Last week’s local elections saw a disastrous showing for the Coalition
government as the Conservative and the Liberal Democrats respectively
lost 403 and 329 council seats. At the same time the Labour Party saw a
huge net gain of 824 councillors meaning they were able to gain control
of 32 councils across the country.
Last week’s local elections saw a disastrous showing for the Coalition government as the Conservative and the Liberal Democrats respectively lost 403 and 329 council seats. At the same time the Labour Party saw a huge net gain of 824 councillors meaning they were able to gain control of 32 councils across the country.
This is Labour’s best national showing since the general election of 2001, when they received 42% of the vote. For the Conservatives, it is their worst since 1997 and for the Lib Dems one of their lowest levels of support in local elections since the late 1980s. The BBC estimates of the national equivalent vote share shows Labour on 38%, the Conservatives on 31% and the Lib Dems on 16%, meaning that if this were a general election Labour would have won with a small majority.
Although these elections are little more than a snapshot of the mood in Britain at this particular point in time, a careful analysis of the results serves to cast light on the real underlying processes taking place within society. These elections mark the second major electoral test of the Coalition government since coming to power in 2010 and the results could not be clearer: an overwhelming rejection of the government’s vicious austerity programme.
A Vote Against Austerity
Since the Coalition government came to power in 2010 they have embarked on a never ending series of attacks against the working class. Wage freezes, benefit cuts, attacks on pensioners, the ‘granny tax’, cuts to services, attacks on collective bargaining rights and NHS privatisation have all come one after the other, making working and poor people pay for a crisis they didn’t cause.
Some on the left have despaired at the supposed lack of a response from the working class with some even going so far as to say that British workers are too lazy and stupid to defend themselves against the Tory attacks. These people are blind to the processes unfolding in British society. The last year in Britain has seen two mass strikes, the biggest trade union demonstration in British history and the mass outbreak of anger and frustration at the injustices of capitalism in the form of the London riots. Do these things not represent the beginnings of mass fight back against government?
It is indeed true that to a certain extent the government, and the Tories in particular, have enjoyed something of a political honeymoon in the past period with the Tories remaining only marginally behind Labour in the polls. However, the past few months have seen this completely unravel. Ever since the announcement in March of the hugely unpopular budget for the rich, the government have stumbled from crisis to crisis, culminating in these disastrous election results.
The decimation of the Liberal Democrats began in last year’s local elections where they lost 748 seats but the Tories fared fairly well in that election, even gaining 80 seats. However, these elections show that the Tories support has now begun to crumble as their share of the vote has fallen by 7% from last year and they lost control of councils up and down the country. This shows that the mass of seething anger building up against the government over the past two years is beginning to find a political expression.
Liberal Democrats In Decline
Perhaps the most striking element of the elections has been the catastrophic performance of the Liberal Democrats. As well as losing hundreds of councillors and being reduced to control of just 6 councils they have experienced a variety of humiliating defeats, including being beaten into fourth place by the Greens in the London Mayoral election and in winning fewer votes than Professor Pongoo, a man dressed in a penguin suit, in the Pentland Hills ward in Edinburgh.
This has had severe reverberations in the party with their activists deserting in droves and many calling for the resignation of Nick Clegg as leader. Some senior Liberal Democrats have even gone as far as to warn that another set of results like these would actually spell the end of the party as an independent nationwide force.
The historic roots of the Liberal Democrats lie in the merger of the Liberals, the second party of British capitalism, and the SDP, a right wing split from the Labour Party. They have always sought to build their electoral support by opportunistically adapting their programme depending on the areas in which they were standing. Over the past 15 years the rightward shift of Labour under Blair allowed them to adopt an apparent left position with their opposition to the Iraq and the now infamous pledge to scrap tuition fees. They could promise anything under the sun as without any prospect of attaining power there was no chance they would actually have to keep their promises.
However, since joining the coalition they have been forced to reveal their true nature. Much has been made by Nick Clegg about the supposed positive influence they have had on the Coalition, but as the electorate has correctly perceived there is in reality no difference between them and the Tories. Indeed, many voters, in particular young ones, now perceive them to be worse that the Tories as they feel betrayed by their capitulation to the interests of capital.
