British local elections: important lessons for the left

Tuesday, 10 May 2011
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Elections are simply a snapshot of the mood at any particular moment in time, but they can reveal a lot about the real underlying processes taking place in society. That was the case with the May local elections, which marked the first anniversary in power of the Coalition government and from which we can draw important lessons.

English local election results. Blue is Tory, orange LibDem and red Labour majority councils. Black is a hung council with no overall majority Map somewhat skewed by size of rural councils. Illustration: Nilfanion.English local election results. Blue is Tory, orange LibDem and red Labour majority councils. Black is a hung council with no overall majority Map somewhat skewed by size of rural councils. Illustration: Nilfanion. The media sought to play down the big gains made by Labour in England and Wales, while at the same time, given the advance of the SNP, raising the spectre of an independent Scotland. This was intended to spread confusion about what had happened. Some even went so far as to suggest, with the overwhelming rejection of AV, that it was Cameron and the Tories who were the big winners in these elections.

“The Tories emerged as the decisive winners in the local elections on Friday”, explained the normally sober Financial Times. The Sun, Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph were all crowing. While maintaining these distortions, what they were unable to hide was the utter humiliation of the Liberal Democrats, which took the brunt of the hostility towards the Tory-led Coalition. The Financial Times editorial put it more honestly: “This [the electoral pummelling] amounts to a crisis not just for the party but for the government of which it is a part.” (7/5/11)

As we explained, the Coalition government was the least bad option for the ruling class. What was needed, from their point of view, was a strong single-minded government that would carry through, without wavering, the austerity programme that was required. However, they could only patch together a weak and shaky coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the first time since the 1930s.

The fragility of this deal was quickly revealed in the national backlash over the increase in tuition fees, which the Lib Dems had originally opposed. Now they were in government, they supported the move, to the anger of millions of voters who had voted for the party in the general election. They were regarded as traitors and unprincipled charlatans, who got into bed with the Tories for sake of their ministerial careers. They fell over themselves, starting with Nick Clegg, to collect their thirty pieces of silver and play the role allotted to them.

Clegg told his party to “embrace” the Coalition and its cuts. It had to be all or nothing. The austerity programme was the decisive issue. As a party pledged to capitalism, urgent measures were needed in the “national interest” to cut some £81bn in public spending. This austerity programme, despite all the denials, would fall on the weakest and most vulnerable sections of society. Even Clegg acknowledged that these cuts would be “spine chilling”. This revealed the party’s real colours and represented a betrayal of the trust millions of voters had placed in the Lib Dems.

“Judas” Liberal Democrats

Nick Clegg. Photo: Prime Minister's Office.Nick Clegg. Photo: Prime Minister's Office. The “Judas” Liberal Democrats, therefore, took the worst of the hatred towards the Coalition government, losing over 700 council seats, a third of their councillors seeking re-election, and practically wiping out their support in working class towns and cities in Scotland, Wales and the north of England. They knew it was going to be bad, but they didn’t realise it was going to be this bad. All the support they had slowly built up over the decades in the northern areas was destroyed overnight. They lost their position to Labour in “strongholds” such as Sheffield, where Nick Clegg was elected MP, Hull, Newcastle, Stockport, Liverpool and Bristol. They are now in charge of only one large unitary authority. Their share of the vote slumped from 24% last year to 15% today. The Lib Dem presence in Scotland, meanwhile, has been reduced to a rump of just two parliamentary constituencies and three regional list MSPs. Labour in contrast won nearly 900 seats, as Labour’s core vote turned out and those who voted Liberal Democrat in the general election, looking for change, swung over to Labour. In Scotland and Wales, as elsewhere, the voters reserved their serious anger for the Lib Dems. They had become, once again, a party of the shires and the suburbs. It was their worst election result since the formation of the party.

In the north, the Lib Dems’ identification with the Tories proved toxic. When voters heard the label “Liberal Democrat”, they associated it with “Conservative” and “austerity”. “It’s the toxic nature of the Tory name in the north of England going back to the days of Margaret Thatcher,” said David Faulkner, the Lib Dem’s Newcastle leader, who was toppled in a 10.8% swing to Labour. The image of Clegg slapping Osborne on the back after his budget speech, and the Tories’ shouts for “more”, are impressed on peoples’ consciousness. The Liberals’ former “radical” image has been completely undermined over the last 12 months.

Ironically, the Tories picked up about 80 seats in the local elections, mainly at the expense of the Lib Dems. We should not, however, be surprised. Those who voted Tory in the general election got what they wanted, i.e. a Tory government, carrying out Tory policies. They turned out again to support the Tories in the May local elections. Also those Tory voters who voted the Lib Dems in the general election swung back to the Tories, the genuine article.

