Mark L Thomas assesses the state of the Labour party after the council ballots in early May which failed to deliver a decisive result for either side
The results of the local elections in England last month were decried as a failure for Corbyn and Labour by the Tories, with much of the media coverage taking this as their cue. The usual suspects among Corbyn’s opponents on the Labour right were quick to add their voices suggesting that “peak Corbyn” had been reached.
In reply, the Labour left robustly defended the results as an untrammelled success for Labour and another step towards Downing Street for Corbyn.
But neither of these interpretations really capture what the local elections actually point to.
Firstly, and most obviously, the local elections as the first big electoral test since last year’s general election confirm that electoral politics — at least in England — is now firmly polarised between the two main parties.
Labour and the Tories between them won nearly 17 out every 20 council seats up for election in May.
Ukip collapsed, clinging on to just three councillors and losing 123. The party’s general secretary was left comparing Ukip to the medieval “black death” (something he strangely seemed to believe was a positive quality!).
Ukip’s electoral disintegration might seem like old news. But in 2014, the year when the council seats contested this year were last up for election, Ukip was riding the peak of its wave of support. Indeed, in the elections to the European parliament held on the same day as the 2014 local elections Ukip finished top — the first time any party apart from Labour or the Tories had won a nationwide vote since 1910. Ukip’s collapse has primarily benefited the Tories, though Labour will have taken some of its former vote.
The much trumpeted Lib Dem revival — they gained 75 council seats — is from a very low base following the shattering of much of its electoral support.
The decades-long erosion of support for the two main parties and the rise of challengers — Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Ukip, the Greens — peaked in the 2015 general election but went into sharp reverse last June, with the exception of the SNP in Scotland. The local elections suggest little has changed since then. Labour confirmed it has advanced, but the Tories did not collapse.
Of course Labour won more council seats (2,350) and saw the biggest net gain (79), while the Tories took 1,332, an overall loss of 35 councillors.
But the local elections are only a partial snapshot of the national picture. Less than a quarter of the total number of council seats across the UK were up for re-election, mainly concentrated in the bigger urban centres of England.
Labour gained control of Kirklees, Plymouth and Tower Hamlets but lost control of Derby, Nuneaton & Bedworth and Redditch.
And in London, Labour had its best results since 1971 — indeed almost all its net gains came from the capital (and were particularly concentrated in Tower Hamlets, Redbridge and Wandsworth). In fact, Labour came very close to defeating the Tories in Wandsworth, where Labour gained seven seats while the Tories lost eight (and according to the Britain Elects Twitter feed, Labour’s share of the vote was higher than the Tories across the borough as a whole). Losing Wandsworth would have been very uncomfortable for Theresa May.
But there was no great breakthrough for Labour and the picture of an electoral stalemate is if anything confirmed.
The results underline that there is no certainty that Labour will win the next general election. Simply waiting for the Tories to collapse is a poor strategy.
The local elections had too little of the feeling of insurgency and radicalism from Labour that we saw in the general election last year.
Labour under Corbyn is no longer the outsider with nothing to lose but instead increasingly styles itself as a government in waiting. And there has been no challenge to the policy of Labour councils implementing the cuts locally.
But acting as a respectable government in waiting with a mass, but essentially conventional electoral operation, limits its potential to further increase its wider support.
That requires more, not less struggle and radicalism. Its absence risks allowing the Tories to cling on.
And that in turn gives Corbyn’s opponents on the right — inside and outside Labour — the space to regroup and go on the attack. The outcome of the general election shocked such forces and throw them into some disarray.
But they have regrouped and in the sustained campaign to tar Corbyn and the left with antisemitism they have found an effective stick to intimidate and paralyse Corbyn and the Labour left.
Antisemitism must be challenged wherever it appears. But the ferocity of these attacks are little to do with the actual, limited, existence of antisemitism in the Labour Party and everything to do with attacking and undermining the left.
But the response from Corbyn and Momentum has been largely to concede the ground and not to call out the attacks as a witch hunt.
As a result Ken Livingstone, former London Mayor and a key figurehead of the Labour left, has been forced out of the Labour Party, without any real fight since he resigned, for comments that may have been ill-judged politically but were not antisemitic. The belief that this will stop the attacks on the left is an act of wishful thinking. Labour is now a party where there is no space for Livingstone, but there is for Tony Blair or the Labour Friends of Israel.
The situation urgently calls for a much, much greater level of struggle and resistance to throw the Tories onto the defensive and increase their divisions. The decision by the PCS union at its annual conference last month to ballot for strikes over pay is a step in the right direction, but one too few other unions look like matching.
Yet the potential to be bold and take the fight to the Tories clearly exists. The best example has been the Windrush scandal. The widespread anger at the revelations that the Tories’ creation of a “hostile environment” for migrants had threatened the residency rights of thousands of people who had come from the Caribbean, especially in the 1950s and 60s to work in Britain’s public services and labour-starved industries, threw the government onto the defensive.
The protests initiated by Stand Up to Racism, alongside others, captured the public mood and boosted the confidence of Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow home secretary, to not only harry the Tories on this with considerable effect but also to promise that a future Labour government would close down detentions centres such as Yarl’s Wood.
Two other points should be made in the light of the local elections.
One is over Brexit. The results underline that heeding the pressure to position Labour as an anti-Brexit force, either through support for continued British membership of the single market or joining the calls for a second referendum would not only be politically disastrous — the single market would be a major impediment to the kind of break with neoliberalism enshrined in last year’s Labour manifesto, for example — but would also damage Labour electorally. It would allow the Tories to pose as the only party willing to act on the referendum results, especially in Leave voting areas of the Midlands and the North.
Secondly, the local elections have altered some of the political make up of Labour councils. Local government has long been a bastion of the Labour right since the collapse of “municipal socialism” in the late 1980s. But this election will have seen more pro-Corbyn councillors elected. In some areas, the left will now have some influence on the direction and policy of Labour councils. And in Haringey council, the left is now the dominant force.
This is directly related to the struggle to stop the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV), a collaboration between the Labour right council leadership and major property developers, which would have led to widespread social cleansing in the borough. The campaign to stop HDV united socialists and activists outside the Labour Party with the newly expanded Labour left. In turn that led to a struggle for control of the local Labour Party and the council, with the left emerging as clear winners.
But what will the left do with the council now that they run it? As Joseph Ejiofor, the new leader of Haringey council (and a member of Momentum’s National Coordinating Group), told the London Evening Standard, “Over the next four years it will be down to us to show everybody what this mythical beast the ‘Corbyn council’ actually does.”
Of course, the first step is putting the last nails in the HDV’s coffin. But a left council needs to show it will challenge austerity, not simply implement it while blaming the Tories and waiting for a Labour government. The words of George Lansbury, leader of Poplar council in east London after the First World War (and later the most left wing leader in Labour’s history, apart from Corbyn) still apply, “The workers must be given tangible proof that a Labour administration means something different from capitalist administration, and in a nutshell this means diverting wealth from wealthy ratepayers to the poor.”
This is an anticipation of the great questions that will be posed if Labour under Corbyn does come to government office.