No big swings
The local election results should warn us that a Corbyn government is not a shoo-in, writes Eddie Ford
Ever since the last general election there has been a prevalent notion amongst some sections of the left that a Labour victory at the next election is certain: Jeremy Corbyn will be the next prime minister. But last week’s local election results in England should act as a warning that this is far from inevitable.
Indeed, this publication has always warned that, even if the Labour Party emerged as the majority party in the Commons, that does not necessarily translate into a Corbyn-led government - it is the monarch and the privy council - the establishment - which approaches the politician they think can command a majority in the Commons. Yes, that is usually the leader of the largest party, but it does not have to be. In other words, it is by no means certain that, even if Labour won the next general election outright, Jeremy Corbyn could actually command a majority in the Commons. Remember the 172 Labour MPs who supported a motion of no confidence against him almost two years ago? And what about the army generals who said they would rather “mutiny” than obey orders from a Corbyn government? Yet for some reason the left fails to understand what should be a fairly basic point for any Marxist - the bourgeoisie will do what is necessary if it feels its position is under threat.
For communists, however, the crucial question is not dreaming about the next Labour government, but working for the transformation of the Labour Party, especially when you see who stands behind Corbyn at the despatch box - most with sharpened daggers in their hands.
Anyhow, with regards to the recent local elections, there has essentially been no change since the general election - no upsets or major swings towards any party. Stalemate. Hence, on a 36% turnout - the same as four years ago - Labour gained 77 councillors on a very modest swing, but ended up with no change to the numbers of councils they control (74). It failed to take several key targets from the Tories, such as Wandsworth and Barnet, but it won back Plymouth and became the largest party in Trafford and Tower Hamlets. In fact, Labour had its best performance since 1971 in London on a 4% swing - winning 47% of the vote and picking up 60 seats (it performed more strongly in boroughs where it already had a healthy lead over the Conservatives when the seats were last contested four years ago).
Meanwhile, the Tories made a net loss of 33 seats and two councils with 30.8% of the vote - gaining Redditch from Labour, but losing control of Kingston upon Thames, Richmond upon Thames and South Cambridgeshire to the Liberal Democrats. In London the Conservatives lost 101 seats to finish with 511 councillors, its lowest ever tally of seats in a London local election. However, they retained control of seven councils.
As for the Lib Dems, they had a relatively good night - gaining 75 seats and four councils. But the party still remains far off the vote share it had before entering the coalition government in 2010. Meanwhile, the Greens gained eight seats overall, mainly in London and the UK Independence Party had a predictably disastrous night, losing nearly all of the 126 seats it was defending, with only three councillors re-elected - Ukip won a mere 0.4% of the vote in London. All this caused Paul Oakley, Ukip’s general secretary, to compare his party to the “Black Death” - albeit on the optimistic grounds that the plague had “led to economic growth and the Renaissance”.
Based on these local election results, the BBC projected a national vote share of 35% for both main parties (Labour up 8% since 2017 and the Tories down 3%), with the Lib Dems on 16% (down 2%). A dead heat. On this forecast, at least according to Sir John Curtice - who famously predicted last year’s shock general election result - Labour would win 283 Westminster seats (compared to 262 won in 2017) and be the largest party just, with the Tories only three seats behind.
However, it goes without saying that such projections are notoriously imprecise: Michael Thrasher, a rival forecaster, puts Labour on 261 seats, essentially the same number as the party got a year ago. Historically, oppositions that win elections start a parliament well ahead on the projected national vote measure: Labour in 1993 was 10 points ahead and the Tories were 12 points ahead in 2006. Either way, the figure is well below the 326 required for an overall majority. Turbulent times ahead, which could possibly see a period of precarious majorities, hung parliaments and minority governments - or even national governments seeking to ‘rescue the nation’ from the forces of chaos and anarchy (and Brexit).
The first thing that must be said is you would expect something more from Labour, the opposition party, under normal conditions (but, of course, we are not living under normal conditions). When you have an obviously struggling incumbent government - seemingly clueless about how to proceed with Brexit, featuring ever sharpening internal divisions, steadily losing votes in the Lords and having just presided over the Windrush scandal - you would expect it to be heavily punished at the polls.
