back of his London ‘triumph’, Johnson is now a potential rival for fellow Etonian Cameron’s crown, the leadership of the Tory party itself.

Moreover, the Tory right has a new champion and one who appears to be more successful than Cameron himself.

Their dream is that ‘clear blue water’ – the adoption of uncompromising right-wing policies – can be established with Johnson at the helm.

The advance of UKIP, which scored 13% in the elections – elbowing aside the far-right BNP in the election with its mixture of anti-EU and anti-immigrant propaganda – would then be outflanked by a new right-wing Tory party.

Traditional right-wing Tory policies would regain them popularity, especially with Boris Johnson installed in the Tory party leadership.

To this end, Johnson probably intends to re-enter parliament in 2015, even if this means he combines the role of mayor and parliamentary candidate or MP if a general election is held before then.

In any event, a new round of Tory infighting – which plagued their governments in the past, particularly that of John Major – is likely to break out again and could even result in a split. The economic and social situation of Britain will further the process.

Challenging austerity

The main factor in the defeat of the Tories and their allies the Liberal Democrats – who face complete extinction – in this election is the deteriorating economic and social situation.

The government is besieged by mounting difficulties. On top of the enduring depression, in April the economy was declared to have gone into the long-expected and dreaded ‘double dip’ recession – two quarters of falling output when the economy has still not returned to its size of before the previous recession, the first time this has happened since 1975.

This means, according to the Guardian, that “the economy is now in its longest depression for 100 years, with little sign of regaining its previous record output before 2014”.

The British economy is haemorrhaging jobs. In its wake comes unprecedented social deprivation. Teachers have raised the alarm over malnutrition in the schools with more than one in four teachers saying “they regularly saw children walking miles to school as they cannot afford transport.

“A further two thirds claim they often saw pupils with holes in their shoes… A marked increase in depression and emotional problems, joblessness, took its toll on family life” (Independent).

George Orwell’s famous book ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, a chronicle of the soul-destroying problem of poverty in the 1930s, is back in vogue with comparisons drawn in the Daily Mirror between the situation then and now.

The chief constable of Gloucestershire police resigned because budget cuts were “pushing his force towards a cliff edge”.

Even Liberal Democrats like Lord Oakeshott have declared that it would be “madness” to carry through further cuts, even a further 5%.

The system he supports – capitalism – based as it is on production for profit rather than social need, deems it necessary to carry through austerity – indeed ‘eternal’ austerity – in pursuit of defending the system.

And the government, with ‘slasher’ Osborne in the vanguard, is set on an undeviating course of carrying through their programme of cuts, only 10% of which have been already implemented, right up to the next general election and beyond.

How is the government going to be stopped? How is it possible to persuade New Labour to resist the cuts not just in words but in deeds? They are indeed the local agency of the cuts.

With much weeping and wringing of hands, they are nevertheless carrying out the cuts. How is it possible to influence New Labour to take a stand? By passively sitting in dormant Labour parties complaining? The Labour Party is increasingly composed solely of a ‘salariat’ of paid councillors who have none of the vocation to defend local communities of old. They are seemingly unmoved by appeals to resist the cuts.

Only when they are challenged electorally will they sit up and take notice. This is why TUSC, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, stood in these elections and performed creditably in some areas (see May 2012 local and mayoral elections).

In Coventry, Dave Nellist was unfortunately defeated where, shamefully, Labour apparatchiks devoted most, if not all, of their resources in concentrating on defeating him, while allowing the Tories a free run elsewhere.

They may think that by defeating Dave that TUSC and the Socialist Party will just melt away. This was the perception of right-wing Labour when they expelled the leaders of Militant from the Labour Party in 1983: ‘cut off the head and the body will die’.

In fact, we went from strength to strength. TUSC, building the foundations of a new mass party of the working class, is here to stay.

We challenged across-the-board in the London Assembly election and we freely admit our result was modest.

So were the first efforts of the pioneers of the Labour Party. That did not discourage them from building what was then a new mass party of the working class.

Blair and right-wing Labour have destroyed that party, transforming it into another pro-capitalist party like the Democratic Party in the US.

The success of New Labour is comparable to the success of the Liberals in 1906. This represented a high watermark of the Liberals, but also the beginning of its decline.

No time must be lost in seeking all opportunities to build an independent mass party of the working class in Britain. These are the real lessons of the 2012 local and mayoral elections.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 6 May 2012 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.