Local elections fail to mobilise enough voters hungry for change

The local election results have not been a disaster for Labour. Despite the collapse of the UKIP vote, the Tories lost seats. Lib Dems, Labour and Greens all made net gains of seats. The BBC say that if this was a General Election Labour would be the biggest party. But the results still show that more is needed than simply pointing out how awful the Tories are.

How to give local elections the insurgent feel of last year’s general election? (Photo: Steve Eason)

3 May 2017: Theresa May takes to the steps of Downing Street. “I have just been to Buckingham Palace …to mark the dissolution of this Parliament,” she says. “In 36 days the country will elect a new Government and choose the next Prime Minister. The choice you now face is all about the future…Give me your backing to lead Britain.”

The right-wing press loved it. We were still in “strong and stable” territory back then.

A day later and it was the local elections. Labour did badly. “Theresa on the march… May on course for general election landslide…Labour buried in their own backyard!” went the Daily Mail front page. By and large, this was the consensus. The other story was that UKIP voters (yes, all of them) would drift neatly over to the Tories. All May had to do was avoid contact with human flesh, not mention fields of wheat and the plebs would vote her in.

Thankfully, some people kept their cool and released the Labour manifesto instead. Libertines fans started singing Corbyn’s name and everything changed.

It changed because the Labour campaign was insurgent and it promised to upend the political consensus in Britain. It motivated all sorts of people. “I like [Corbyn] a lot …he has been saying the same thing for 30 years,” a former UKIP voter told the Huffington Post’s focus group a week before polling day.  The paper reported that Labour could enjoy a late surge in support from UKIP voters because of Corbyn’s growing popularity. The campaign was remarkably successful in overriding the Leave/Remain divide and pulling in layers of disenfranchised voters from all places. It showed it could be done.

Fast forward a year and it’s hardly surprising that people want a repeat of the general election campaign in local elections. The ultimate prize for these contests was not going to be fundamental change, but Labour might have hoped to significantly deepen the crisis for the Tories by wiping them out in London and elsewhere. This didn’t happen and the Tories have held on, although their losses across London, looked at objectively, do increase their problems.

Masking these problems for the Tories, though, is the fact that they did take Barnet. This has been quickly blamed on Corbyn and antisemitism. Some caution is needed here. In the Barnet ward with one of the largest Jewish communities – Golders Green – Labour won marginally more votes than in 2014, although their share of the vote is probably down. It would be surprising if the antisemitism allegations had no effect whatsoever, but the results in Barnet are not radically different from those in other areas where the Tories did OK. This suggests more general factors are also at play.

Local elections are not midterms as some people like to make out. Mobilising the people required for a left election victory was always going to be tough in this contest. At the general election it was clear to most people that a Labour victory would have meant a sudden and dramatic political shift, the biggest in most people’s lifetimes. That’s powerful and it gets people out of the door. To accomplish such a feat in local elections is going to take more than a message that focuses on striking a blow against the Tories. Important as that is, it’s not the same as saying you’ll overturn decades of neoliberalism overnight.

For local elections to feel insurgent, you need concrete answers to the burning issues people face in their areas. For most people when it comes to local elections, that means cuts: to arts, to care, to transport, to parks, to libraries, to swimming pools and so on. It means privatisations and sell offs too. Lots of councils – Labour and Tory – are now contemplating selling off parks to private sector parasites so they can charge people to access space that’s always been free.

Labour need to offer a radically different approach on a local level to issues such as social housing. (Photo: Steve Eason)

My Labour council recently sold our leisure facilities to a company called ‘Better’.  My kids used to have an ‘active card’ that cost a small amount per month but gave them unlimited access to sports classes and facilities. ‘Better’ took over and all parents were told that their children would now only get one free class and the rest would be chargeable. The result of this: poorer kids do less sport; ‘Better’ increase their profits. This is not uncommon and it presents a jarring contradiction between the aspirations of ordinary people as expressed last year and the reality of most Labour councils on offer. A well-organised Momentum campaign doesn’t change that.

Labour’s national message has been good and clear. Their response to Windrush has been brilliant.  But this alone does not translate into the local election success many had hoped for. To change this dynamic would require a united commitment by Labour councils in conjunction with the leadership to radically alter politics in the way the party promised last June. Local politics can do this and it might mean a commitment to fight the Tories over cuts, end the sell-off of assets and services, get big business out of local government, better social housing in the wake of Grenfell and so on. The scale of reversal needed from years of passivity in local politics is not on the radar of most Labour candidates.

But the material conditions that created the general election result have only deepened and sharpened since last June. There has been Grenfell, the collapse of Carillion, growing in-work and out-of-work poverty and the Windrush scandal to name a few.  It is key for the left inside and outside of Labour to provide a clear response to this situation that takes aim at the Tories and the 1%.

That has not been changed by the local election results. On the basis of these results the Tories would lose seats in a general election. Remember how different that is to a year ago today when May’s landslide was a given. Things have shifted and her crisis lumbers on. But we know that for our side the awfulness of the Tories alone is not enough of a motivating factor. We have to win people with a commitment to smash the status quo which has delivered so much misery to ordinary people.


  1. It’s not merely policy changes that are needed at a local level. The general distrust with politicians is not eliminated because a policy seems good. Who knows whether the politicians will ever implement it.
    The key problem is that voters are treated almost like pawns. Their only role is to vote. Remember the talk about Labour becoming a social movement? Since last year’s General Election most labour activists have turned their energies inwards. People are not asked to do anything, just turn out to vote once a year.
    Vibrant social movements can change the political landscape. They can gain victories. They can ensure that people become more confident that change is possible and doesn’t need to wait until the next election.
    That’s not what we have got from Momentum. They have put out statements that only elections can change anything – patently untrue. New Labour party activists have been sucked into this internal navel gazing and in the process have lost many of their ideas about how change occurs. Social movements have not increased since the rise of Corbyn, if anything they have declined.
    Labour activists need to get out and work with people on the ground to fight for victories now. Solidarity and victories change ideas.
    This was brought home to me this week when I had a chat on the phone with my Open University tutor. She is a member of UCU but before the pensions dispute had never thought about going on strike. But she did. And she went down to London to march. She told me that on a bitterly cold day she felt warm because of the solidarity from her fellow UCU members. She described the emails she had received from members of her tutor group expressing support. She talked about how bringing people together over the pensions dispute had raised all sorts of other issues that needed to fought about – casualisation, the cuts in funding. An aftermath of the anger shown during the strike was the forced resignation of the Vice Chancellor. And she believed the strike had resulted in a better deal over pensions.
    Her ideas had changed. Would that have happened if someone had knocked on her door and merely asked for her vote?


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