Sunak suffers, Starmer stalls – the council elections in England

Rachel Iboraii celebrates the Tories’ losses in last week’s council elections in England, and questions why Labour isn’t profiting more from the government’s woes.

Protesters using Rishi Sunak masks at XR’s The Big One, April 2023. Photo by Steve Eason

When the Tory party chairman said that the Tories might lose 1,000 seats at the local council elections in England, there was a widespread assumption that he was exaggerating to minimise the scale of the actual losses. He turned out to be an optimist – they lost over 1,060 seats last Thursday, and 48 councils. The overall Tory vote dropped to 26%, meaning that they would be trounced in a general election. Significantly, they lost control of councils such as Stratford upon Avon, Bracknell Forest and Dover which had all been under Conservative control since the 1990s.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats both gained hundreds of councillors across the country, while the Green Party doubled its numbers, and won full control of a council for the first time ever – though they lost heavily to Labour in Brighton and Hove, where they had been running a minority administration since 2020. Labour is now the largest party in local government for the first time in more than two decades. However, Labour failed to win back some of their key targets such as Thurrock, and even lost Slough to no overall control. Keir Starmer has used the results to say that Labour is now on track to win the next general election, but the truth is that most people were voting against the Tories rather than voting for Labour.

These election results are much more down to the failures of the Tory government rather than an endorsement of the Labour Party under Keir Starmer. The BBC’s projected national share of the vote shows Labour on 35%, lower than recent opinion polls have suggested and maybe not enough to form a majority government. The turnout, estimated at under a third of the electorate, shows that there is no real enthusiasm for Labour, though we don’t yet know to what extent the discriminatory voter ID law lowered the turnout.

But who can blame voters’ lack of enthusiasm for the Labour Party? During the announcements of the election results, all the Labour commentators talked about the fact that this was good news because it showed that Labour could win the general election. I did not hear one Labour Party commentator discuss how success in local elections will help people as they struggle with the cost-of-living crisis, look for decent housing or get better public transport. Labour Councils have consistently voted for Tory-imposed austerity budgets, which has led to cuts across almost all areas of spending.

Labour councils have also attacked striking workers. On election day, Unite the Union exposed Labour-controlled Cumberland council using Tory anti-trade union laws against striking workers. Low-paid refuse workers employed by Allerdale Waste Services began strike action last week after their employer – a private company wholly owned by the council – refused to increase pay rates of £10.90 an hour for loaders and £11.89 for drivers, which are amongst the lowest in the UK for refuse workers. Labour councils pay poverty wages for many including refuse workers, care workers and housing officers and then go on to attack workers when they take action.

However, there is enthusiasm for those who break from the politics of austerity. Alan Gibbons, who broke from Labour after refusing to vote for cuts, stood for Liverpool Community Independents and won with 1,428 votes against Labour’s 360. Two of his colleagues were also elected in other Liverpool wards. A number of Labour party members expelled by Starmer stood as independent or Green candidates and got elected in Portsmouth, Wirral and Windsor, while in Leicester, where Labour deselected 19 sitting councillors, they lost 18 seats.

The election results are a big setback for the Tories, already a weak government beset by a very weak economy, financial scandals and workplace militancy. But as they get weaker they become even more nasty, demonising migrants and attacking striking workers to shore up their support. They won’t change course just because they lost so badly – we will need more strikes and more street action to force through real change.

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