Britain: Labour gains as council vote reveals polarisation

British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn at a polling station in London on May 8.

The council election result in Kensington and Chelsea, as part of England’s council elections on May 3, was a good indicator of how polarised the political situation is in Britain.

The Conservative-controlled council in Kensington and Chelsea was responsible for the completely avoidable deaths of 71 people in the Grenfell fire last year. The Tories ran on manifesto promises of twice weekly bin collections and lower council tax and lost only one seat.

It seems Tory voters think saving a few quid on their council tax is more important than the lives of the people of Grenfell Tower. That is what class hatred and racist indifference look like.

As soon as the results started coming in, the media reported the story as a setback for Labour’s socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn. BBC reporters were repeating the weird phrase “peak Corbyn” from 6am onwards as though they’d all developed the same nervous tic.

This was the line of attack also pursued by the Labour right. This included the ever-reliable Jess Philips, probably the only MP in her party willing to defend now-resigned home secretary Amber Rudd’s handling of the Home Office’s racist treatment of the Windrush generation of migrants from the Caribbean, and right-wing self-described “Blue Labour” MP Chuka Umunna.

Yet the figures tell a different story. Labour controls 74 councils, the Tories 46. Labour won 2350 seats, a gain of 77 and the Tories won 1332, a loss of 33.

In a context where Tory voters don’t stop voting for the party when it’s responsible for 71 deaths in their own neighbourhood, that is not a negligible gain.

Labour knocked the Tories out of Trafford, an all the more remarkable result given the lack of support given to leftist Steve Longden in Brooklands by the party apparatus. The left mobilised for Longden, including a high-profile campaigning visit by journalist Owen Jones, and succeeded in taking Brooklands, as well as the official target seats.

Labour took Plymouth, winning four seats previously held by the Tories. There were other places where Labour took seats it had not held for decades: Blenheim Park in Southend for example.

Much of the Tory crowing and Labour right’s carping has been over the results in Wandsworth and Westminster. Many Labour supporters in London had convinced themselves that these former Tory bastions would fall.

It was a close-run thing. In Wandsworth, Labour won 38.7% of the vote (and gained seven seats) and the Tories 38% (losing six seats). But the Conservatives still held on to win more seats. In Westminster, a Tory flagship, Labour won 41.1% of the vote against the Tories’ 42%.

Every dirty trick in the book was thrown at the Corbyn leadership in the weeks before the election. The media reported slurs that he was a former Czech agent and that Moscow had helped his election campaign. It was scandalised that he’d waited three hours before sending a message about the birth of a royal baby.  He was alleged to have been responsible for, or failing to tackle seriously, “rampant anti-semitism” in his party.

This nonsense filled the TV and radio. Some of the mud probably stuck, but as Jewish socialist activist David Rosenberg observed, in Redbridge, a borough with a large Jewish population, Labour increased its number of councillors from 36 to 51. In Barnet, another area with a significant Jewish community, Labour’s vote went up by 2.7%.

UK Independence Party voters are now the Tories’ electoral lifeline. That racist, xenophobic organisation is now dead, having fallen from 126 seats to just three. But the nearly 4 million people who voted for its racist platform in 2015 now largely vote Tory. Many of them want a racist, xenophobic version of Brexit and see the Tories as their best chance of getting it.

Under previous leaders, Labour more than dabbled with trying to win that racist vote on its own terms. The section of the party that supported that is the one that is most hostile to the Corbyn leadership.

These local government elections were a modest victory for Labour. Results can be very idiosyncratic when politics are fought at the local level. We’ve all seen candidates barely capable of expressing a political idea do surprisingly well while more impressive women and men don’t even make the shortlist.

The next general election, however, will not be fought over potholes and streetlights. The last one showed that with a radical program, Labour can turn the tide against the Tories, but few council candidates were able to fight on that type of platform.

Nevertheless, in many parts of England there are now more left councillors than there have been in a generation. Socialists in the party need to work with them to break the passivity and defeatism that has been the hallmark of Labour in local government for a decade.

[Reprinted from Socialist Resistance.]