“You can’t eat anti-woke, you can’t eat ‘stop the boats’, it doesn’t keep your house warm and it doesn’t pay the bills.” That’s how a Professor of Political Science at the University of Manchester explained the Tories’ disastrous results at the local elections. Polls revealed that the cost of living crisis, which continues to intensify, was by far the biggest concern for voters, followed by the state of public services.
The Tories, whose strategy focused on fighting the elections on ‘culture war’ issues, failed to rally support behind their divisive rhetoric. In fact, they managed to surpass their worst case scenario of 1,000 losses with a total of 1,061, also losing control of 48 councils. Labour made gains including winning back some of the ‘red wall’ – although not as much as they’d hoped. Tory losses also benefited the Lib Dems who gained 407 seats, and the Greens who took an overall majority on a council for the first time.
Rishi Sunak described the bruising outcome for his party as ‘disappointing’, but highlighted the fact that there was no ‘massive groundswell of movement towards the Labour Party or excitement for its agenda’. It’s certainly true that Labour under Sir Keir Starmer has failed to enthuse, but anger at the Tories and collapse for their support means that a general election victory for Labour – albeit potentially one in which Labour is only the biggest party in a hung parliament – seems most likely. Importantly, Scotland could be the key to winning a workable majority for Labour if they can capitalise at the expense of an SNP wracked by crisis: this is far from automatic though, given Labour’s failure to stand for self-determination.
Starmer appeared over the moon as the results came in, declaring that Labour are now on course to take power next year. But turnout was extremely low – just 18% in some areas – no doubt impacted by disenfranchisement caused by the introduction of voter ID, but primarily by a lack of interest in this round of local elections and a general distrust of politics and the main capitalist political parties. Starmer recently reneging on his commitment to axe tuition fees following other broken pledges will do nothing to ease that lack of trust.
Starmer clearly is not aiming to inspire, but rather to be a safe pair of hands for capitalism. A BBC projection puts Labour on 35% nationally – just nine points ahead of the Tories. And despite the growing hatred of the Tories some polls reveal that Starmer and Sunak are neck and neck in terms of popularity – a particular indictment of Starmer given everything that Sunak has presided over!
British economy limps on
The backdrop to the local elections has been an economic crisis brutally impacting on the working class, but also driving waves of strikes and the increased militancy and combativity of sectors of workers. An Ipsos poll in April revealed that the most important issues facing Britain today are inflation, the economy and the NHS, hospitals and healthcare. It’s no surprise that public support for health workers taking action continues to be strong at 60%.
The UK recently came bottom of the G7 growth league table, despite technically having avoided going into a winter recession. Yet growth for the first quarter of 2023 was 0.5% smaller than the last quarter prior to Covid. Staying out of recession is little comfort whilst inflation continues to rocket – food and drink inflation reached 19.1% in March. This comes hand in hand with sky-high energy bills and stagnating wages, which mean that for every worker under 31 (about quarter of the labour force) employment is failing to provide a rising standard of living.
The Bank of England has attempted to get inflation under control with twelve successive interest rate hikes (now at 4.5%) – its most aggressive approach since the 1980s. This course of action will hurt the working class the most as investment in the economy is scaled back, driving up unemployment and reducing workers’ bargaining power.
Coronations and culture wars
While ordinary people feel the impact of the largest rise in living costs in 40 years amidst ongoing strikes by workers over pay, a further kick in the teeth has been the enormous amount of taxpayers’ money that was sunk into the coronation of King Charles. More than half of Britons objected to the public funding – to the tune of £100 million – for a newly-crowned monarch who has a reported personal fortune of £1.8bn. Furthermore, the coronation was used to rush through increased draconian powers for the police, which can be utilised against any form of protest.
It might not be winning them votes, but the Tories’ vile, reactionary culture war agenda has real consequences, stoking divisions and creating a hostile environment for trans people and refugees, amongst others. Visceral reminders of this are attacks on migrants, and the horrific murder of 16-year old trans woman Brianna Ghey, following which thousands of young people attended vigils and protests.
Trade unions have a key role to play in fighting back, but workers need to exert pressure on the leaderships to be as combative as the members, fighting for decent pay, as well as opposing racism, transphobia and all oppression. Angry workers and young people may not have been drawn to the ballot box, but are increasingly seeing the importance of strikes and protests.
Last year, one million people attended London Pride and these events are becoming increasingly political. From attacks on our living standards, the underfunding of the NHS, the reversal of the GRR in Scotland and new attacks on trans students in schools, there are plenty of reasons to take to the streets. The working class is back, and we want the Tories gone!