By Charlie Kimber
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Voters tell Johnson ‘it’s time to go’ — but Labour falls short

This article is over 1 years, 6 months old
We need resistance in the streets and workplaces to force out Boris Johnson and the Tories after their bad night in the local elections
Issue 2084
Boris Johnson with a union flag behind him, illustrating a story about the local election results

Many Tories see Boris Johnson as a liability after the local election results (Picture: Number 10/Flickr)

The local elections across Britain saw shattering losses for the Tories. Voters rejected Boris Johnson’s lies and signalled their rage at the cost of living crisis. But the results also show there is no real enthusiasm for Keir Starmer’s Labour. 

With almost all the votes counted, the combined scores across England. Scotland and Wales according to the BBC were that the Tories had lost a net 490 councillors, far ahead of many expectations. Labour was up 137—with nearly half its gains in Wales—well behind the Lib Dems who were up 221. The Greens were up 84, the Scottish National Party up 22 and Plaid Cymru down six.

Labour did well in parts of London, taking control of Wandsworth council for the first time in nearly half a century. Labour also won Barnet in north London and also gained Westminster—which the Tories have held since the council was created in 1964. 

These are councils where the Tories relentlessly pushed through privatisation, fixed ward boundaries, favoured better-off people and held down the council tax through brutal cuts. That has now fallen apart. Labour gains in Hillingdon council included an Uxbridge ward in the heart of Johnson’s constituency. 

But Labour did much less well elsewhere, particularly in some parts of England.  At 10.30pm on Friday, after 144 of 146 English councils had released their results, the BBC was reporting the Tories had a net loss of 341 councillors. But the biggest winner was the Lib Dems, up 191 councillors. Labour was up 52, while the Greens had gained 60.

In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein is celebrating a historic victory in the Stormont assembly election. As counting resumed on Saturday ahead of the allocation of final seats, it was clear that Sinn Fein, with 29 percent first preference votes, had overtaken the Democratic Unionist Party which took 21.3 percent. The present structure of the British state is under fundamental pressure.

On Friday afternoon the BBC released its “projected national share”, an assessment of what share of the vote each party would have got if local elections had been held in every ward in Britain. It put Labour on 35 percent, the Tories on 30 percent, the Lib Dems on 19 percent and others on 16 percent.

This is the best result for Labour since 2012, when it had a seven-point lead over the Conservatives—but did not win the subsequent general election.

On Friday evening the elections expert John Curtice told the BBC that Labour “did no more than maintain its 2018 vote in London, secure a small increase in the South of England, but was down three points in the north of England”. In other words, in many places, the number of votes was worse than four years ago when Jeremy Corbyn was Labour leader.

The fact that Labour is not surging ahead is a damning verdict of Starmer. Shifting sharply to the right hasn’t enthused people. His refusal to really confront the Tories and his insipid message didn’t work.

Salford’s Labour mayor Paul Dennett says his party needs “real clarity on what national policy is”. He admitted he was a “little bit disappointed” after losing three seats in the city council elections—two to the Lib Dems and one to the Conservatives. Although Labour remained in overall control of Salford in Greater Manchester

“We have years and years of austerity and we’re facing a cost of living crisis,” said Dennett. “When we’re door knocking we see people are really frustrated at the moment with the political system.”

Unite union general secretary Sharon Graham tweeted, “Local elections have produced mixed results and low turnouts, proving that none of them are connecting with the everyday issues of workers and communities.”

In another sign of disillusion with Labour, the first round of the Tower Hamlets election saw Aspire’s Lutfur Rahman on 39,533 ahead of  Labour’s John Biggs on 27,894. Rahman missed out on winning outright in the first round by just 3,000 votes. This is an astonishing comeback for a former mayor removed from office in 2015, and a massive reverse for Labour. Rahman won after the second preference votes were counted by 40,804 votes to 33,487. 

One danger now is that Starmer and his acolytes think they have to be even more right wing on issues such as immigration to break the Tories grip in northern England. 

