Keith Morrell, 2nd from right, was reelected as an anti-cuts councillor in Southampton, May 2018

Keith Morrell, 2nd from right, was reelected as an anti-cuts councillor in Southampton, May 2018   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Local election results are a major warning sign for Labour

Hannah Sell, Socialist Party deputy general secretary

The third round of local elections since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party took place on 3 May 2018. In their wake, inevitably, capitalist politicians of every hue are attempting to use them to attack Corbyn and the Labour leadership.

Rattled by the 3.5 million strong surge to Labour in last year’s snap general election they feared that these elections would be another decisive step forward for Corbyn. When that didn’t transpire, with Labour only making modest gains, the cry has gone up, as the Economist commentator Bagehot put it, to declare “Corbynmania is now officially dead”.

Unsurprisingly the Tories, having been prepared for a disastrous night, are trying to paint the net loss of only 33 seats as a victory. But it is not only the right-wing press and the Tories that are trying to use the election results to hurt Corbyn, the capitalist wing of his own party are escalating their latest onslaught on him.

Blairite Chuka Umunna was one of numerous right-wing Labour MPs who attacked the result and demanded ‘an internal inquiry into the party’s campaign.’ Of course, any genuine inquiry would lay blame at Umunna and friends’ role in the run up to 3 May, with their relentless attempts to falsely claim antisemitism is rife in Corbyn’s Labour.

This is now being escalated further. The leader of Barnet Labour Group has laid the blame for failing to win his council firmly at Corbyn’s feet, saying voters rightly “felt the Labour Party has failed to deal with antisemitism at a national level”. Unfortunately, there is no doubt that – in a borough where around 15% of the electorate is Jewish – the false charges of antisemitism had an effect, especially given the failure of the Labour left to vigorously rebut them, instead endlessly retreating in the face of them.

Stop the retreat!

The most important lesson of these elections is that the retreats in the face of the Blairites must stop. The capitalist wing of the Labour Party remains determined to defeat Corbyn and will use all means to do so. The task of removing them – as part of the process of transforming Labour into a democratic, mass working class socialist party – is overdue and now posed extremely urgently. If, instead, the concessions to the Blairites continue, there is a real danger that disillusionment will set in among many who were inspired by the radical programme of the last general election as they sense, rightly, that a party that cannot stand up to the capitalists in its own ranks would be unlikely when in power to stand up to the capitalist class in order to fight for a programme for the many not the few.

Nonetheless, these mixed local election results do not preclude a new wave of enthusiasm for Corbyn in the next general election. However, they do indicate warning signs. One hundred and fifty councils had elections, covering many major cities and towns in England. Labour made some gains, largely based on a continuation of the swing to Labour in London, albeit on a smaller scale than predicted beforehand. However, Labour’s net gain was only 77 councillors nationally, with no change in the number of councils it controlled.

The Tories succeeded in unseating a handful of Labour-led councils in working class areas – such as Derby, Nuneaton and Bedworth, and Basildon. According to the BBC’s national share of the vote projections, if the local election results were to be repeated in a general election, they would put Labour and the Tories neck and neck on 35% each.

Local and general elections are not the same

Of course local elections are not the same as general elections, as May learnt to her cost last year when they seemed to point to a Tory landslide in June’s general election. One important difference is the much lower turnout in local elections, and in particular that young people tend not to participate. In last year’s general election 68.8% of people voted, with queues of young people in particular at polling stations up and down the country.

There are not yet national figures on turnout for this year’s local elections, but a small minority of wards had a turnout of over 40%, with 30% or less common in working class areas. Without doubt a majority of both young and working class people did not vote in Thursday’s elections.

For Corbyn to have convinced bigger sections of them to have voted it would have had to be linked to an active, mass campaign to force May to call a general election to get the Tories out. The TUC trade union demonstration taking place on 12 May has the potential to be a step in that direction, if it is built for as a mass ‘Tories Out’ demo, although unfortunately it appears to be being built for in an entirely routine way by the right-wing leadership of the TUC.