Fissures in the Coalition Government Deepen
These election results will undoubtedly have a deep impact on the already fragile coalition as each party seeks to blame the other for their failings. Senior Liberal Democrats have already started to attack the government claiming that the party would recover popularity if only growth was restored to the economy. Lord Oakeshott, the former Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesman, has been quoted as saying:
"The Treasury looks like a beached whale after the tide has gone out – there is the odd spout about yet more cuts but basically they are clueless and helpless."
This is of course true, they are ‘clueless and helpless’. They can see the British economy sinking deeper into recession as the global capitalist crisis deepens with each passing day, but they are powerless to do anything about it. As we have explained many times before, growth is not a tap that can be simply switched on and off by the correct policies. As long as they are committed to the maintenance of capitalism the government has no choice but to continue to carry out the cuts and hope for the best.
The government has no breathing room as the colossal scale of the debt will force them to deepen their austerity programme, not lessen it. In this context the attempts by the Lib Dem ministers to pressure the Tories to change course will simply make the Coalition more unstable and divided.
At the same time Tory backbenchers have started to put pressure on their leadership to lessen the Liberal Democrat influence on the Coalition and take a harder right wing stance on a range of issues, especially with an improved performance by UKIP, who gained an average of 13% where they stood. They are worried that the ever growing polarisation in society will mean that their core support will abandon them for parties to their right. These Tories, led by David Davis and John Redwood, have demanded that next week’s Queen’s speech focus on traditional Tory issues such as crime, immigration and Europe.
With the Tories trying to pull the government in one direction and the Liberal Democrats attempting to push it in another, the stage is set for a series of greater and greater confrontations that could rip the Coalition apart. As long as the Liberal Democrats remain in government they are likely to face almost complete political liquidation at the next election. At a certain point this realisation will dawn on the thick skulled Liberal Democrat leadership and they could attempt to save the party by breaking with the Tories. Therefore, an early election before 2015 cannot be ruled out. The only thing that is certain is that the current period will be one of extreme political instability.
An Alternative to Austerity?
The message the people of Britain have given the government with these results is unambiguous and to the point: no more cuts, no more attacks on living standards and no confidence in the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. However one of the most striking features of this election had been a historically low turnout of 32%, the lowest in an election since 2000.
It is clear from this that the dominant mood in society is one of disgust with politicians
as a whole. The majority of people did not vote and for many of them the reason is simple; ‘it doesn’t make a difference, they’re all the same’. The level of discontent across Britain is huge; people hate the government and are beginning to understand that their policies of austerity will only make their lives worse, but at the same time they have not turned out to vote for Labour.
The blame for this must be placed squarely on the Labour leadership. In reality Labour is offering no real opposition to the cuts. They agree with them in principle, only arguing that they should be implemented more slowly. They support the public sector pay freeze but refuse to support workers striking to defend their pensions.
The Blairites insist that Labour must maintain a ‘responsible’ position on the economy and that any move to the left would be ‘electoral suicide’. But as George Galloway’s stunning victory in the Bradford West by-election demonstrates, this is utter nonsense. Galloway won 55.9% of the vote, over twice as many as the Labour candidate, with a turnout out of 50%, and did so fundamentally on the basis of his staunch opposition to the cuts.
If the Labour party is to win the support of the vast majority of society, they must be clear and unambiguous about whose interests they represent and fight to defend the working class from government attacks. In short, they must live up to their name and become a party of labour.
London Mayoral Election
Despite their comprehensive defeat on a national scale the Tories will take some consolation in Boris Johnson’s victory in the London mayoral election. Bucking the national trend Johnson beat the Labour candidate, Ken Livingstone, with 51.53% to 48.47% of the vote – the narrowest to date in the London mayoral election.
The capitalist press has sought to explain this victory on a purely personal basis, highlighting Johnson’s supposed ‘charisma’ and the scandal over Livingstone’s tax affairs. While personal issues undoubtedly played a role in the election, to claim them as the decisive factor is a supremely superficial explanation that ultimately tells us nothing about the real political situation.
