A week before we could all hug each other again, 3 months into a successful vaccination programme and 1 day after British gunboats successfully chased off the French Armada of fishing communists besieging our beloved tax haven of Jersey we had the first elections since 2019 when Boris Johnson ‘Got Brexit Done’ and the evil Jeremy Corbyn with his ‘moral principles’ had been seen off. Was it a big surprise that the BBC, I mean, the Tories had such a good result? Despite being inept to the extreme in the early stages of the pandemic, not attending key meetings, urging people to shake hands with Covid victims and then catching it himself then only 3 months later re-opening the country too soon with his ‘eat out to help spread the virus’ campaign, then locking down too late when the virus re-emerged in the autumn, Boris Johnson was nevertheless the Nations saviour for being there when the vaccine light at the end of the tunnel showed a way out of this life blocking shit show. Never mind bodies piling high, never mind over budget redecorations at Downing street and never mind Brexit turning out, well, like most people predicted it would. The Tories won the local English elections and the one Parliamentary by election but, although you might not notice it in the media, didn’t win in Wales-Labour did, didn’t win in Scotland -the SNP & the case for Independence did and didn’t even win the majority of Mayors-Labour did. Labour Leader Keir Starmer, looking a bit like a rabbit caught in a media trap headlights on the Friday night after Hartlepool, didn’t wait until the better news of the next couple of days, but jumped to attention to take the blame. Then transfer it to Angela Rayner, then block the Sunday good news of Labour gains with a botched focus on a cosmetic Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. So what do we make of all this? Let’s find out……
Keir Starmer might of course seem to some like what would happen if you built someone in a lab specifically designed to not appeal to ex-Labour voters in a media made up ‘Red Wall’. But that’s a shame, because, to others, he also does a good impersonation of a worryingly anti-democratic Westminster machine-politician who doesn’t seem to stand for anything. So in this respect Hartlepool shouldn’t have been a surprise, because it exemplified how Labour’s been pissing off its traditional supporters since at least the early 90s. Ex-MP Dr Paul Williams – kicked out by Darlington voters in 2019 – was picked to be the candidate from a longlist of one, allegedly by Keir Starmer’s office, which had absolutely probably totally nothing to do with the fact he works in Keir Starmer’s office. He was also a vocal Remainer in a seat that voted 70% Leave.
Boris the Teflon Toff
But ‘would Labour have done less badly if Starmer had spent the last year actually having some policies?’-is a common criticism. Well, he did. He had a perfectly serviceable list of ‘ten pledges’ he seems to have lost down the back of the sofa the minute he got elected. But sadly, he’s been a bit busy stifling internal dissent and shutting down democratic candidate selections instead. If Corbyn had done any of this, Wes Streeting would’ve almost certainly carried out a citizen’s arrest. So the election started off in a bad place, where many on Labour’s left were already losing faith in their new leader and couldn’t be relied on to help.
Boris Johnson, of course, continues to get away with it despite possibly being responsible for 150,000 preventable deaths. That’s partly down to a scandalous pro-Tory bias in the press – but it’s also because it’s not 2010 anymore. These aren’t the Cameron-Osborne Tories. Boris is still awful, but he’s more than happy to spend money when it suits him. Boris has dug into massive reserves and even more massive pools of borrowing on the never never to pay people through Covid. Not everyone, but many have been making a packet….and oddly, quite a few of the Tories chums
Greens Take Root
So it was that a larger than usual chunk of voters swung to the Greens who more than doubled their presence in Bristol, gaining the exact number of seats that Labour won – 24 apiece. Unprecedented. So what do the Greens themselves think?
Cllr Martin Dimery (Green, Frome) says “The Tories are winning in much of England because they have adopted UKIP policies and absorbed the hard right, whilst the left of centre parties are too busy fighting amongst themselves. Where the Lib Dems and Greens have formed electoral pacts like in Mendip district and, last week, in Oxfordshire, they have been successful. We, in the Greens, really want to work with Labour but Labour must embrace Proportional Representation. Without Scottish seats, they will never again win an overall majority. If Labour was prepared to consider an electoral pact for one General Election only, they could lead a progressive alliance of parties all willing to support similar policies including a better Brexit deal; support for the NHS; PR and the Green New Deal. If we have PR, no further electoral pacts would need to be made. “
How the Greens do entirely depends on how Labour positions itself. When Labour’s being bold and ambitious, the Greens do badly. When Labour’s being timid and awful, its more radical supporters look elsewhere. Under Miliband, for example, we had the ‘Green surge’. Under Corbyn, they were an irrelevance – essentially Lib Dems with wind turbines. Since Starmer’s just appointed a Shadow Chancellor possibly to the right of Rishi Sunak, and spent much of February arguing taxing corporations is bad, will Caroline Lucas still be the only Green in Parliament in 2024?
Lib Dems…Winning (w)Here?