An essential aspect of such a campaign would be demanding that the 124 Labour-led councils in Britain stop implementing Tory austerity and instead refuse to carry out cuts, using reserves and borrowing powers to plug the gap left by the government’s slashing of local authority funding, while building the movement for an end to Tory rule.

TUSC campaigners in Newham, May 2018

TUSC campaigners in Newham, May 2018   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Unfortunately, Labour councillors overwhelming remain a bulwark of the Labour right. Labour authorities have consistently done the Tory government’s bidding, implementing huge cuts to public services, cutting wages, and selling off services and land to private companies.

Even Polly Toynbee, a supporter of the Labour right, bemoaned what it currently means to be a Labour councillor, and do “the dirty work of austerity”, and declared: “The wonder is that anyone stands as a councillor at all when political choice has been so drained by the savagery of the cuts.” In fact Labour councils do have a choice. If they were to stand up to this weak, divided government and refuse to implement cuts there is no doubt that they could defeat it.

Given their experience of austerity being introduced by councils of every political stripe it is no wonder that many did not bother to vote. One of the few areas with a significant increase in voter turnout was Haringey, where it increased from 33 to 39%, reflecting the desire of residents to protest against the previous Blairite council’s HDV gentrification scheme.

Some in Haringey will have had hopes that the incoming ‘Corbynista’ Labour council would represent a break from the Blairites that came before. Unfortunately, however, in a bid to appear ‘united’ with the Blairites, Haringey Labour candidates did not feature the campaign against HDV in their material, and although they stood on a programme with many anti-austerity policies, they are only promising to implement them in 2022, if Labour wins the general election then, because of an acceptance of the completely mistaken idea that councils cannot successfully refuse to implement cuts now.

As a result, the Lib Dems made some gains, partly by being able to pose as the anti-HDV party. It is a serious mistake that Corbyn and the Labour left have not clearly opposed the false argument that Labour councils have to make the cuts. If the current situation continues and the Tories somehow cling on to power until the next scheduled general election in 2022, local council services will have been virtually wiped out.

Voting to protest against the cuts

Many of those who did vote in the local elections did so to protest against the misery that has been inflicted on them at local level. The capitalist media has drawn a direct link between Labour losing places like Basildon, Nuneaton and Derby and the question of Brexit. But while it is true that these are all areas where a majority voted for Brexit, and also where some who had previously voted Ukip switched to the Tories, it is too superficial to suggest that Brexit was the only, or even the main, issue which motivated voters.

The fundamental drive behind the working class vote for Brexit was an elemental revolt against decades of low pay, poverty and public service cuts. No surprise that the areas where that anger was deepest, often de-industrialised predominantly working class towns, were also areas where voters wanted to express their anger at their local Labour councils that have implemented cuts.

In the case of Basildon, outrageously the previous cuts-implementing council was actually a Labour/Ukip coalition! However, there is nothing automatic about workers who previously voted Ukip moving to the Tories. In the snap general election it is estimated that around a million people who had previously voted Ukip switched to Labour, showing the possibility of winning them on the basis of an anti-austerity programme.

Corbyn’s position on Brexit in the snap election, supporting Brexit on a pro-working class, anti-racist basis, was also a factor in enabling his anti-austerity programme to get an echo among this section of the working class. If, however, as was the case in these local elections, Labour is not offering an anti-austerity alternative, it is bound to give reactionary and racist forces an opportunity to capitalise on workers’ anger.

At the same time, in inner city areas, Labour’s vote tended to hold up or even increase, not least because many workers from ethnic minorities see Labour as a certain protection against the blatant racism of the Tories, which was written large by the Windrush scandal.

TUSC campaigners in Walthamstow, May 2018

TUSC campaigners in Walthamstow, May 2018   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

It was not only the right that gained from anger at Labour councils. The Greens won 39 council seats in these elections, a net gain of eight. An important aspect of this was a desire of a layer of people who have voted for Corbyn’s Labour nationally to support what they perceived as a more anti-austerity alternative at local level.