In his election night speech Livingstone correctly highlighted the disgraceful role played by the capitalist media. The Murdoch papers, the ‘Daily Mail’ and the ‘Telegraph’ were all united in their constant stream of vile smears against him. The supposedly unbiased ‘Evening Standard’ was even worse with its toxic combination of daily hysterical attacks on Livingstone as a ‘homophobe’ and ‘anti-Semite’ and lavish praise for Johnson. Is it any wonder that this happens when its owner, Evgeny Lebedev, refers to Johnson as a ‘personal friend’? It is clear that the capitalists could not succeed in holding back the tide of anger and disgust against their political representatives on a national scale, but sensing a weakness in Livingston they focused their attacks in order to secure this key strategic position for the Tories.
The Blairite wing of the Labour party has never forgiven Livingstone for winning as an independent in 2000 and this time around these Tories in disguise could not bear to stomach even his reformist policies. They worked to sabotage Livingstone’s campaign from inside the party. In a national newspaper the prominent Blairite Dan Hodges even went so far as to publicly call on Labour supporters to vote for Johnson! The party should not and cannot tolerate those who work against it and play into the hands of the class enemy.
However, in the final analysis the blame must still rest on Livingstone, not because of personal problems but because of his failure to offer a bold socialist programme that addressed the real needs of working class Londoners. As with the council elections, turnout was historically low at 38%, down from 45% in 2008. This meant that in reality only 19% of Londoners voted for Johnson, hardly a ringing endorsement! If Livingstone had run a fighting campaign that posed a real alternative to Tory austerity, he could have engaged with these people and inspired them to help take a step towards defeating this bosses’ government.
Although Labour supporters around the country are undoubtedly disappointed at our failure to oust Johnson from City Hall, we can at least take heart in the almost total destruction of the British National Party (BNP) as an electoral force. At their height in 2009 the BNP had 58 councillors and a seat on the London Assembly, but they lost many of these seats in the 2010 and 2011 local elections, with a few leaving through splits, resignations and expulsions as the party tore itself apart.
By October 2011 the BNP had 8 councillors but this pitiful number has been reduced even further in this election. In former BNP strongholds around the country its vote has totally collapsed. Two seats were lost in Amber Valley, where the BNP vote slumped by almost 50% in Heanor East and Heanor West. In South Tyneside their support has crumbled to between 4% and 13%, where not long ago they could count on votes of at least 30%. In London they lost their single seat on the London Assembly and were even beaten by the National Front! Overall they have been reduced to a mere three councillors nationwide.
In the past period many on the left were alarmed at the perceived rise in support for the far right with some drawing the false conclusion that we could even see a return to the mass fascist movements of the 1930s. As we have explained before, the balance of class forces in society is favourable to the working class. The social basis for fascism has been drastically reduced. In the past, the students, the ‘professional’ classes and the civil servants were bulwarks of reaction. Today these layers have moved towards the working class , with students and civil servants at the forefront in the battle against the government.
With the rightward shift of the Labour party, the BNP were able to develop small pockets of working class support. Many BNP voters aren’t hardcore racists, rather they are disenchanted Labour voters seeking a solution to their dire situation. On the basis of the developing class struggle these people can and have been won back to the labour movement as they begin to understand that it is capitalism not immigrants that is the cause of their problems.
Scotland and Wales
In Scotland Alex Salmond and his Scottish National Party (SNP) were hoping to build on their success in the Scottish Parliament elections last year by making sweeping gains in these elections. But these plans were thwarted by Labour winning a victory in Glasgow, despite widespread predictions that they would lose control to the SNP. Labour also took overall control or secured the most seats in a number of councils, taking the most seats in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Dumfries and Galloway, Fife, East Lothian and West Lothian, and taking overall control of West Dunbartonshire and Renfrewshire council.
Although the SNP remain the largest party in terms of the number of councillors elected, Labour’s seats also increased by 58 to 394. The Liberal Democrats were trounced, losing 80 seats, reducing their total to 71 seats. While the Tories lost only 16 leaving them with a total of 115 seats.