The Liberal Democrats were always the second party of capitalism, after the Conservatives. However, ever since the rise of the Labour Party, based on the working class, they were pushed to the sidelines. To rebuild their electoral support, they opportunistically looked both ways, depending on the areas in which they were standing. In the Tory areas, they projected their traditional image. In Labour areas, they attempted to put on a “radical” image to the left of Labour in an attempt to appeal to discontented Labour voters. This was certainly the case in the northern cities, where they attacked the corrupt out-of-touch “establishment” Labour machine. In this way, projecting a “left” face, they made inroads into Labour areas.

That has now not only been thrown into reverse, but the Lib Dems are on the road to oblivion. Their fate is firmly tied to the fate of the Tory-dominated Coalition, which, in the storms ahead, is heading for the rocks. Clegg’s fate is tied to Cameron’s. There will be no revival in their political fortunes. Given the class pressures on them, they can split asunder, as they did before the war. At that time, the party split occurred – ironically – over the Liberals’ entry into the National government in 1931. Lloyd George and his supporters remained outside, hoping to gain from the National Government’s eventual unpopularity. Those Liberals who remained in government were completely swallowed up by the Tories. The Lib Dems, or at least a big section, can face a similar fate.

AV referendum results. Illustration: Nifanion and Jolly JannerAV referendum results. Illustration: Nifanion and Jolly Janner The collapse of the Lib Dems and the relative success of the Tories have heightened divisions within the Coalition. The defeat of the AV referendum campaign has only added to this antagonism. Even before the vote in May, there were already open and bitter arguments, even at Cabinet level, over the antics of the “No” AV campaign, which was backed by the Tories and Cameron. The Lib Dems were outraged by the Tory tactics in the contest, including the personal attacks on Nick Clegg. But all is fair in love and war. Yet such was the bitterness, Lib Dem Minister Chris Huhne even threatened to sue other Cabinet ministers unless they withdrew their lies. Cameron was accused of releasing the dogs of war on Clegg, despite a gentlemen’s agreement. He had to appease the Tory party’s right wing, who were growing very uneasy and disturbed about the concessions made to the Lib Dems.

The defeat of the AV referendum by a margin of 70–30 and on a turnout of over 40% was a humiliating blow to the Lib Dems and Nick Clegg. The referendum was a cherished dream and one of the key factors in their entering the Coalition. The dream has been shattered. Electoral reform has hit the dust and, to the dismay of the Liberals, will not be revived for a very long time. This will add grist to the mill.

A year ago, they hoped the “New Politics” coalition would break the two-party mould. Instead, it has broken the back of the Lib Dems. The profound discontent and disillusionment in many quarters of the party has also led to recriminations and calls for Nick Clegg to stand down as leader.

The crisis has provoked a rethink in the leadership of the Liberal Democrats. Apparently, they now believe relations between the Coalition partners must be more “transparent” and more “transactional”. The Lib Dems must be more formal in the Coalition. “We need to work harder to avoid an impression of chumminess”, stated one ally of the deputy prime minister. First signs of this, despite their initial endorsement, will be the demand for watering down the NHS “reforms” of Andrew Lansley.

The attempts by the Lib Dem ministers to distance themselves from their Tory counter-parts will simply make the Coalition more unstable and divided. This will be highly dangerous strategy as the Coalition enters its most difficult period of actually implementing the austerity measures in face of mass opposition.

Similarly, new pressures are mounting within the Tory party from the opposite end. The Tory “success” in the AV referendum and the local elections has emboldened the party’s right wing. They are demanding that Cameron makes no concessions to the Liberals. They only tolerate the Coalition. “Cameron had better not come before the 1922 [backbench committee] and say he will be giving little away while secretly negotiating with Clegg a dumbing down of public sector reform”, said one right-winger. Rumours of leading Tories urging the PM to ditch the Lib Dems are an indication of such pressures. But it is too early for that. “I hate the Liberals – we all do,” said one Tory MP. “We should go to the country in the autumn but of course we won’t.” The fortunes of the Coalition are tied to the economy. In the period opening up, they will need to hang together or they will certainly hang separately.

How can the Liberal Democrats hope to rebuild their electoral support when they are despised in the urban areas and have made no gains at the Tories’ expense in the south? In other words, in Coalition-friendly areas, the party failed to win over new support. “We have been punished for things that we have had to adapt to on coalition policy and, as it happens, we haven’t gained the benefits for the things [on which] the Tories had to adapt to us”, explained Simon Hughes. In reality, their fate is sealed. The party is in historical decline and in danger of splitting in the period opening up.

Labour vote

On the other hand, there has been a deliberate attempt in the media to downplay Labour’s success in May’s local elections by pointing to Scotland. The ruling class is determined to bolster the Coalition. In fact, Labour nationally did very well, taking 37% of the vote, up 10 points. With the Tory vote holding up, what this really means is that a polarisation of British politics to the left and right is taking place, reflecting the growing class antagonisms within British society.

