Despite the 150 000 Covid deaths, a bungled and costly Brexit, the 21 – and counting – u-turns etc, the Conservatives achieved a resounding victory in the Hartlepool by-election, and took control of thirteen councils, including the former Labour fiefdom of Durham.
Over the last year this government of crisis has seen huge demonstrations by Black Lives Matter protesters, towns and cities have been shaken by rallies in the name of End Gender Violence and Kill the Bill, and there has been widespread opposition to the government’s derisory offer of 1% pay rise for nurses. Yet this was not reflected in the elections. Labour under Starmer have completely failed to give shape, or even the most muted expression, to the mood of opposition to the Tories.
Brexit has been ‘done’ but the scars remain. Labour undertook to respect the vote to leave the EU in 2016 but Jeremy Corbyn retreated on the issue in the run-up to the December 2019 General Election and left the running to none other than Keir Starmer, who openly espoused a second referendum. This cost Labour dearly in Northern Leave-voting seats, creating numerous breaches in the so-called Labour ‘red wall’. Having won the Labour leadership, Starmer then doubled down on his arrogance towards Leave voters by imposing a Remain supporter as Labour candidate in Hartlepool which had registered a 70% vote for Leave.
Starmer offers nothing
Moreover, in his attempt to shed Corbyn’s overwhelmingly popular policies – rail nationalisation, abolition of student fees, integration of social care into the NHS – Starmer left Labour with no policies at all, other than pathological caution and fawning support for big business, along with empty ‘patriotic’ flag waving. Starmer even warned Tory Chancellor Rishi Sunak against raising Britain’s pathetically low corporation tax, which would have been one of the first acts of an incoming Corbyn government.
Decades of neglect in Labour-run towns came to light in these elections. Largely unchallenged and content to passively administer Tory government cuts in the name of austerity, many now face questions from traditional Labour voters: ‘what have you done for our town?’ Tory government decisions like the closure of A&E at the local hospital or the disappearance of a Job Centre merely add to the overall picture of dilapidation blamed on Labour councillors.
Many former Labour voters have simply given up on voting, concluding that nothing makes a difference to their lives. The Hartlepool result, devastating as it was, reflects shifts in opinion among a minority of the electorate; turnout was only 42%. There are low expectations of politicians of all parties and at all levels, and often there is a suspicion of corruption or at the very least of ‘jobs for the boys’ or for family members. As one striking bus driver in Manchester put it: ‘that cat is the only honest thing to come out of No. 10.’ In Liverpool the elections took place under just such a cloud after the resignation of City Mayor Joe Anderson. Nevertheless the voters elected Britain’s first black female mayor. The Regional Mayor Steve Rotheram was re-elected with what the BBC called a ‘landslide’. In other words, there was no Tory triumphalism on Merseyside.
Labour in some areas retained and even extended their vote share. Much has been made of Hartlepool’s local Mayor for Tees Valley Ben Houchen who was re-elected on a 70% vote share. Houchen is a direct beneficiary of the government’s freeport scheme and was allowed to take Teesside Airport into public ownership – something the government would have firmly resisted if a Labour council had demanded it. But in Greater Manchester Andy Burnham was re-elected as Mayor an increased 67% vote, largely on the basis of standing up to Johnson last October over the Tier system and the lower rate of pay for furloughed workers in the region. He has also steered through a bus franchising scheme which will put public transport in the region on the same footing as London. Burnham is no radical, and his refusal to join striking bus drivers on their picket lines for weeks has intensely angered many, but ‘parity with London’ was a demand which resonated with voters.
In Salford City Mayor Paul Dennett has developed plans for building 500 council houses and has negotiated with trade unions to pay the Living Wage to social care workers. He was re-elected on a 59% share of first preference votes and Labour has extended its support into former Tory strongholds.
What Burnham and Dennett have achieved pales in comparison to the impact of Liverpool City Council of 1983-87 when 5000 council houses were built, alongside nurseries, schools, sport centres etc. Yet they have been rewarded with electoral success. How much more could have been achieved by outright and serious opposition to the government, a campaign in every town and city, and mobilisation of the local trade union movement, as a genuine socialist party would have initiated? We could have been looking at the downfall of the government by now.