The SNP have achieved their recent success by posing to the left of Labour on a whole number of issues while strongly criticising the coalition government’s austerity programme. This cannot last. Now the SNP have attained power they, like governments across Europe, will be forced to act in the interests of international capital and carry out the cuts. The Scottish administration is facing huge cuts in its budget of some Ј3.5bn and they will of course attempt to shift the blame for these onto the coalition government, but at a certain point in time the responsibility will fall on their shoulders. In the coming period the SNP will be put to the test and when they fail to fight for the interests of Scottish people, as they are certain to do so, they will inevitably be discarded like so many before them.
In Wales the story was more in line with England as Labour won a resounding success, gaining control of 8 councils. In the party’s best result in a local election in Wales since local government was reorganised in 1996, they made a net gain 225 seats taking their total to 578. At the same time the nationalist party Plaid Cymru lost 56 seats while the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives lost 67 and 65 respectively.
A Left Alternative to Labour?
What these elections demonstrate above all is that despite their leadership and refusal to truly challenge the government’s austerity programme, the working class always turns towards their traditional organisations, in the form of the Labour party and the unions. As have pointed out the low turnouts in this election are a reflection of the failure of the Labour leadership, but at the same time where workers did choose to vote they came out overwhelming in support of Labour for the simple reason that there is no alternative.
While Socialist Appeal has been continually proved correct in this regard, the relationship of the Labour party to the working class is something that many on the left have never understood. As always a number of groups have attempted to challenge Labour in these elections, but for the most part have failed miserably.
The Trade Unionists and Socialists Against the Cuts (TUSC), which was mainly backed by the Socialist Party and the RMT, claimed a total national vote of 20,953 in the 132 wards it stood, compared to 25,523 in 166 wards in 2011. Of the candidates, only 13 polled over 10% of the vote. Two of these, Michael Lavalette in Preston and Peter Smith in Walsall, managed to win back seats they had lost previously, while Dave Nellist in Coventry lost his seat. On average they polled 6% in the seats they contested and in the London Assembly elections, one of the main focuses of their campaign, they only managed 0.8%.
Campaigning on the back of George Galloway’s election victory the Respect Party fared better, winning five of the 12 council seats it fought in Bradford, including unseating Ian Greenwood, the Labour leader, who had been a Bradford councillor for 17 years. However, at the same time Labour saw the number of its councillors in the city rise from 43 to 45, meaning it remains by far the largest party on the council.
What better conditions could these groups wish for? We are witnessing the biggest crisis of capitalism in its history and have lived through 13 years of New Labour government and two years of the coalition intent on carrying out attack after attack. At the same time the Labour party is failing to offer any real alternative. Surely if there was any time for a new party to the left of Labour to succeed, it should be now? Yet, with a few notable exceptions, the results achieved have been derisory.
There is no doubt that many of those who campaigned for TUSC are committed socialists who are dedicated to changing society for the better. However, they fundamentally misunderstand the relationship between the working class and their mass party, the Labour Party. No matter how hard they campaign, no matter how favourable the objective conditions may be, they will never succeed in breaking this link from the outside.
The period ahead will be a testing time for the coalition. As the cuts begin to bite the economy will continue to stagnant as real living standards spiral downwards. With the announcement that the British economy slipped back into recession in the last quarter we are facing a period of an extended economic slump. Things can only get worse for the Coalition as these elections only mark the beginning of a mass collapse in their support. As we have pointed out the tensions between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives place a question mark over how long the Coalition can survive.
On the basis of capitalism, there is no way out. Despite what Tony Blair and his gang may have believed there is no third way. If you accept capitalism, it follows that you must accept the cuts. In the process of fighting to defend their living standards workers will soon realise that this cannot be achieved through economic struggle alone. They will seek a political solution to their problems and will inevitably do so through the Labour Party. In this process the need for a fighting socialist leadership prepared to fight to defend our class, the working class, will become crystal clear. The Labour leaders will either rise to this challenge or be replaced by ones who will fight. In this respect we can be confident in the future fight for socialism.