Instead, the Tories came out of the election breathing a genuine sigh of relief - they only suffered a little and the level of pain was acceptable. In the estimation of the Financial Times, the Conservative vote “held up tolerably”, when you consider that the party has been in power for close to eight years and its “policy efforts have been wobbling like a shopping trolley with a bad wheel” (May 4).
Then again, if it had not been for the collapse of Ukip the Tories might have been more heavily punished. Yet it was always to be expected that Ukip would lose its purpose in life after the 2016 European Union referendum and cease to exist sooner or later - probably much sooner, as we are now seeing. Not least when Theresa May did a hard Brexit turn, making Ukip all but redundant - why vote for a joke fringe party with a different leader almost every day when you can vote for the real thing and get things done? Most Ukip voters tended to be Tories in exile, without pushing the point too much, and are returning home.
But, returning to Labour, it did worse than predicted - or at least worse compared to its own predictions: Owen Jones had grumbled a day before the election that the party was “guilty of failing to manage expectations” (TheGuardian May 2). Conversely, George Osborne’s London Evening Standard and various Tory spin doctors hyped up the prospect of a Conservative armageddon, clearly hoping to frighten Tory voters into the polling stations - with some effect, it seems.
Probably more in wishful thinking than psephological analysis, Justine Greening - the former Tory education secretary - said the results revealed that Labour had reached “peak Corbyn” since last summer’s general election. Rushing straight into battle, figures on the Labour right promptly called for an “inquiry” on what went wrong. Particularly annoyed was Chuka Umunna, who at one stage was the great black hope of the Labour right until he pulled out of the leadership contest three years ago under slightly mysterious circumstances. He told the BBC’s World at One programme that advances which could be expected at this stage in the electoral cycle under a “divided and incompetent” government had failed to materialise - “the whole Labour leadership” had to address this failure, arguing that the party’s national executive committee should appoint someone to do a “proper post-mortem”.
Alastair Campbell was also irate, bitterly complaining to a Progress meeting that “if we cannot beat this shamble of a Tory Party, we don’t deserve to be in the game” - before hitting out at Momentum on the BBC’s Today show: “We are really clutching at straws,” he said. “If I see one more person from the Momentum side saying, ‘These are the best results since 1971’ ... What planet are they on?” These are bad results, Campbell went on, especially when we are talking about “possibly the worst government in living memory”. Communists would certainly agree that Momentum’s belief that all we need is one more big shove to see Jeremy Corbyn safely ensconced in No10 is deluded.
Jeremy Corbyn, whatever the brave face, must have been disappointed by the results - after all, he had been booked to go to Barnet to celebrate Labour’s success (hopefully he had a refundable ticket). Unlike the rest of London, Labour lost seats in Barnet - doubtlessly the ‘anti-Semitism’ campaign was a major factor in the defeat, as Barnet has the largest Jewish population in the country at 15%.1 In a beautiful irony, the Labour Party in Barnet is controlled by the right, including the Jewish Labour Movement - with one former councillor and JLM member, Adam Langleben, calling upon the Labour leader to come to the borough and apologise to the Jewish community (or a section of it).2 The anti-Semitism smears were clearly believed by some voters in Barnet, so you could argue that the right brought it upon themselves.
As our readers know, the JLM has led the way in spreading those smears, demanding that Corbyn speeds up the expulsions of anti-Zionists, and so on. By another beautiful paradox, a former Labour parliamentary candidate for the borough (Finchley and Golders Green) was none other than a certain Jeremy Newmark - also former chair of the JLM and chief executive officer of the Jewish Leadership Council. Newmark, of course, has now parted company with both the JLM and JLC after The Jewish Chronicle - widely read in Barnet, naturally - published an internal audit report into his conduct whilst JLC’s CEO, with accusations of financial malpractice and an ongoing police investigation. You would surely think that this scandal might also have something to do with Labour’s relatively poor performance in the borough.
What the anti-Semitism furore is really about, needless to say, is the Labour leader’s position on Israel and Britain’s relationship with the US and its alliance with Israel. Jeremy Corbyn clearly represents an important and welcome change in that respect, Labour historically having been close to Israel and Zionism.
1. Or, to be exact, subscribe to Judaism: www.barnet.gov.uk/jsna-home/demography.html.