But how have the Lib Dems fared? Their local government base is always stronger than their Westminster one but they’ve struggled in recent years because of their coalition with the Tories helping in austerity and were hoping that this set of elections might put them back on the road to recovery with the new jab curtesy of new leader Ed Davey. In Somerset they run a couple of districts and are the main opposition on County – but they had no elections to test this . We asked Sedgemoor Lib Dem group Leader Cllr Bill Revans (North Petherton, Lib Dem) for his views. Bill said “On Thursday the Lib Dems gained: 8 seats in Oxford; 6 seats in Wiltshire; 5 in Surrey and Hertfordshire, 4 in Cambridgeshire; 3 in both Buckinghamshire and Devon and 2 in West Sussex. In Somerset we’d have needed to gain 6 seats from the Tories to get them out of power. No wonder the County Hall Conservatives asked their friends in Whitehall to call off the elections here.”
Tories- Popular, Populist or Pranksters?
But why are the Tories still so popular? No point asking them. They’d probably lie. So for a more detached view we went over to Tanweer Ali in Prague, a member of Labour International, and a distant observer of British politics. Tanweer, doing a report for a former Czech Social Democrat Prime Minister, said “All the discussion of why and how the Tories managed to make inroads in traditional Labour territory in the north of England reminds me of the financial analysts talking about the incredible investment success of Bernard Madoff. They mostly missed the point because Madoff was basically a conman and built his investment funds on a pack of lies. Many people in the UK have lost a sense of economic security in the neoliberal era and this insecurity has never been addressed. The Labour party grew to accept economic inequality too – it was the former Hartlepool MP Peter Mandelson who famously said he was intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich. Feeling abandoned by the political establishment and insecure people clung to the nation state and were attracted by the ideas of the far right. Brexit capitalized on these tendencies but is basically a con as is most of the Tories offer to the north (they have neither the ability to articulate nor to implement a real regeneration strategy). However, one should not necessarily expect this support to disappear any time soon, as it is tied to notions of identity. After all, Madoff was able to keep up his con for over a decade. But then Bernie Madoff also died in prison.As to whether it matters: The FT headline read: “Conservatives make big gains in local elections.” The opening sentence in the article: Theresa May appeared on course for an overwhelming general election victory after the Conservatives made sweeping gains in local elections, with Labour forced into retreat and the UK Independence party suffering an almost complete wipeout. The authors went on to write: Psephologists said Mrs May was now better placed ahead of the June 8 election than Margaret Thatcher was before her landslide victories of 1983 and 1987. Well that’s not quite how it panned out, was it? Perhaps by the time Dominic Cummings has given evidence to the Health and Science committee later this month, we’ll all have forgotten about these elections. “
And what do ‘the comrades’ think?
So how is this affecting ordinary Labour party members? Some chose not to bother helping, campaigning or even voting for Labour candidates this time. Some did but gritted their teeth out of loyalty and the hope that things can get better. Other’s were out there, as they would be, come rain or come shine and had to suffer the slings and hamsters of outrageous social media i-told-you-so diatribe from the second the Hartlepool news broke from angry keyboard warriors, fingertips and bile ducts poised. Let’s hear from them.
Liz Marsh, a new member in Bridgwater Labour Party, said “Ok so no-one is likely to conclude that last Thursday’s results were a cause for mass celebration for the Labour Party, they weren’t but it wasn’t all doom and gloom either. There were some great results from all over the country. Tracy Brabin became the first female Metro Mayor in West Yorkshire, Joanne Anderson the first black female Mayor of Liverpool and Dan Norris gained the West of England Mayor seat to name but a few. There were also some healthy re-elections from Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester and Sadiq Khan in London not to mention the many re-elected and and newly elected Labour County Councillors from many different constituencies all over the UK. Notably in the Welsh Parliament there was even greater news with Labour not only holding power but increasing it’s vote share. However, there is no denying that the Labour Party needs to take action. We need clearer policies; a much more united approach with effective leadership; to listen and effectively engage with the voters; to become once again the party of working people. A clear path forward that takes in the major issues that we find ourselves confronted with from climate, to employment, to schools, to housing, to welfare, to health care. We have work to do there is clearly no denying that but all is definitely not lost.”
Frome CLP Secretary Billiy Almond sought out the positives while not being afraid to criticise saying “ I think we need to look where we have had success. Places like Wales, Preston, Stockport, Liverpool etc. These are the places where we have socialist policies, where we were offering hope. We cannot do this without the left of the party, we need to unite. If we look where Kier was successful for the leaders election, he promised unity and his 10 pledges of socialist policies. Obviously the direction we were going in Hartlepool was the wrong one. We must note that there was a lot of negative feedback to Keir on the doorstep in Hartlepool. A Remainer and someone who is Westminster centric, is not how we will win the red wall. We cannot be more Tory than the Tories, focus groups with Conservative voters is not where we need to get our ideas. Losing Community Organisers was a huge mistake. We need to be a members led organisation not ruled from the top. I would prefer that we were not being advised by Peter Mandelson. He has proved to be a toxic corrupt crook. We were so misguided to drag him out of the past. He really is the kiss of death, especially in Hartlepool. Why did we have the by-election at the same time as main elections? This was a huge mistake. It is all looking very naive politically. This is a turning point we need to unite and fight the Tories, not each other. We need to celebrate what we have in common which is to help the working class, and secure a better future for us all. “
Taunton Labour CLP Secretary Rob Ewers took a different view saying “Labour needs to stop talking about the ‘working class’ like that’s still a thing, it isn’t, and needs to stop talking about the red wall like that’s still a thing, it isn’t… The results show the need for Proportional Representation, as so many election results in this country do.”
