By Robin Jackson
On 6 May in Britain there were devolved, regional and local election, in addition to the Hartlepool parliamentary by-election. Overall the outcome from this wide range of contests was a severe defeat for Labour. It lost votes and seats in most areas of England and Scotland, due to the Labour right wing’s agenda that gives support to the Tories. In particular Labour has been damaged by Keir Starmer backing Boris Johnson’s Covid-19 response. In the minority of areas where Labour was successful on 6 May, Wales being the largest of these, the party could clearly be seen as differentiated from the Tories in its response to the pandemic.
English local elections – Labour’s severe defeat
Local elections were held for 21 county councils, 124 unitary, district and borough councils, 13 directly elected mayors and 39 police and crime commissioners. Details of the results can be seen here. The big picture for Labour was its defeat – losing one in five of the all the council seats it previously held.
Overall the Tories made a net gain of 235 council seats (with a total of 2,345 seats won), Labour lost 326 seats (total 1,345), the Lib Dems gained 7 (total 589) and the Greens gained 88 seats (total 151). The Tories took control of an additional 13 councils (total 63), Labour lost a total of eight (total 44) and the Lib Dems gained one (total 7).
From every year’s local election results the national level of support of the main parties is worked out. Estimates are made of what parties’ vote shares would have been if there had been local elections everywhere on 6 May. An authoritative series of annual estimates is calculated by Rawlings and Thrasher at the University of Plymouth Elections Centre. Their National Equivalent Vote (NEV) estimates for this year’s 6 May elections are: Tories 40%, Labour 30%, Lib Dems 15%, UKIP/Brexit Party 0% and others 15%. The NEV estimates for this year and the past two years of local elections are set out in the graph below.
Since the 2018 and 2019 local elections the Tories have now almost completely absorbed the previous UKIP and Brexit Party vote. This process started at the 2019 General Election when the Brexit Party assisted the Tories by withdrawing its candidates in Tory-held seats. In this May’s local elections the Tories held on to that support. The vote for Reform UK (the Brexit Party’s successor) was negligible. The Tories successful absorptions of this block of votes has been aided by the party’s shift towards the hard right. Under Johnson the Tories are now setting out a more racist and English nationalist agenda – closer to the politics of Enoch Powell – than the national party has ever previously set out.
Labour’s NEV vote share this May fell to a level lower (30%) than its vote share at the 2019 General Election (33%). It is lower than the vote share achieved in the two previous sets of local elections (36% in 2018 and 31% in 2019).
There is no indication from the voting figures that the Tories’ large gains and Labour’s large losses were at all due to Labour voters switching to the Tories. As with the Hartlepool by-election, many Labour voters appear to have stayed at home. The main sources of the Tories increased vote was from the previous far right vote, and the decline in support for the Lib Dems and other smaller parties.
For more than one year Labour has not had to endure the intense daily media barrage that was previously directed against the party when Jeremy Corbyn was leader. Instead Starmer has had positive media coverage, because of the right wing course he is setting, whilst that agenda has inevitably led the party to its 6 May defeats.
Starmer has capitulated to the Tories on all the main issues that most effect people. This past year the issue that has dominated people’s lives has been the Covid-19 pandemic. More than 150,000 in the UK have died from the virus. That is the highest per capita Covid-19 death toll of any developed country. In addition more than one million have been affected by Long Covid. Plus hundreds of thousands of jobs have gone and half the national workforce has suffered pay cuts.
Tory propaganda claims this disastrous state of affairs is actually a big success. This myth has become widely accepted because Starmer has refused to challenge this fiction, because he agrees with the Tories approach. As a result Labour is correctly understood by many voters as being no different to the Tories on these important issues.
Starmer has also orientated Labour to support other reactionary aspects of the Tories’ framework, including bending Labour more towards English nationalism. Labour under Starmer is primarily attempting to appeal to exactly the same constituency of voters that Johnson is most successful at winning support from. The failure to differentiate Labour from the Tories encourages anti-Tory voters either not to vote, or to look elsewhere for a real alternative to the Tories – hence the significant increase in Green councillors that wer elected.
A English local election poll found that Starmer was the top reason given for not voting Labour, as can be seen from the figure below.
In a few areas in England, principally where local Labour candidates were clearly seen as differentiated from the Tories, Labour did make gains.
A clear example is that of Andy Burnham, re-standing for Greater Manchester Mayoral. He was elected on 6 May with 67.3% of the vote, up 3.9% on 2017. Burnham had very publicly fought an element of the Tories’ economic attacks by demanding greater financial support for areas in lockdown, unlike Starmer who gave support to Johnson on the entirety of his economic programme and the assault on living standards within it.
