Were nurses and teachers and postal workers and civil service workers anxiously waiting for news of the local elections this week? No, and they were absolutely right to think that the progress of their strikes was a hundred times more important than whether Rishi Sunak or Keir Starmer was smiling on Friday.
In advance of the results, both major parties furiously tried to shape expectations so they could proclaim a triumph.
More than 8,000 council seats in England were up for grabs in Sunak’s first electoral test after he became prime minister. But Starmer said he would regard gains of just 400 seats as good progress. His excuse for not expecting a landslide, given Labour’s huge opinion poll lead, was that these seats are in the same local authority areas contested in 2019 in the dying days of Theresa May’s premiership.
At the other end of the scale Tory cabinet minister Mark Harper said last Sunday that his party could lose more than 1,000 council seats. Starmer’s problem is that Labour is so uninspiring. Generally not many people vote in such elections, but those unsure of whether to bother aren’t motivated by Starmer.
In an email begging for money last weekend, Starmer described how he had been on a journey in the last month. “I’ve travelled across the country, speaking with voters about what matters to them,” he recounted. And he’d made an amazing discovery. “Everywhere I go, I hear the same thing: people are ready for change. After 13 years of the Tories, people don’t feel better off.
In an interview with the Observer newspaper last Sunday, Starmer said, “I think we can go beyond what the Blair government did on public services, because I think there is unfinished business there.” He added, “We will be a reforming government ready to go from day one, further than Blair on public services, further than the Tories in the private sector.”
Starmer knows that what Blair did—tearing into public control and boosting profit-hungry corporations is very unpopular. So he quickly said that this did not mean a further expansion of the private sector’s role.
Nobody should believe that, especially when shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has called for more NHS services to go private. And at a local level, instead of defying Tory cuts, Labour councils meekly implement them.
Nevertheless, in most places, socialists will have to vote Labour. We want to see the Tories lose. If Sunak has any cause to celebrate it will, at least temporarily, depress many activists. It will encourage the idea that the Tories can escape from any disaster.
A big reverse for the government could encourage more confidence among strikers that they can fight and win.
More fundamentally, Labour is still not the same as the Tories. It retains some withered connections with working class organisation through its links with trade union leaders, In a handful of places there are credible left candidates are standing for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and others that deserve support.
The electoral choice would have been wider if Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott, now excluded from Starmer’s Labour, had created new focus for votes. Instead they either remain trapped by the idea of begging Starmer to readmit them, or fearing to embarrass the Labour left by holding back from declaring a new party.
It’s always true that struggle matters more than voting. But that’s even more true now. bThe surge in strikes that began almost a year ago has shown a real potential for people to fight against the assaults on their wages, benefits and pensions.
Building and extending those strikes—and taking up wider issues such as anti-racism and environmental collapse— remains the central issue. Whatever the election results this week, this will be the test.
Historian John Newsinger writes
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