Welsh Assembly results. Green represents Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru held seats. Illustration: NifanionWelsh Assembly results. Green represents Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru held seats. Illustration: Nifanion In Wales, the party scored a magnificent result, winning 30 out of the 60 seats in the Assembly, but tantalisingly short of an absolute majority. They pushed Plaid Cymru, the nationalists, into third place behind the Tories. The Liberal vote also declined, but the Tories made some very small gains, winning two seats, but losing their leader, once again reflecting a polarisation. Labour won back Blaenau Gwent, Llanelli, as well as overturning a large Lib Dem majority to seize Cardiff Central. It also took Cardiff North, formally held by the Tories. It was a success story for Labour.

In these elections, the working class areas turned out solidly for the Labour Party. It was a solid class vote for Labour in Wales, as in England. In the constituencies vote, Labour got 42.3% of the vote, an increase of 10.1% since the last election. In the regional vote, Labour scored 36.9%, an increase of 7.2%.  

As an aside, we should also recognise the electoral rout of the BNP, which lost all of its five council seats in Stoke-on-Trent and lost 11 seats in total. As we explained, while they were an irritant, as soon as the working class expressed itself, the BNP would be swept aside. That had already taken place last year in Barking and Dagenham, where the 12 sitting BNP councillors were defeated by the Labour Party. This election simply continued the process, creating a massive crisis within its ranks and debts of over half a million pounds.

Scottish vote

In Scotland, for the first time, the Scottish nationalists won an overall majority at Holyrood. Above all, unlike in England and Wales, it was the SNP and not Labour which benefited from the backlash against the Lib Dems. With the shift to the right of the Labour Party in recent years, the SNP has always been seen as a more left-wing alternative. This, however, is false. The SNP is a bourgeois nationalist party. In this election, the Labour Party completely failed to challenge the nationalists by waging a largely negative campaign and not addressing the concerns of the working class.

The SNP won 69 seats, a gain of 23. The Tories won 15, losing 5. Labour won 37, losing 7 seats. However, the Lib Dems won only 5 seats and lost 12. Despite the loss of 7 seats by Labour, the vote for the party largely held up. In the constituencies vote, Labour’s fell by 0.5%. In the regional vote, it went down 2.9%. We should also take into consideration that in last year’s general election, Scotland was the only part of the UK where Labour increased its share of the vote, winning 41 of Scotland’s 59 seats at Westminster. Labour support turned out to keep the Tories out of power. That factor did not enter into the election for Holyrood, where the Tories were also given a bloody nose.

Results of Scottish Parliament elections. Yellow represents SNP held seats.Results of Scottish Parliament elections. Yellow represents SNP held seats. Of course, Labour should have done much better than this, even nationally. The lacklustre campaign of Miliband, who promised cuts, but at a slower pace, did not inspire the electorate. The same was true of the Scottish leader, Iain Gray, who was grey by name and grey by nature.

Now that the nationalists have been handed power in Scotland and promises all sorts of things to the electorate, they will be under pressure to deliver, free from being in a minority administration. Firstly, Alex Salmond has ruled out an immediate referendum on independency until later in the parliament, as, with the current opinion polls showing only 30% in favour, he would lose. Secondly, the administration is facing big cuts in its budget of some £3.5bn.

“There is a tsunami coming down the track – a financial tsunami, and how is the new government going to deal with that, especially given the very serious and committed promises that have been made?” explained Professor Tom Devine, a specialist in Scottish history.

“The next few years in Scottish politics are going to be very interesting – not simply for the potential availability of a vote on independence, but actually how this nation is going to deal with a huge contraction in its public services.”

The nationalists will be put to the test and found wanting. They will attempt to blame London for their problems, but they will be caught between a rock and a hard place.

Failure of the ultra-left

What these elections clearly prove is what the Marxists have said all along, that at the decisive moment, despite everything, the working class always turns towards its traditional organisations. This is something those on the ultra-left have never understood. Once again, these small groups have attempted to challenge Labour in the elections, but have failed miserably.

All sorts of groups, the Socialist Labour Party, the Scottish Socialist Party, Solidarity, Respect, Trade Unionists and Socialists Against the Cuts, and a few more besides, stood in these elections, hoping to make significant inroads into Labour’s vote and win at least a few seats. While within the ranks of these groups there are many very sincere and good militant workers, they have proven once again that that is not enough to displace Labour. Labour remains the traditional mass political organisation of the British workers, in spite of all the rotten policies it has carried out in office.