While on the surface it could appear that we have returned to the post-war era of two party politics, with entrenched loyalties to both the Tories and Labour, this is not the case. Support for Jeremy Corbyn does not equal automatic loyalty to Labour but rather a searching for an alternative to austerity.

TUSC candidate Hugo Pierre, May 2018

TUSC candidate Hugo Pierre, May 2018   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

It was therefore absolutely correct that the Socialist Party, as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), stood candidates in these local elections against some of the worst Blairite cutters. While TUSC does not have the national profile of the Greens, and therefore generally got more modest votes, we were alone in putting forward a fighting programme for anti-cuts councils and, by standing, were able to reach significant layers of workers and young people with our message, including some of the best activists in the Labour Party.

In Southampton, Socialist Party member and anti-cuts councillor Keith Morrell was re-elected on a landslide, with 1,595 votes (46.9%). His nearest rival, the Labour candidate, received 958 votes. There were other very good results, notably Mike Forster, standing in Crosland Moor & Netherton, in Kirklees, got a very creditable 701 votes (14.2%). On average the TUSC vote was slightly higher than last time it stood (see TUSC results report for the full picture).

The role of Brexit

Brexit did, of course, play a certain role in the elections, and continues to loom over the Tory Party in their aftermath. The Liberal Democrats were reduced to a tiny rump the last time these seats were contested, in 2014, losing 310 seats and hated for their role in the Con-Dem coalition. Their resurge this time (of 75 seats) is therefore still very limited. However, it is clear that the success they had was mainly in middle class Remain-supporting areas, where a section of Tory voters switched to the Liberals.

Something similar was also an element of the increase in the Green vote, although it was clearly secondary in areas like Sheffield and Waltham Forest for voters wanting to express their anger at the actions of the Labour councils.

Criminally, however, in some areas the Greens seem to have had an electoral pact with the Lib Dem cutters – on the basis of supporting a second Brexit referendum. What next? Will they support a pact with pro-Remain Tories? This shows, despite the left outlook of many Green voters, the extreme limits of their leadership.

Party splits

May will be hoping that the elections have left her party, and her leadership, in a marginally stronger position than before. At the same time, however, the hard Brexiteers in the cabinet are declaring the results as a vindication of their stance. Ludicrously, Boris Johnson claimed that his stance on leaving the Customs Union was ‘key’ to the Tories’ election ‘successes’.

It is still possible that in the coming days, weeks or months one or more Brexiteer minister will walk out of the cabinet because they cannot swallow May’s proposal on the Customs Union, considering it too close to continued membership. If, on the other hand, they manage to push their own proposal through the cabinet, it is likely to be defeated in parliament, with a section of the Tories voting against the government.

If May is forced out, it is very difficult to see how the Tories could elect a new leader without their Brexit civil war breaking out completely into the open. So while the Tories could still stagger on for a period, it is also possible that a general election could be upon us within months.

In that situation the Blairites, acting on behalf of the capitalist class, will do their best to sabotage a Corbyn victory and, if they fail at that, to assist the ruling elite in trying to prevent a Corbyn government implementing any significant pro-working class policies. In the post-election period they are already further ramping up their campaign, not least by demanding Corbyn puts a neo-liberal, pro-capitalist single market position on Brexit.

One means they have at their disposal is for a section of them to split from Labour and form a new ‘centre’ pro-capitalist party. At the moment big business Britain has no party that reliably represents its interests. Mutterings about forming such a party – pro-capitalist and pro-Remain – and involving Blairites and Osbornites, have been rumbling for nearly two years now and may still not come to a head quickly. It is implicit in the situation, however.

Such are the divisions in both major parties that it is impossible to guess whose forces might split first. It is certain, however, that such a process would not be clean and clinical but chaotic and unruly, ultimately reflecting the crisis of British capitalism.

Meanwhile, the support for Corbyn has created the potential for a mass democratic party of the working class, which is desperately needed. If it is not to be squandered it is vital that there are no more retreats, but instead the start of a determined campaign to transform Labour into a party capable of opposing austerity with socialist policies in deeds as well as words.

This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 6 May 2018 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.