Greens made gains in areas including South Tyneside, Cumberland, Oxford and Worcester. Their advance shows people want action over environmental collapse, and they don’t see Labour as the way forward. In Oxford, the Green Party’s four victories included three gains, one of which unseated a longstanding and senior Labour councillor, Colin Cook, formerly lord mayor of the city.

Already there are more Tory voices saying Johnson is a liability and he has to go. In Cumberland the Tories lost 14 seats while Labour gained 12 and took overall control. Local Tory leader John Mallinson admitted, “Partygate was a big thing. And the cost of living crisis. It didn’t help getting comments from cabinet minister George Eustice talking about people using value brands to ease their shopping bills.”

Mallinson said he encountered “a lot of animosity towards the prime minister”. “I just don’t feel people any longer have the confidence that their prime minister can be relied upon to tell the truth,” he said. Asked if Conservative MPs should remove Johnson, he said, “That would be my preference, yes.” 

Another Conservative MP told the Daily Telegraph newspaper’s associate editor, “The loss of flagship councils of Wandsworth and Westminster (with the lowest council tax in England) is like losing your aircraft carriers. Fortunately, there was no landslide to Labour. But with the Sue Gray report and more fixed penalty notices looming on the horizon, this summer will be make or break for the PM.”

Soaring prices and the falling value of wages, benefits and pensions were big issues. One survey for the TUC union federation showed over 70 percent said the cost of living is the most important issue. And almost nobody surveyed thought the government is doing enough to help. 

Just 20 percent said it is doing enough, 73 percent think it isn’t. Among those who switched from the Tories, the numbers are 12 percent and 82 percent.

Local elections don’t change much. Labour councils have generally imposed cuts with the same vigour as Lib Dems or Tories. But these results will further undermine Johnson. They should be a spur to more resistance against a corrupt government that is widely hated and is wrecking millions of people’s lives.

As the local election results were coming through on Friday morning, supporters of the Coventry bin strike—against a Labour council—gathered outside a depot which organises a scab workforce. These are the sort of “council battles” that will really make a difference.

Such action, and such struggles, are more important than any of the results in these elections. Driving out Johnson and the Tories will take more strikes and mass demonstrations.

Scotland sees no surge for any party, but Tories decline

In Scotland Labour has improved its showing in some working class areas, although it was coming from a low base. Green successes show concern for environmental questions and that some pro-independence supporters can shift from the Scottish National Party (SNP) if they see what looks like a more radical alternative.

After all 32 councils had released results, the BBC reported that the Tories had seen a net loss of 63 councillors. The SNP was up 22, Labour up 20, the Lib Dems up 20 and the Greens up 16. Alex Salmond’s Alba party continues its decline. It did not win a single seat and its general secretary, Chris McEleny, who defected from the SNP last year, lost his Inverclyde council seat, polling just 126 votes. 

Tories  lose in Wales

The Tories are also going sharply backwards in Wales, losing vast numbers of their seats. Labour was the big winner and did particularly well in Cardiff and Monmouthshire.

Labour has regained control of Blaenau Gwent council after five years in which it has been controlled by independents. The former leader of the council, independent Nigel Daniels, was among those who lost his seat.

Both Labour and the independents in Merthyr Tydfil won 15 seats, meaning no one has overall control of the authority.

After all the councils had declared their results, the BBC said the Tories were down 86 councillors overall, Labour up 66, Lib Dems up ten and Greens up eight. Plaid Cymru was down six and independents up eight.

Warning from Salford

In general, far right and fascist candidates did badly. But fascist party Britain First made a small breakthrough in Salford, Greater Manchester, finishing second in the Walkden North ward with almost 22 percent of the total vote. Its candidate, Ashlea Simon has accompanied the group in their harassment of refugees temporarily housed in hotels during the Covid pandemic.

Local trade unionist Ameen Hadi told Socialist Worker that Simon attracted some votes due to “lots of concerns over the cost of living, austerity and Covid”. He added, “It’s a simple argument to blame refugees and migrants for the poor living conditions. We need to blame the people at the top and the bosses, not each other.”

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