What better conditions could these left groups ask for to accomplish their aims? We have had the biggest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s, 13 years of New Labour government, and one year of a Lib Dem-Tory Coalition intent on carrying through draconian cuts, which has provoked a movement of tens of thousands of students and led to the March 26 demonstration of at least half a million workers on the streets of London. And yet, despite all these advantages, their electoral results were the worst ever.

In Scotland, where in the past the SSP was able to elect six MSPs to Holyrood, they have suffered the biggest decline. In the west of Scotland, in 2003, the SSP got 18,500 votes. Today, they polled 1,800 votes, 10% of their vote eight years ago. Solidarity, which split from the SSP, polled 4,500 votes in 2007. This time round, they got 450 votes, again 10% of their previous vote.

George Galloway, the former Respect MP, stood in the west of Scotland under the banner of the Coalition Against the Cuts list. They polled 6,335 votes and failed to win any seats. In contrast, the Scottish Senior Citizens Party did better, polling 10,557 votes. In England, Respect lost its two council seats, which were taken by Labour.

The Trade Unionists and Socialists Against the Cuts, which was mainly backed by the Socialist Party and the RMT, claimed a total vote nationally of 25,523 for the 173 candidates it stood in 166 wards, (only 144 stood under the TUSC name).

Of the 173 candidates, only 13 polled over 10% of the vote, mainly those who had been sitting councillors, but who now lost their seats. In the 30 wards where TUSC challenged the BNP, they were outpolled by the BNP in 24 of them. In the 84 wards where they challenged the Greens, the Greens did better in 81 of the wards. In the 46 seats they challenged UKIP, TUSC was beaten in 42 of the contests.

In Coventry, the TUSC candidates stood in all 18 wards under the banner of Socialist Alternative and none were elected. In all but one ward they were the worst performing electoral grouping. In the ward where they achieved over 30% of the vote, St. Michaels, Dave Nellist already sits as their one and only councillor. The candidate this time was Rob Windsor, who had previously been an SP councillor in this ward, but had been defeated by the Labour candidate last year. The reason given for this last year was the high turnout given the General Election. This time, the turnout in this ward was the lowest in the city at 26.7%, but he failed to get elected, polling 30% of the vote, while the Labour candidate got 58%. Meanwhile, Labour gained five seats in Coventry, all from the Tories, giving them 35 out of 54.

In the Assembly Election Regional vote for Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan, Pontypridd, Rhonda, Cynon Valley the results were as follows: Socialist Labour Party 4690; Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts (SP) 830; Communist Party of Britain 516; Christian Party 1873; Monster Raving Lonny Party 1237; Labour 85445. If you leave aside the SLP which has a following among former miners in the valleys, the various small left groups (SP and CPB) came behind an odd religious group and only just in front of the Monster Raving Loony Party! The result for the groups standing to the left of Labour was summed up by one blogger in the phrase, “It has to be the worst collapse of the far left project ever.”

The sad fact about these figures is that despite being very sincere, dedicated and committed, these comrades fail to understand the relationship between the working class and their mass party, the Labour Party. Despite everything, the working class remains loyal to its mass organisations. No amount of effort from the outside will break this link. These small groups on the fringes will never offer an alternative, no matter how much they try.

Testing times ahead

The period opening up will be a testing time for the Coalition. The cuts have not started to bite yet. When they do, all hell will break lose. This will be the darkest period for the Coalition, a time of maximum political and economic pain.

With the economy stagnant and real living standards falling, and the cuts begin to bite, the support for the government will fall like a stone. A new economic slump is also on the horizon, possibly coinciding with the next election in 2015. However, given the mounting opposition, as reflected by the TUC demonstration in March, and the pending industrial action over pensions, there is even a question mark over whether the government can last its full term.

We have entered a stormy period in British politics. The working class will not take the Coalition cuts lying down. Massive class battles are on the cards. Discontent with the government will turn to hatred. Such is the combustible situation that the idea of a general strike is implicit in the situation. The period opening up will be more akin to the 1920s or the 1970s, the stormiest periods in British history. On the basis of capitalism, there is no way out. The working class will firstly fight on the industrial front, which means a battle within the trade unions for a fighting leadership will open up. But after that they will swing onto the political front, as workers realise that trade union protest alone is not enough. This will inevitably feed into the ranks of the Labour Party itself. This means that the mass organisations will be turned upside down.

In this process the need for a fighting militant leadership will become very clear. The Labour Party will be put to the test under the immense pressure of the ongoing crisis of capitalism. Even those who today may consider themselves “moderate” will be enraged by what the future holds. In the process the ranks will turn against the present leadership, looking for a real alternative. On this basis, the perspective will open of a polarisation within the trade unions and the Labour Party and the ideas of genuine socialism will start to get an echo. There is no shortcut past this process. Our task is to patiently explain the ideas of Marxism within the movement and build up a Marxist tendency rooted in the mass organisations of the working class.

Source: Socialist Appeal (Britain)