In Salford Labour opposition to the Tories benefited Labour’s Paul Dennett, who was re-elected City Mayor in the first round on 59%, up 10% from 2016. In Preston, where the Labour leader is pursuing a model that is critical of the Tories, Labour was able to retain all 10 seats it had previously held.
Scottish Labour’s worst ever results
Labour was led into the 6 May elections by the right wing. In this sixth set of elections to the Scottish Parliament Labour had its worst-ever results. It only won 22 seats in the 129 seat parliament.
For most of the past 22 years the right wing has been leading the Labour Party in Scotland. During that time it has steered the party along similar lines to the Tories. As a result Labour has gone from winning 56 seats in 1999, down to just 22 on 6 May, two seats down on 2016. Labour’s vote share fell from 2016 by 1.0% (to 21.6%) across the constituency seats and by 1.1% (to 18.0%) in the regional votes.
The SNP won the election with 64 seats (up 1), the Tories won 31 seats (no change) and Greens 8 (up 2).
The SNP overall held on to its vote, despite significant Tory media attacks on the SNP in the run up to the election. The SNP had a 1.2% increase in vote share (to 47.7%) across the constituency seats and a 1.4% decrease (to 40.3%) in the regional votes. ALBA, in effect a split from the SNP, got 1.7% in regions.
The SNP has successfully managed to differentiate itself from Johnson’s Tories. Nicola Sturgeon’s Covid-19 policies have appeared to be more successful than Johnson’s. The SNP have carried out similar policies, but their propaganda has distanced them from Johnson.
The Tories overall saw an increase in their vote, which fell by 0.1% (to 21.9%) across the constituency seats but rose by 0.6% (to 23.5%) in the regional votes.
The Greens in Scotland similarly advanced against the right wing Labour, as they succeeded in doing in the English local elections. The Green vote increased by 0.7% (to 1.3%) across the constituency seats and rose by 1.5% (to 8.1%) in the regional votes.
As a result of the election there is now a majority of Scottish Parliament members who have been elected on the platform to call an independence referendum. Scottish Labour’s right wing leadership, alongside the Tories and Lib Dems, opposes the democratic right to self determination, which will further undermine Labour support.
Wales Labour – a big success
Labour is led in Wales by the party’s soft-left. Similarly to the SNP in Scotland, it has distanced itself from the Tories Covid-19 policy and appeared more successful at protecting people. It won 30 of the Senedd’s 60 seats – matching its previous best achieved in the past. It was an increase in one seat from the 2016 election. Its vote significantly increased by 5.2% (to 39.9%) across the constituency seats and by 4.7% (to 36.2%) in the regional votes.
The Tories made gains, largely by absorbing most of the previous UKIP/Brexit Party vote. They won an extra five seats, so now have 16. Their vote share rose by 5.0% (to 26.1%) across the constituency seats and by 6.3% (to 25.1%) in the regional votes.
Plaid Cymru gained an extra seat, so now have 13. However, their vote share slightly decreased, by 0.2% (to 20.3%) across the constituency seats and by 0.1% (to 20.7%) in the regional votes.
Aside from the Lib Dems, which won just one seat, the other smaller parties won no seats. The UKIP vote, which was the fourth largest in 2016, significantly fell in this election, In 2016 UKIP secured 12.5% across the constituency seats and by 13% in the regional votes. On 6 May the combined vote share of UKIP and Reform UK was 2.3% across the constituency seats and 2.6% in the regional votes.
Corbyn and his framework – still the best way forward for Labour
It is evident from the results of the 6 May elections that Starmer’s strategy, of lining up with the Tories on policies that have unleashed huge attacks on the population, has inflicted a severe defeat on Labour. The party’s left has been vocally pointing this out since the results started to be declared. Socialist Campaign Group MPs have been calling for a change strategy and pointing out that Corbyn’s policy framework was popular with voters, unlike Starmer’s.
The Labour right’s response to the defeats has been to demand the party shift even further rightwards. It is calling for the offensive against Corbyn and his supporters to be stepped up, and for attacks on the unions’ left wing. The Labour right controls the party leadership, the apparatus and parliamentary party, so this renewed assault on the left can be expected.
The left still has significant backing amongst Labour members, who understand that Corbyn’s agenda attracted huge new support to Labour and that capitulation to the Tories offers no way forward. That is why the left needs to step up its defence of Corbyn and his supporters and organise to take that struggle into this Autumn’s Labour Conference.