No Ukraine bounce as the vacuum remains

Despite his efforts to portray himself as the dashing war leader, there was no Ukraine bounce for Boris Johnson in the 2022 local elections that took place across 200 councils in England, Scotland and Wales on May 5.

The contrast with the performance of Johnson’s heroine, Margaret Thatcher, in the 1982 council elections held during the war with Argentina over the Malvinas/Falklands Islands, could not be starker. In 1981 the Tories lost over a thousand seats and control of the then Greater London Council. Come 1982 Thatcher increased the Tories’ share of the vote to 40% while Labour, on 29%, had a net loss of 225 councillors, losing control of nine authorities including Birmingham, Bradford, the Lothian region in Scotland, and the London boroughs of Lambeth and Waltham Forest.

This year the Tories’ projected national share of the vote was 30%, down from 36% in the 2021 local elections, with a net loss of 485 councillors and eleven councils. Johnson’s alleged electoral ‘magic touch’ is coming to an end. And with it the glue that has been holding together a Tory party that has become a collection of different sectional capitalist interest groups, containing within itself the basis of at least two parties that could crystallise into being at some point in the stormy events that lie ahead in Britain and internationally.

That the May elections did not have a greater impact was helped by Labour’s relatively poor performance – quickly followed by the ‘Beergate’ threat to Keir Starmer’s position after his possible lockdown-breaking attendance at a gathering in Durham in April 2021 was placed under police investigation.

Starmer has defined his leadership as being ‘not Corbyn’ but Labour, ahead of the Tories on May 5 with a national share of the vote at 35%, had only a net gain of 22 councillors in the English council elections fought in seats last contested in 2018 under Jeremy Corbyn (and 19 in Scotland and 66 in Wales in seats last fought in 2017). There were high-profile victories in the London boroughs of Wandsworth, Westminster and Barnet. But at the same time Labour lost control of Croydon, Harrow and, most significantly, Tower Hamlets – to the Aspire party led by the formerly disqualified and now newly returned mayor Lutfur Rahman, speaking out against Labour cuts.

Outside of London Labour won Worthing, Crawley, Southampton and Kirklees but lost Hastings on the south coast and Hull and Hyndburn in the north. “Labour’s poorer results”, wrote The Guardian’s analyst (7 May), “tended to come in areas where the party formed the municipal establishment and gave cause for voters to turn away”.

This is certainly something that will not change, even if Starmer resigns. Nor will the trajectory he set of re-establishing Labour firmly as a capitalist party after the Corbyn interlude; with no prospect of the working class, through the trade unions, using it as a vehicle to advance its interests politically.

Already the changes that Starmer pushed through the 2021 Labour Party conference – scrapping the £3 ‘registered supporters’ category that propelled Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership in 2015; lengthening the membership qualifying period to vote in a leadership election to six months; and raising the threshold for MPs support to 20% of the parliamentary party before a candidate can even get onto the ballot paper – means that there would be no left candidate in a new leadership contest. 

Blairism is back and decisively in control again of the Labour Party. Whatever conjunctural shifts might happen, once again, as during the Blair, Brown and Ed Miliband years, working class voters are effectively disenfranchised.

This was the context for the stand organised for May’s elections by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), an electoral alliance including the RMT transport workers’ union; the Resist party founded by the left-wing former Labour MP, Chris Williamson; and the Socialist Party, which plays a leading role within TUSC.

The coalition stood 271 candidates on May 5, winning 29,169 votes and polling above the broadly recognised five percent ‘saving deposits’ threshold in 40 seats. In Waltham Forest this was reached in eight of the wards TUSC contested, outpolling the Tories – the party of government remember – in six.

Other councils where TUSC polled over a thousand votes were Coventry, Cardiff, Ealing, Lewisham, Newham, Sheffield and Tower Hamlets. TUSC stood a mayoral candidate in Tower Hamlets, in which voters were able to make a second preference choice, and was the only party on the ballot paper that supported a second vote for Lutfur Rahman to ensure the defeat of the incumbent right-wing Labour mayor.

Overall, the scale and impact of the TUSC election challenge was modest compared to what could have been achieved, with the potential for thousands of anti-austerity fighters standing, if even just the left-led unions had organised a national drive for candidates or if Jeremy Corbyn himself had taken the initiative to organise an electoral challenge to Starmer’s revived New Labour party. 

But it will have added to the pressure on them to do so for next year’s council elections and, with the Tower Hamlets Aspire party also having a potential role to play, for the general election that will come by 2024 if not before. The vacuum of working class political representation remains, and the struggle to build the forces that could fill it goes on.

Clive Heemskerk