SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Throw out the incumbents!

THE MAIN news story coming out of the recent local government elections was the election of three British National Party (BNP) councillors in the northern town of Burnley (see p18), the first successes for the neo-Nazi party since its short-lived victory in Tower Hamlets in 1993. But May's contest, for 5,879 seats on 174 English councils, the largest electoral test since last year's general election, also produced other significant results.

The last time this set of seats were contested was in 1998. Then the Tories won 33% of the vote, to 39% for Labour. This time the Tories won 34% of the vote to Labour's 33%, increased the number of councils under their control by nine to 42 and, with over 2,000 councillors elected in May, are now within 500 seats of becoming the largest party in local government in England and Wales.

Yet the elections did not signal the start of a real Tory revival, in the sense of winning over new layers of support. It was more a repetition of the 1999 European assembly elections, or the 2000 local elections, when the Tories managed to win a greater share of the vote than Labour on a low turnout. Turnout fell to a record low in London, for example, where Labour suffered an above-trend decline in its vote, losing control of Enfield, Harrow, Lambeth, and Waltham Forest councils and losing 180 councillors in the capital overall.

Even this picture, though, needs to be qualified. Overall turnout rose to 35%, confounding a pre-election Guardian/ICM survey which had predicted a lowest-ever poll. This opinion poll, however, had been taken before Le Pen's surprise showing in the first round of the French presidential elections (although after Gordon Brown's budget), which clearly had an impact in regions where there was a heightened fear of the BNP. Thus the turnout of Labour votes was 4% higher in parts of the north of England and the Midlands, and particularly in the north-west. Labour even took control of two councils from the Tories in this region, in Rossendale and Hyndburn, their only council gains from the Tories on the night, and gained seats in Bury, Oldham, Rochdale and Trafford, amongst others.

The Liberal Democrats also recorded a net gain of councillors, councils and share of the vote (from 23% to 27%), taking control of Cheltenham, Eastbourne and Worthing from the Tories, Norwich from Labour, and Kingston and Milton Keynes from no overall control. They consolidated their majority in Islington in London and became the largest party in Southwark. But they also lost Sheffield to Labour after just two years in control, and Richmond-on-Thames to the Tories.

Overall then, the elections did not produce a universal picture of the disenchantment with New Labour resulting in gains for the Liberal Democrats and Tories. Instead the main trend to be discerned was that all three parties suffered a setback where they were in control locally. A sample survey of council wards by The Economist magazine showed that Labour's vote fell by 5.7% in Labour-controlled councils compared to a 3.7% fall overall (and a Labour gain of 3.8% in Liberal Democrat-controlled councils). While the Tories put on some votes in Labour or Liberal Democrat-controlled areas, in the councils they already led they failed to make any headway. The Liberal Democrats also suffered a 5.5% fall in the areas where they were in control. Overall 40 councils out of the 174 being contested changed hands. "Looked at closely", The Economist argues, "the results have a European flavour: voters were hitting out at the political establishment". They also noted that support had risen "for minor parties, on both the right and the left". (11th May)

One symptomatic example of the search for an alternative was the vote for the independent Kidderminster Health Concern group, which won the parliamentary seat of Wyre Forest from Labour last June. This group, initially a single-issue campaign against the closure of a local hospital, had already won seats on the local council. In this election they won another five wards from Labour to take an overall majority for the first time.

The Greens also increased their support in general, winning an average of 7% in the wards where they stood, their best performance since the 1989 European elections when they won third place in an all-UK poll. This time out they fielded just under 1,100 candidates and, although they had a net loss of seats on the night, now have councillors in 22 authorities. In Norwich the Greens got their first two councillors elected at the expense of Labour, in Leeds a third Green was elected, in Bradford a second. In Oxford however, having joined 'the political establishment' by participating in a ruling coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the Greens lost four of their seven councillors.

It was in Oxford also that a candidate standing for the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) won a seat with 39% of the vote (354 votes), in the city's Northfield Brook ward. The IWCA, a small group of former socialists with a campaigning approach that is deliberately restricted to local community issues, also polled well in the five other wards where they stood, in Hackney, Islington and Havering.

Overall, the vote for non-establishment candidates rose by 2% to 7.6% outside of London and by 3% to 9.2% in London.

This is the context in which the votes for socialist candidates in these elections need to be assessed. This poll was the first electoral test for the Socialist Alliance (SA) since its conference last December where, despite being a founding organisation of the Alliance, the Socialist Party was forced to withdraw. One of the key issues was precisely how to relate to the disparate forces which will emerge in the absence of an authoritative mass alternative to New Labour.

The Socialist Party argued for a 'federal' Alliance that could bring together different socialist organisations, individuals, community campaigners and trade unionists - without them having to give up their own independent organisations, activities and views - as a step towards a new workers' party. But the numerically dominant group in the SA, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), rejected this approach and imposed a structure that gave them full control over any groups that join the SA.

The election results certainly don't bear out the SA/SWP's conception that the Socialist Alliance will be the only vehicle for building working class political representation (see table). The Socialist Party remains as the only socialist organisation in England and Wales with elected councillors, polling 10,078 votes with 34 candidates, an average vote of 296 (11.48%) per candidate. In comparison the Socialist Alliance's 204 candidates polled an average of 138 (5.8%) per candidate, 28,071 votes in total. Even in their numerically strongest areas, such as Hackney or Southwark, they were consistently outpolled by the Greens or community campaigners.

The Economist's conclusion from the local election results was that they "provide a clear warning to Britain's political establishment that if voters continue to face a choice between a disappointing government and a less than credible opposition, they may well turn to alternatives". (11th May) The task of socialists is to step up the campaign for a new workers' party capable of pulling together community campaigners, public service users, trade unionists, environmental campaigners and young people into a new mass alternative to all the establishment parties.

Clive Heemskerk

For further election analysis, including reports from the Socialist Party seats, see the Socialist Party website at


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