Labour’s advance at the 2016 elections

By Tom Williams

The results of the 5 May elections are good news for Labour. It regained the post of London Mayor, beat the Tories in the English local elections and remains the largest party in the Wales Assembly. It was unfortunately further set back in Scotland, which was predictable given its right wing policies there.

The impact of Jeremy Corbyn’s agenda in England is that Labour is clearly on the rise again. Opposing Tory attacks on people’s living standards is turning around Labour’s post-2012 decline. The increase in Labour support, first indicated in the Oldham by-election, was confirmed in the 5 May election results.

In London Labour’s candidate Sadiq Khan convincingly defeated the Tories by 56.8 to 43.2 per cent on the second round. Labour focussed its fight on the terrain of living standards issues, particularly housing and transport, and defeated a vile Islamophobic smear campaign falsely linking Khan to terrorism.

In the English local elections Labour beat the Tories, performing better than commentators had predicted. The projected national share (PNS) figures produced by John Curtice for the BBC reveal that Labour came top, on 31 per cent (2 points up on 2015). The Tories were on 30 per cent (5 points down), Lib Dems 15 per cent (4 points up) and UKIP 12 per cent (1 point down). So Labour advanced from 6 per cent behind the Tories last year to one per cent ahead this year. Real progress is being made.

In terms of council seats held, at the point when 118 of the 124 councils had declared, the Tories had lost more councillors (35) than Labour (24), the latter being well below the 100 or 200 losses commentators had previously suggested. Labour also performed better in the South where it held on to all the key councils it controlled, including Southampton, Crawley, and Hastings.

In Wales, Labour came first, with 29 of the 60 seats and a 33 per cent vote share in the constituency seats and regions. Plaid Cymru, who are also on the left, came second with 12 seats and a 21 per cent vote share.

In Scotland, where Labour remains positioned to the right of the SNP, it came third behind the Tories. The SNP won 63 of the 129 seats and took 44 per cent of the vote in the constituency seats and regions, which is a slight dip in SNP support and it lost its overall majority of seats.

But Labour only won 24 seats, behind the Tories on 31 and Labour’s vote share fell to 21 per cent, lower than at last year’s general election and even behind the Tories on 22 per cent – the first time Labour has trailed the Tories in a Scotland-wide vote since 1959.

Scottish Labour’s right wing manifesto underpinned a further loss of support. The disastrous policy of supporting the Tory line in the independence referendum campaign after long years of failed Blairite policies is the cause of the Labour slump. This crisis of unpopularity was deepened at this election by Labour’s headline policy. The central proposal of a 1p income tax rise to fund education would have hit low and medium earners, leaving them taking home less pay. Unlike progressive tax reforms that shift tax burdens towards the very high paid, this proposal effectively transmits austerity and leaves the majority worse off. The Blairite leadership of Scottish Labour falsely claim this is an anti-austerity policy. The political effect of such a proposal is to prevent a Labour revival by breaking up the key coalition needed for Labour to win any election, the one between higher-paid workers and the lower paid. Whilst Corbyn is leader the Blairites have no interest in Labour being an electable party.

Corbyn is an entirely new type of leader of the Labour Party, who refuses to toe the ruling class line on austerity, war, racism and other social issues. It is also the case that the Tory Party is pursuing increasingly unpopular policies and is bitterly divided over the EU referendum. From the perspective of the capitalist class it is wholly unacceptable that the sole alternative government to the faltering Tories is one that would be led by Corbyn and which attempted to carry out his programme.

This explains the ferocity of the relentless attacks on Labour and its leadership, that are so widely supported by the Labour right as well as the formerly ‘liberal’ press such as the Guardian newspaper. These attacks are almost unprecedented in Britain in the modern era and reflect the priorities of the capitalist class.

This is what lies behind the pernicious campaign attempting to link the Labour Party and Corbyn to anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, views that due to some cultural or religious beliefs a group is inferior, are disgusting. As with all forms of racism such views should be opposed and condemned. This has consistently been the stance of Corbyn throughout his entire political life and remains so.

Calls for a coup to oust Jeremy in the days before the polls were openly made in the editorial pages of the Telegraph, Times, Sun and Mail. The Mirror too was highly critical.

As the election results were being declared right wing Labour MPs continued their attacks on the Labour leadership, keeping the prospect of a coup attempt firmly on the agenda. The right are not democrats and referring to Corbyn’s overwhelming mandate cuts no ice.

A successful coup requires a rigged leadership election, with Corbyn kept off the ballot paper. If there is a democratic contest that includes him, it is expected he would win. Given the claimed ambiguity in Labour’s rules, as to whether the current leader is automatically on the ballot, the political balance and views of Labour’s 33 strong NEC are important.

Preparations for a coup have moved forward this year within Labour’s NEC, with Steve Rotheram’s removal, the election of a right wing youth representative and Ken Livingstone’s suspension.

Trade unions hold 12 of the NEC seats and leaders of the three largest unions, Unite, GMB, and Unison, have indicated they do not at present support a push against Corbyn. The NEC can attempt to block a coup or let it proceed, so the plotters will be paying close attention to its members’ views.

Ultimately the only way to guarantee a challenge to Corbyn’s leadership faces a democratic contest is for the party conference to clarify the rule book. The 5 May election results have given some space for this now to be sorted out. This is important as none of Corbyn’s political programme will be carried out if he is not in office.

The right’s campaign for the six constituency seats on the NEC is well under way and well organised. The left needs to be equally serious about its campaign and these issues of power.

Battles ahead

The campaign against the leadership will persist because Corbyn’s politics are odds with the interests of the capitalist class. It would be naïve to assume that any poll outcome would prevent that. The coup plotters are forced back by the latest set of results but they will regroup.

Labour under Corbyn and McDonnell is continuing to score notable successes, on working tax credits, on forcing schools to become academies and other issues. This is curbing the government’s room for manoeuvre. Labour led on the scandal of tax avoidance.

Labour can also continue to develop clear economic policies which demonstrate a credible alternative is possible. Here, a good beginning has been made with an alternative fiscal framework that has ditched permanent budget deficits. This can be fleshed out with clear investment plans which can demonstrate how people’s living standards will rise under Labour.

The Tories, at the behest of the US, are gearing up for another intervention in Libya. Opposing such actual wars is a real international priority for Labour, along with the refugee crisis the wars have caused. Alf Dubs has made a good inroad into Tory intransigence on this and Labour should continue to pose practical alternatives which reflect its values and highlight Cameron’s reactionary stance.

The Labour leadership has played a great role in supporting workers in struggle, from the steel workers to opposing the Trade Union Bill to the junior doctors. This is a wholly new development and should be widely supported and promoted.

Winning an election means convincing the mass of voters not involved in those struggles that there is an alternative, and that Labour has a clear economic plan that will fund other options. This was done by John McDonnell in relation to temporary nationalisation of steel, which obliged the Tories to go some way to copying him. This needs to be systematic, so that the mass of voters understand, for example, what is Labour’s alternative to the Tories unfunded ‘7-day NHS’.

The Tories are not in a commanding position. Their own unpopularity is combined with deepening divisions over the EU referendum. It is far from certain those divisions will heal whatever the referendum outcome. In addition, the British economic situation is deteriorating once more, and so will living standards.

There is an opportunity for Labour to further advance by continuing to pose clear alternatives to the Tories. That means maintaining Jeremy Corbyn as Labour’s leader.