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Britain: Coalition government parties battered in local elections

Respect's Alyas Karmani defeated the Labour Party leader on the Bradford council. Respect won five seats.

May 6, 2012 -- Socialist Resistance -- The British Labour Party was clearly the big winner in the May 3 local council elections. Although in London celebrity politics, along with a nasty personalised campaign by the Evening Standard, and divisions within the Labour Party, created a win for Conservative Party's Boris Johnson, both the Conservative (Tory) and the Liberal Democrat (Lib Dems) parties took a drubbing across the country giving the Lib Dems the worst result in its history. This is clearly a part of shift to the left and towards an anti-austerity stance, which is evident elsewhere in Europe. This is the case in Greece, France and Spain in particular – though in Greece there is also the rise of the far right.

Labour gains were strong in England, Scotland and Wales. Labour gained control of 32 councils and won 823 additional seats, though on a low turnout given the situation. It won councils in the north of England and in the West Midlands, included Birmingham. In the Tory-dominated south it won Southampton and Plymouth and then Great Yarmouth in the east. In Scotland Labour was back on the map. It fought off the Scottish National Party challenge in Glasgow and captured Edinburgh. In Wales Labour took control of 10 councils including Cardiff and Swansea. The Lib Dems in particular took a drubbing in Scotland and Wales. In Edinburgh they lost to an environmentalist dressed as a penguin.

In the local elections a year ago it was very different. Although the Lib Dems took a battering then to a similar degree the Tories held on to their south of England support and even made some modest gains. This time it was the coalition government itself, both the Tories and Lib Dems, which were in the frame and took the hit.

Coalition mouthpieces are claiming that it is just a case of mid-term blues. But it is clear that something deeper has happened. Just a month ago the Tories were still defying political gravity despite ramming through massive cuts and austerity. In recent weeks this has changed. The wheels have been coming off the coalition and Labour is increasing its support.

Most of the Tories don’t believe the mid-term rubbish anyway. There is already a backlash against Prime Minister David Cameron from the Tory right demanding a shift to the right if they are to keep their seats at the general election with a much harder stand against Europe, House of Lords reform, gay marriage and environmentalism. Cameron is reported to be planning a fight back to “stop the Tories descending into civil war”.

Why Labour?

The reasons for the shift to Labour in the elections are clear enough. It was the elctortates reaction to the government's blatant reward-the-rich budget, the slide into double-dip recession, the Leveson inquiry over corrupt relations with Murdoch -- with suspicion creeping closer to Cameron himself and Tory MPs defending Murdoch to the hilt -- and the bizarre petrol shambles ... All this has led to a growing conviction that this is a government of "posh boys" out of touch, increasingly out of their depth and incompetent. The claim that "we are all in this together" has looked more empty and cynical by the day. Faced with this situation most working-class voters saw a vote for Labour, despite its chronic weaknesses, as the best way to hit back.

The Green parties had a good result. They increased their vote and their number of councillors by 12 (eight in England and four in Scotland), which they describe as "steady progress". As far as the hard right is concerned United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) increased its vote to an average of 13% where they stood, although this failed to translate into seats. The British National Party (BNP) lost all its existing seats and failed to win any new ones.

In London it is clear that people voted different ways for mayor and for the assembly. Many of those who voted Boris Johnson for mayor went on to vote Labour for the assembly. As a result Labour won four additional seats in the assembly making it the biggest single party. Labour trounced the Tories in the list vote getting 41.1% to the Tories 32%. Two of Johnson’s closest allies, including the deputy mayor, lost their seats. The Lib Dems lost one of the three seats they held.

The Green Party did well in both ballots, easily maintained its two assembly seats, and Jenny Jones scored a landmark 98,913 votes for mayor. Caroline Allen polling 29,677 in the North East constituency and came third in front of the Lib Dems. Barbara Raymond for Greenwich and Lewisham People Before Profit scored a very respectable 6873 votes (5.2%) on the constituency list. The hard right, however, got nowhere in London. The UKIP made no impact and the BNP lost its assembly seat.


George Galloway on Respect's gains on Bradford council.

Mixed results for left

For the left, nationwide, there were mixed results. The big gain was five Respect councillors elected in Bradford -- following on from George Galloway’s spectacular by-election victory in Bradford West -- ousting the Labour council leader in the process. Michael Lavallette, who stood as an independent, won his seat back in Preston which he lost last year.

In Walsall, Peter Smith for the Walsall Democratic Labour Party, who had also lost his seat in 2011, shot up from 34% of the vote in 2011 to 45.8% this year to win his seat back. Jim Bollan was re-elected as Scottish Socialist Party councillor in West Dunbartonshire. Tom Woodcock, standing as Cambridge Socialist, polled a very good 18%. On the other hand Dave Nellist lost his seat in Coventry (standing as Socialist Alternative) after many years on the council – which is a substantial lost to the left.

The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) struggled to make an impact other than where the local candidate had a personal record of struggle to draw on. In this regard, Maxime Bowler polled 14.1% in Sheffield, George Tapp 18.7% in Salford and Brendan Tyrrell 18.3% in Halewood. Socialist Party veteran Tony Mulhearn polled an excellent 4.73% for Liverpool mayor, beating the Tory candidate.

Lessons

The lesson for the left, after a showing which fell far short of the possibilities of the situation, was once again very clear. Winning votes requires more than a name on a ballot paper. It means left unity. It means a record of struggle, or a militant reputation, which people can relate to. And even, where this exists, as it does with many candidates including Respect, consolidating this means building a pluralist party which can carry such gains forward for the long term – not win them one year and lose then the next.

For Respect there are two immediate challenges. The first is whether its new group of councilors can give a lead to councillors across the country as far as fighting the cuts is concerned – where there is currently a dire situation. The second is whether it can turn towards the wider movement and maximise the opportunity it is opening up. As we argued when George Galloway was elected, there is an urgent need to involve the unions, and the wider left, in the way forward in terms of working-class representation. Respect is in a unique position to take an initiative on this.

Then there is the struggle against the cuts itself. These results are a clarion call to step up the struggle against the cuts at every level possible. The coalition government is not only in disarray but is continuing with the cuts at full force. Now is the time to step up the fight against the cuts starting with the strike this week. This is the time to build the Coalition of Resistance and the projects it is building.

Finally, it is important note that another Cameron flagship policy, localism, a part of the "big society" agenda, took a probably terminal battering on May 3 as well. This was Cameron’s much vaunted campaign for directly elected mayors – his so-called “Boris in every city” policy. It was a cynical move to use populism and celebrity to try to elect Tory mayors in cities that elect Labour councils. This bit the proverbial dust, however, when referendums went down to "No" votes in eight of the nine cities where ballots took place. Only Bristol voted to create an elected mayor and Doncaster to retain theirs.

It was the final blow it what was a very bad day for the coalition government. It is the job of the left and of the workers' movement to make sure that they do not recover from it.

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