By Stephen MacAvoy
Despite launching the most severe offensive against the working class in generations, the Conservative Party emerged from the elections last week largely unscathed – even slightly increasing its share of the vote on last year.
The overall share of the votes showed the Tories on 38% (up 2% on 2010), Labour on 37% (up 8%) and the Lib Dems on 16% (down by 7%). To drive back the attacks on working class living standards, the Tories must be made to pay a political price for the assault they are making. Much more fire needs to be turned onto them, as campaigning that directs the brunt of hostility primarily at the Liberal Democrats will let the Tories off the hook.
The slight gains for the Tories however offer them little scope for optimism about the next general election given their overall level of support remains at an historically low level.
In contrast to the spin from the Tory press and sections of Labour’s right wing, which remains opposed to Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour has already made some significant recovery, back up to a 37% share of the vote. In terms of local elections, this is a clear break with the near relentless downwards trend that Labour suffered across the Blair years, when its levels of support almost halved. (See graph).
Tory vote remains at low levels
There has been much crowing from the Tory media that the Conservative Party emerged from May’s elections unscathed, particularly in view of its cuts programme. The Tories won an additional 86 council seats, 4 additional councils and gained an extra two seats on the Welsh Assembly after a slight increase in its share of the vote, making it now the second largest party in the Welsh Assembly for the first time since devolution.
But these results offer no comfort for the Conservative Party set against its performance at last year’s general election where it failed to win an outright majority and secured only 36% of the vote, the lowest ever recorded by a Tory party in an election where it has formed a government.
Polls as well as the local election results underline the difficulties faced by the Tories. In the month leading up to May’s election, the average of the Yougov daily tracker poll put Labour on 42% (up 13% on its 2010 general election share), the Tories unchanged at 36% with the Lib Dem support collapsing to 12% (down by 13%).
The long-term of the Tory vote is downwards from its peak at 55% in the 1931 General Election. Within that overall process of decline the Tories have experienced cyclical recoveries, but their general election victories tended to have been secured on smaller and smaller shares of the vote.
Furthermore, the Tory cuts programme is just beginning to bite, which potentially threatens to undermine their support further.
It is because of this electoral vulnerability that the Tories are seeking to gerrymander the seats ahead of the next Westminster elections. It is also why they have been making such clear racist overtures to corral the far-right vote. Ahead of this May’s elections Cameron gave prominent speeches attacking multiculturalism and immigration echoing Thatcher’s attempt to co-opt the fascist National Front’s vote in the early 1980s.
Labour makes gains – reverses collapse witnessed under Blair
Labour’s increase to 37% in the local elections – up 15% on the 2009 lowpoint of 22% – saw it win an additional 857 councillors and 26 councils. There has been a clear change of direction from 14 years of collapsing of support in which Labour dropped from a peak of 47% in 1995 and lost 25% of the electorate. Most of the decline occurred under Blair, with support plummeting to 26% in 2007, the last election he was Labour Leader. As Labour support fell, it even dropped below the Lib Dems on a couple of occasions, prompting talk that they might displace Labour as the second party.
Labour now having secured 37%, has recovered over half of its previous loss – in just two years.
To further advance, Labour should position itself at the head of an alliance of all voters opposed to the right-wing Tory agenda. This requires putting forward clear alternatives, especially on the main issue affecting the population, the Tories’ economic cuts agenda, which in turn would make it more difficult for Liberal Democrats to support Tory policies.
There are millions of potential votes for Labour to tap into by offering a clear alternative – including former Lib Dem voters alienated by Clegg’s alliance with the Tories, plus millions who left Labour under Blair and no longer vote.
The 2011 Scottish elections show the danger of Labour failing to offer such a clear alternative to Tory attacks. Alex Salmond posed the SNP as the main defenders of Scottish voters against London’s attacks on Scottish living standards. Labour’s campaign failed to do this and in its last few weeks was relaunched to focus against the SNP on the issue of independence, which is not the main concern of the electorate and so left Labour adrift on the key issue.
In contrast, the Wales election showed what is possible. There Labour campaigned as the main opponent to the damaging Tory cuts agenda and as a result was the big winner gaining 30 seats, half of the total seats. Its share of the vote was up by 10% as it picked up the votes including from disaffected Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and independent left in Blaenau Gwent.
Labour right cedes ground to the Tories
Instead of pursuing the resolute fight against the Tory agenda which would help rebuild Labour’s electoral base, some in Labour are seeking to cede to aspects of it.
The Blairite wing regularly calls for Labour to put forward similar New Labour policies to the ones that lost it support previously, for example urging it to be tough on the poor, benefit claimants, immigrants and minority groups. This includes calls to spell out more clearly how it would make cuts in order to be credible with regular pieces in Progress on this.
Similarly the appropriately named Blue Labour is calling for Labour to fight on a more right-wing agenda that would undermine the welfare state in the face of Tory attacks and introduce a reactionary stance on immigration and race at the core of labour’s message. This current’s spokesperson Maurice Glassman recently argued in Progress magazine for the need to:
‘to build a party that brokers a common good, that involves those people who support the EDL within our party. Not dominant in the party, not setting the tone of the party, but just a reconnection with those people that we can represent a better life for them, because that’s what they want.’
That process begins, argues Glasman, by understanding that ‘working-class men can’t really speak at Labour party meetings about what causes them grief, concerns about their family, concerns about immigration, love of country, without being falsely stereotyped as sexist, racist, nationalist’.
Such policies are wrong from a moral point of view, seeking to overturn the anti-racist gains across the Labour movement of recent decades. They also are a dead-end electorally for Labour. It cannot help Labour to go along with a right-wing agenda that protects the capitalists from the effects of the financial crisis, places the burden on the mass of the population and scapegoats particular sections to distract from the real causes of people’s worsening living standards. If Labour adopts a more reactionary framework on race and immigration it only helps the Tories, as it gives legitimacy to their arguments, whilst simultaneously undermining Labour’s electoral base in the main urban areas where the black communities are a key component of support.
Instead, Labour needs to offer an alternative which argues against the cuts agenda, challenges the scapegoating of those who did not cause the crisis, calls for investment to kick-start the economy and improves people’s living standards.