Voters are sick of Tory policies, so the Tory slump did not benefit Starmer

Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer

By Mark Buckley

The local elections represented a major loss for the Tories. But Starmer’s policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with them, meaning agreeing with a deeply reactionary government on all major policies, prevented Labour from making significant gains.

Yet the most important political development and certainly the most positive one was the emergence of Sinn Féin as the largest party in the north of Ireland. This deals a major blow to the ‘Northern Ireland’ state itself, which was created on a sectarian headcount to create a permanent Unionist majority. This victory opens up the prospect of Sinn Féin in government in Belfast and Dublin after the next general elections to the Dáil scheduled for 2025, with a poll on Irish reunification during that term.

Smaller parties gain from Tory drubbing

There were four quite distinct elections taking place, which need to be analysed independently. Overall, according to the academics Rallings and Thrasher, the national equivalent vote places the parties on LAB 35%, CON, 33% LDs 17%. The separate analysis from John Curtice puts the Tories 3 points lower and LDs 2 points higher.

This is an exceptionally poor Labour performance against a government in mid-term which has engineered the biggest fall in living standards on record, presided over the deaths of 180,000 people, caused an absolute crisis in the NHS, a war and taken no action on climate change. This is because, on all these key questions and many others, Starmer has simply echoed the Tory line. In the absence of any political opposition, even the focus on ‘partygate’ backfired given that Starmer himself is once more under investigation for ‘beergate’.

Across the elections, the Tories lost a net 490 seats. The LibDems were the big winners, gaining 221, with the Greens also rising strongly, gaining 84.  A net Labour gain of 137 seats means it won little more a quarter of the seats lost by the Tories. This was very weak, and provides no grounds for optimism about the next election.

Even this is very flattering to Starmer’s leadership. Labour in Wales stands to the left of the Starmer. It is willing to work with Corbynistas rather than expel them, and has introduced popular policies in cutting bus fares and on free school meals. Labour gained 66 seats in Wales, almost half Labour’s total, pursuing traditional Labour policies of modest reforms that are completely rejected by Starmer, although the Welsh gains were compared to 2017 results, not 2018 as elsewhere. If his leadership was genuinely prioritising fighting the Tories, not the left, the roadmap to victory would start in Cardiff. But that is not the case.

In contrast, the gains made by the Blairite leadership in Scotland were meagre and do not at all point to significant gains in a general election. The Tories lost 63 seats in Scotland but Labour gained less than a third of them, at 20. The SNP in government gained more. The reactionary leadership of Labour in Scotland has allowed the grotesque spectacle of a former Grand Master of the Orange Order in Scotland becoming a Labour councillor. Labour in Scotland defines itself by its militant unionism, shared by the Tories and the far right. Selecting a candidate who once told a crowd, “Mister Salmond, you will not con the loyal Protestant people of Scotland. No to independence and no surrender to separatism,” is a logical outcome.

The campaign in England was entirely a product of Starmer and his team, who had publicly stated their aim as making ‘significant inroads in recovering red wall seats’. They made none, and lost control of Hull.

In total the Tories lost 342 seats in England but Labour made net gains of just 29. Outside London Labour made net losses in England. Overall, winning roughly one in 12 seats English lost by these Tories, or less than half the gains made by the governing Labour Party in Wales is not progress. The loss of Tower Hamlets to Lutfur Rahman’s Aspire party is particularly noteworthy. The Labour leadership’s refusal to oppose Islamophobia, and pockets of the party where they actively embrace it will only lead to further dissatisfaction and opposition to it from communities that should be defended. Instead, it is clear that the project of trying to win Tory voters by repeating Tory policies is a spectacular failure. The LibDems and Greens gained a combined 252 seats, underlining how pitiful Labour’s performance was. 

In politics the dominant or hegemonic argument wins. Repeating the arguments and policies of your opponent only reinforces them. However, there is an exception to these general rules. In the case where you opponent is promoting deeply unpopular arguments and policies and you repeat them, you will both lose. This is what has actually happened to Starmer.

The Starmerite focus on Tory voters is completely misplaced, especially when it is combined with adopting the Tories’ reactionary policies on austerity, Covid, racism and war. The 2019 general election saw a net swing from Labour to LibDems of 6%, with the combined Tory/Brexit party vote essentially unchanged. But the LibDems were still only on 11.5%. After more than two years of Starmer the LibDems have risen to either 17% or 19% (depending on analysts) against a massively unpopular government.

Labour is failing to make inroads. The politics and strategy of the current leadership are the main obstacle to that.

Historic election for Sinn Féin

“This is historic. This is not supposed to happen. This state was created to prevent it happening”, one breathless TV analyst of the elections in the north of Ireland told viewers. The judgement is correct.

With religious discrimination and maintaining the British Empire in Ireland as its founding charter, the Northern state is not supposed to yield an Irish nationalist leadership committed to Irish reunification. But that is what Sinn Féin has achieved.

The party successfully campaigned on austerity and the health service to make the political point that it alone is striving to defend the most fundamental interests of the whole population, and gained just over 1% of the vote at 29%. But this is far ahead of the leading unionist party the DUP, who lost 6.7%. It also lost 3 seats, leaving Sinn Féin as the largest party in terms of both votes and seats.

The unionist political monolith definitively began to break up with the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement. Unionism also went into decline. These trends have continued and now the three separate parties (DUP, UUP and TUV) represent just 40.6% of voters between them.

Their disarray continues now because they have been duped by the most reactionary wing of the Tory Party (now in government) into supporting a hard Brexit and now opposing the NI Protocol it agreed and signed. Outside of political unionism, the Protocol is widely acknowledged as the least damaging outcome for the north in terms of jobs and prosperity, and unionist opposition to it rightly seen as prioritising sectarianism over economic security.

The DUP now threatens to refuse to enter the newly elected Assembly unless the Protocol is ripped up. The British government has been encouraging this stance with its own threats. As an all-out trade war with the EU is likely to follow, it seems probable that these promises to unionists were just another failed pre-election gambit.

As a result, there is set to be another long hiatus before the sectarian supremacist unionist parties are willing to face reality. But the tide of history is with Sinn Féin.