Pete Gillard from Shropshire looks at the May 4 local election results and perceives a lesson for activists in the run-up to the June General Election.
In the May 4 elections, in England, the Labour Party had a net loss of 26% of seats. In Wales it was an 18% loss whilst in Scotland, the worst result, there was a net loss of 34%. No one can say this was a good result for a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn just five weeks before a General Election. It is, however, worth looking behind the raw figures to see both what went wrong and what can be done over the next few weeks to change the situation.
In the Labour leadership contest last summer over 1,000 Labour councillors signed a statement of support for right-wing challenger Owen Smith. They claimed that Owen Smith was ‘a leader who can win.’ Jeremy Corbyn could only get the backing of less than a quarter of that number. The result – Corbyn was re-elected with Owen Smith getting only 38% of the vote. There was a mismatch between the politics of the councillors and the wider Labour Party membership.
It was these Smith-supporting councillors that led Labour into the local elections on May 4, not Jeremy Corbyn. And it was these same councillors who pressurised Corbyn into issuing a statement in December 2015 stating that it was against Labour policy to set ‘no-cuts’ anti-austerity budgets, of the sort set by a number of radical Labour authorities in the 1980s. Such budgets were made illegal by Tory legislation in 1988. This policy that meant local Labour leaders went into this year’s election campaign promising to implement Tory cuts, but claiming that they would do it in a kinder, gentler way.
We can see the result of that in the elections. In Durham, Labour lost 20 seats. How much of that loss was due to their attack on teaching assistants, wanting them to accept a pay cut of over 20%?
In Wales, Labour lost control of Merthyr Tydfil council. How much of that loss was down to paying consultancy firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers almost £500,000 (alongisde £750,000 in Wrexham) to come up with a plan for how best to cut services?
When Labour local government leaders went into these elections promising to implement cuts, how surprising is it that some people took them at their word and voted for the party that is most unashamed about cutting, the Tories? It is difficult to enthuse people to vote for you if all you are promising is the same, with some added spin about ‘dented shields’.
Nationally, UKIP lost out. UKIP supporters transferred their votes to the larger party that was now implementing virtually all of UKIP’s policies – the Tories. The concern is that this was not just ex-Tories going home. Ex-Labour voters who were won to UKIP over Brexit now appear to have transferred that allegiance to the Tory Party.
To reverse these trends, Labour will have to be a lot more courageous over the next few weeks. Lessons can be learned from the local elections, but only if we get behind the headlines, and look at some of the local successes.
In Cumbria Labour won two seats from the Tories in Keswick and Alston, both big rural seats, both with threatened community hospitals and a vociferous campaign spearheaded by grassroots Labour candidates. Both seats that are usually Tory.
In Shropshire the local NHS campaign has made the issue of NHS cuts so prominent that even the Tories were forced to put on their election leaflet that they called for an increase in Government funding to the NHS. In the two divisions where the campaign has most active supporters, the elections represented a shift to the left. In Ludlow, a Lib Dem activist turned the Tory 6.8% majority of 2013 into a majority of 45.6% for the Lib Dems. In Shrewsbury, a Green Party activist who has been central to the campaign was elected to the Council for the first time. Green candidates, including the chair of the NHS campaign there, also narrowly lost taking two seats from the Tories in Oswestry. Labour lost a single seat, where a longstanding councillor had retired, but mostly gained increased majorities.
In both these examples, local campaigning on issues not directly concerned with the election changed the context in which the election was held. Active campaigning involving people on the ground shifted politics as a whole to the left.
That this remains possible is confirmed by the demonstration in Penrith, Cumbria two days after the election. Over 1,000 marched against school funding cuts in a town only ten times that size. In Shropshire, demonstrations of the same size, protesting against maternity service cuts, have taken place in Ludlow, Bridgforth and Oswestry.
When Corbyn was elected Leader of the Labour Party, he talked about his campaign being a social movement. Sadly, that emphasis has been lost. Momentum has become an internal faction vying for power inside the Labour Party, and only turning outwards as part of an election machine. Corbyn can still pull large rallies, but the only answer people who attend these rallies are being given is “Vote Labour”.
This misses the point. Labour policies are popular. But every time an opinion poll asks who do you trust on the economy, transport, housing, etc the Tories come out on top. Even on the NHS, the Tories are pulling closer.
Why the contradiction? After decades of neoliberalism dominating the political scene, many people remain unconvinced that things can change. It requires involvement, activity, doing something for yourself, to shift that malaise.
Too much of the left lives in a bubble, complaining about the opinion polls being wrong, complaining that a press owned and controlled by big business is hostile to Corbyn. The campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party involved large numbers of people, but many have not moved beyond an expectation that Corbyn will do it for them.
Corbyn supporters can only shift the terrain if they move outside the bubble and try to win people.
That will not be done by simply explain how good Labour’s policies are. Activists need to involve their communities in acting to protect themselves against Tory attacks. The idea that things do not have to stay the same and we can do something about ourselves, is the most powerful argument for a political alternative.
In Shropshire, the Chair of a Constituency Labour Party told the NHS campaign that the campaign, which is not formally politically aligned, had done more to build support for Labour in the county than anything Labour Party members had done.
There is a lesson there which Labour supporters might want to put in practice over the coming weeks.