Bridgwater Labour Town Councillor Glen Burrows said “The Labour Party needs to look at the 2017 elections, when voters swung to Labour because they had a clear position against austerity, policies for renationalisation of public services and plans for a Green New Deal. Plus the Leader was more interested in fighting the Tories than expelling the left in the Labour Party. So, renationalising the railways is more important to voters than the union jack – probably because people know when they’re being patronised.”
Are there lessons to learn? And will we learn them?
Sean Dromgoole, Labour’s Somerton & Frome candidate in the 2019 election, said “Well we have got a lot of lessons to learn from this weekend. Firstly I would like to extend comradely commiserations to Kerry Barker who ran an excellent campaign to become Avon and Somerset PCC. I think we all thought we were fighting the independent, but the Tory sneaked through on the slipstream. This is no reflection on Kerry whose engaged, relevant and well researched campaign was credit to himself and our party. Watching the Tory nightmare unfold in neighbouring Wiltshire, as their successful candidate is ousted for fibbing about having no previous convictions, I think we can all see that decency and probity might well become more important as we go forwards. Secondly Hartlepool may have been presented as a 16% swing from Labour to Tories, but it was really a 100% swing from the Brexit party to Tories. No surprises there. What was unedifying was that we got caught up in internal wrangling about blame before the story had played out. The mayoral elections went well for us – especially in the South West. We’ve won council seats in some odd new places. There was a complicated story to tell, but instead we served up a narrative about a reshuffle that was, and then wasn’t, and then was barely. Much better to wait while things seem to be going poorly, at least wait until the full picture emerges. Then, once the dust has settled, react if you need to and do it once.The last thing to say is we can’t go much longer without a clear vision of what we and our current leadership stands for. Less talk about values and more about actual policies. I understand the wish to keep our powder dry until the next election but many of us who campaigned last time resented the “rabbit out of a hat” approach to policy presentation. Our policies need to be solid, grounded, tested and clearly from us, and we need to start doing that soon. We clear bold socialist policies on the environment, housing, education, on the NHS, on social care, on social justice. We also need to react to the Tory pivot from wanting a small state, to wanting as large a state as possible, as long as it quickly settles your mate’s invoices. We need to keep ourselves to a higher standard. It might sound prim but their natural degeneration into corruption is currently their greatest weakness and so must be our strength.It was in informative weekend and there is much to learn, but we’re good at that.
Bridgwater Labour Branch secretary Andrew Jefferey said “It was difficult to watch the results coming in over the weekend but there were wins and gains for Labour that the whole party can learn from. From Salford to Manchester to Preston, locally engaged parts of the party who were implementing local socialist policies bucked the loosing trend. There’s is a lot to be learnt from these successes that can be applied across the country.”
Olivia Darling-Finan (Yeovil Labour Secretary) said “Although we didn’t do as well in this set of elections as we would have liked, there are a lot of positives to be taken from the results. We took several significant seats from the Tories right across England, had great success in Wales and won 11 out of 13 Mayoral posts. The big job now will involve talking not just internally to the membership and people who vote for us, but also those voters who have drifted from the party in recent years across England. I believe Keir Starmer and his new team are the right people to do this, and it’s our job now to pull together and show the country that we’re fit for government.”
Unity and Leadership and Common Ground, oh, and Everything
Kerry Barker, Labours candidate for the Avon & Somerset PCC, came a close second to the winning Tory, and said “Whilst the result was obviously disappointing we did really well to increase our overall vote by over 46,000. In the end we lost by 15,000 votes and the really frustrating part is that the Greens and LibDems wasted over 60,000 second votes, and since most of those votes would have been anti-Tory, had they been used properly and sensibly we would have won the election! . The PCC election is winnable but we need to get the people who voted Labour in the General Election to realise that their votes can make the difference in a regional election “
For a unifying note, finally, we turn to Bridgwater & West Somerset Labour Party Chairman Liam Tucker who says “I urge everyone to approach what I see, at best, as a mixed bag of a result in the recent elections with a renewed humbleness, a clear and open mind and open and attentive ears. True there were losses but there were also gains, we must endeavour to strengthen the bonds between us all and become true pillars of the local community and take every opportunity to learn from others. Let us move away from reflex reaction politics and towards broad and progressive planning of a bright future. Stay rebellious positive and positively rebellious. Thank you all.”