The ongoing tensions around the national question in the UK was also reflected in the elections. In Scotland, the election results have added pressure on Westminster to grant a second Independence referendum (more in this article). In Wales, things have developed differently, but the growing support of Welsh independence, particularly amongst young people, was an important backdrop to the election. There was a certain amount of pressure on Labour, which has been the biggest party in the Welsh Senedd for the last 22 years since its formation, from Plaid Cymru who were growing in the opinion polls in the run up to the vote. However, the bigger factor in Labour’s success in this election in Wales – increasing its vote and winning 30 out of the 60 seats in the Senedd – was the role of First Minister and Labour leader Mark Drakeford during the coronavirus pandemic.
In a similar way to Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, Drakeford was able to position himself as a more competent and compassionate tackler of covid in Wales in comparison to Boris Johnson, increasingly seen as the ‘Prime Minister of England’. As well as lockdowns which started sooner and ended later than in England, Drakeford benefitted from the ‘vaccine bounce’ in Wales and was able to distance himself from Keir Starmer, presenting Welsh Labour as different and more radical, and as the best option for navigating the post-covid situation. Plaid Cymru gained one seat but ultimately came third, and one the most well known leading activists in the party, former leader Leanne Wood, lost her seat to the Labour Party. This doesn’t mean that support for independence isn’t still a factor and also doesn’t necessarily equate to growing support for Labour as a party that will represent the working class. Like elsewhere in the UK, growing radicalisation of workers and young people has not been fully reflected in the elections in Wales. For example, despite this being the first election that 16 and 17 year olds could vote in, only 46% were registered to vote (compared to 76% of all ages and it’s not clear how many actually turned out to vote), with young people in surveys stating that none of the political parties represented what they think.
The media portray Johnson as a Prime Minister vindicated by these results and firmly in control. But in the bosses’ mouthpiece, the Financial Times, they tell the truth: ‘The fact that Johnson has come through the pandemic relatively unscathed is overwhelmingly down to the vaccine rollout. In December and January the Conservatives were down at 37% in YouGov polls and even behind the Labour opposition. But voters credit the Prime Minister for the vaccine success and have discounted earlier errors during the crisis.’ Of course, the truth is the relatively successful vaccine rollout is in large part down to the existence of the NHS and the hard work of its staff, not anything done by Johnson.
For now. The Prime Minister’s problems continue to accumulate. Not the least of them is Scotland (see separate article). Apart from NHS pay there are huge backlogs in treatment for non-Covid conditions, and unemployment will mushroom as state support dwindles. Johnson’s new – but temporary – electoral base will expect him to deliver on public services and promises of jobs across the regions. At the same time the trade union movement is beginning to emerge from Covid hibernation, as the Manchester bus strike and other examples of industrial action show.
Labour’s reaction to the election defeat has been to despair and seek a scapegoat. Starmer’s bungled attempt to sack Angela Rayner ended with him ‘promoting’ her. The frothy protestations of the Labour ‘soft left’ (actually the slightly less right-wing) kept her in the cabinet. But the appointments of Lucy Powell (Housing) and arch right-winger Wes Streeting (Child Poverty) indicate clearly the direction of travel. There may be a challenge to Starmer soon but if the much-touted Rayner or Burnham were to be the next Labour leader or the next leader-but-one it will still not be the vehicle of struggle which workers and youth desperately need.
Conferences of resistance could bring together radicalised youth of social movements, whose views were not reflected in the elections that many young people do not engage with, alongside trade unionists fighting the Police and Crime Bill, and community campaigns over the NHS and in support of a nurses’ pay rise. These are among the forces from which a new party can be built, not simply through standing in elections, but through struggle. It won’t emerge overnight and it won’t emerge fully formed. But Socialist Alternative is committed to building support for the socialist ideas that are needed to transform society, and to organise all those prepared to fight for them.