Kick out the Tories, prepare to fight Starmer

Colin Wilson analyses the 2 May council and mayoral elections in England.

Photo by Duncan Cumming used under CC licence.


The Tories face catastrophe at the coming General Election. It’s too late now in the few months they have left to do anything about the issues people think most important, like the cost of living, the NHS and housing. They are divided, and increasingly dominated by a hard right which thinks of the Brexit vote and the 2019 election as an endorsement for their politics. In this view the Tories last chance of winning lies in moving even further right, upping the performative cruelty – towards migrants, trans people and now those affected by mental illness – and by having another go with Truss-style economic policies.

All this reflects how far from any kind of reality the Tories are. Remarkably, they have abandoned their centuries-old position as the voice of the British ruling class, instead acting instead as the obsessive voice of petty bourgeois grievances, and are now paying the price for that. All the signs are that they will lose the general election, and then descend into vicious in-fighting as regards why.

The Tory collapse, figures suggest, was worse in areas where right-wing Tories have a chance to defect to Reform. But there’s no sign of UKIP’s heirs becoming the main right-wing party, as Richard Tice has claimed. The party has only ten councillors nationally, and one member of the London Assembly. Britain’s electoral system means they stand almost no chance of getting even one MP later this year, even with polling numbers in the double figures.

However, it would be daft to write off the hard right’s future chances when those politics are gaining ground around the world. There is no reason to think that Britain is an exception, and Reform will get a boost if Nigel Farage returns to active politics. (According to YouGov figures, Farage has the highest popularity rating of any politician in the country.) But gains for the hard and far right simply aren’t happening yet – certainly not in London, where the fascist Britain First candidate for mayor got fewer votes than Count Binface.

The results are a huge step forward for Labour. Two days of results declarations began with their victory in Blackpool South and concluded with victories in polls for West Midlands and London mayors. Labour runs ten more councils than it did last week, and won mayoral contests in East Midlands and North Yorkshire. Millions of people hate the Tories and are voting Labour to get rid of them. But that’s not to say they are enthusiastic about it.

In February, YouGov polling found that of Labour voters, only 18 percent actively support the party, while 65 percent “think they would do a better job than the main alternative”. They don’t trust Labour, but think they can’t possibly be any worse than the Tories. Indeed, Starmer seems to be doing everything he can to manage expectations downwards. Pledges on green investment and  workers’ rights have been scaled back – Unite is threatening to withhold election funds unless the “new deal for working people” is restored – and a principled defence of trans people has crumbled.

This means that support for Labour is widespread but fragile. The polls weren’t a landslide in their favour. Tory Mayor Ben Houchen won in the Tees Valley, and Andy Street very nearly did so in the West Midlands, both of them distancing themselves from the national party. There are signs in a few places that people who want change are increasingly looking to the Greens, who are the biggest party on Bristol Council, with almost half of the seats. The Greens also took two council seats from Labour in Newcastle for the first time – a result described by a senior local party figure as a “humiliating disaster”.

In other places, of course, Labour’s vote fell because of its stance on Palestine. Back in October Starmer stated that Israel had the right to cut off water and power to Gaza, and the Labour leadership still refuses to call for an end to arms exports to Israel. The party’s disregard for Muslim lives in the Middle East led to a decline in its Muslim vote here. In Oldham and Kirklees Labour lost control of the council as seats went to candidates with Palestine solidarity positions, while in Blackburn, independents who campaigned around Gaza are now the official opposition.

Senior Labour figures have since pledged to work to regain trust on Palestine, but that’s easier said than done, because here Labour’s electoralism clashes with an even stronger force – its desire to demonstrate its loyalty to the British state. Winning Muslim votes is one thing, but the cornerstone of British foreign policy is acting as an American proxy via NATO. British and American geopolitical interests in the Middle East dictate Labour’s support for Israel, and Starmer isn’t going to break with that.

In Rochdale, the Workers Party benefitted from Labour’s lousy politics on Palestine by winning two council seats, and 13 percent of votes across the town. They also won one councillor in Manchester and another in Calderdale. The organisation, led by George Galloway, has good positions on Palestine and public services, but also embraces many far-right views. For example, an excerpt from a Novara Media interview, released on 1 May, made clear that Galloway’s rejection of ‘wokery’ goes as far as believing that gay people aren’t normal. It’s good to see Labour paying the price for its position on Gaza – but the Workers Party can’t even claim to be consistently on the left, and doesn’t deserve support.

Overall, what do the elections tell us? The first part of the picture is volatility – less than five years ago, Boris Johnson had won the 2019 poll and gained a majority of over 80. Johnson told Tory campaigners that he had changed the political map of Britain – now he isn’t even an MP any more. That election followed the May 2019 Euro elections where the Tories came fifth, and the 2017 General Election where Labour made huge gains under Corbyn.

Secondly, it seems clear that it’s Labour – whatever their shortcomings – who will gain almost all the electoral benefit from the widespread hatred of the Tories. The clearest example of that from last week is Sadiq Khan’s victory in London, a city where 15 percent of people are Muslims, but where claims that Khan would lose because Muslims would stay home over Gaza weren’t borne out in reality. If anything, Khan’s support for a ceasefire in Gaza may have boosted his vote. That doesn’t exclude a few possible losses for Labour – Wes Streeting is probably the most vulnerable – but not more than that.

So, Labour will be elected with a large majority – but then can be expected to deliver little change as regards the NHS, housing and many other issues. Their electoral strategy is based on reaching out to marginals, on the assumption that the left vote in their core constituencies has nowhere else to go. Blair assumed the same 25 years ago, but that wasn’t true – left alternatives defeated Labour in the 2000 election for Mayor of London (Ken Livingstone) and the 2005 General Election in Tower Hamlets (Galloway, then standing for Respect).

The left has shown it can build electoral alternatives to Labour and we may be seeing glimpses of the kind of forces that could be involved. Across West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester, independents organised around Palestine but also against Labour cuts in local services; the Greens focus on the environment but also have good policies on Gaza. A grouping that brings together fights over local services, international issues and the environment, bringing together Muslims, students, trade unionists, environmentalists and many others, seems like a future possibility. But it is some years in the future – we should keep it in the back of our minds, but for now the main focus isn’t on electoral politics, but the protests over migrants and, most of all, Palestine.


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