On 30 May, Europe went to vote for the European parliament. There were also elections in some 60% of English local authority areas. To put my cards on the table I voted Green in the European election as there is a chance under proportional representation of returning our first Green MEP for the North West – more on that when the counting is done after Sunday And locally I voted for one of the three sitting Labour councillors, someone who has been very supportive for our Steady Sate Manchester project, notwithstanding our criticism of the council’s boosterism, its growth-obsessed economic strategy.
I’ll return to Manchester below.
First, some pearls of information.
* The Tories lost Hamersmith and Fulham, their star council in London.
* In Enfield, the innovative Labour group has increased its majority with no inroads from anyone else.
* Labour also took control of some other councils, winning NNN seats.
* The Greens also increased their share of the vote and number of councillors.
* The Liberals (Lib Dems, or Liberal Demagogues officially) were largely wiped out, loosing their ‘heartland’ councls, as they deserved to for their alliance with the brutal Tory government – the coup regime imposed after the majority voted for anything but the Tories – and for their opportunist jettison of pretty much every policy they’d promoted.
* The Tories took a big hit too. But this and Labour’s only moderate success is chiefly the result of the UKIP phenomenon, the rise of the populist right wing party that has campaigned on immigration and European Union membership. Let’s look at this.
– There is clearly a dissatisfaction with politics in the UK. This has multiple roots, including:
– The changing nature of class and its ideological obfuscation – undermining sectional loyalties and the institutions of the Labour movement.
– The transformation over many years of politics into a profession – whereby politicians are increasingly those who just do politics, lacking grounding in other spheres.
– Neoliberal policies have had deleterious effects, making large sectors insecure, which with the erosion of social solidarity through individualising complexes of ideology, action and structure, has led to scapegoating.
– The neoliberal storm has weakened the left, above all ideologically – there is little in the way of convincing presentation of alternative political vision with the necessary policies (the Greens are a partial exception, and should become the left alternative), and this is compounded by the electoral focus of most political organisation. Meanwhile the groups to the left of Labour are still stuck in the ruts of sectarianism and Leninism, or (as noted here before)articulate such an limited vision of the alternative that it is no surprise they have little impact, except in exceptional cases around a personality such as George Galloway (as Tony Benn noted). Not that the few Gramscians have been able to catalyse any kind of alternative.
– Politics is now overwhelmingly conducted through the media and that has turned debate from principles to expedience, from issues to sound bites, from policies to personalities.
And it is to the media that we need to look to explain a large part of the UKIP phenomenon. I am not alone in being staggered by the amount of exposure given to this small party that controlled not one council and has no members of parliament. Compared to the Greens (now polling a useful 10% where they stand) with one of each and a similar level of European representation and questions have to be asked. We expect the poisonous right wing Mail, Express, Sun and Telegraph to promote the populist right, and despite the odd ‘loose cannon’ in their ranks, UKIP has avoided the fascism of the BNP, meaning that they might appear acceptable to the Monday Club press. But it was the BBC coverage that really stood out. It seems that in the last 3 months it has not been possible to turn on the TV or radio without UKIP being discussed, or its leader being given airtime. The Greens had far, far less coverage. This isn’t just a matter of the BBC’s well documented support for climate-change denialism; it goes much further. Farage was asked for his opinion on everything. The Green leader, Natalie Bennett, was hardly seen or heard.
And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – UKIP is a phenomenon, the opinion polls come to reflect that, more reporting, more exposure, more polls, and then about 30% of the vote on polling day. Note that that is 30% of the vote, not 30% of the electorate.
These are local elections. I’m in London today where UKIP made no breakthrough in local government. May 23, the day after the elections, I turned on BBC Radio London: you guessed – a UKIP spokesperson was being interviewed and giving his sage analysis of the strategies of the Tory and Labour parties. And this is a party that so far as I can tell has no serious local government policies.
As I write this, baring any surprises, Labour will have something like a 100% domination of the council. The Lib Dems have already been wiped out. That means an interesting situation that some have called a one-party State. I’m not sure that is fair – people have voted for the party that on balance has shown competence in managing the council’s services in almost impossible circumstances. I also firmly believe that the vast majority of Labour councillors, here as elsewhere, are motivated by sound values of social justice. But with no opposition (not even the opportunistic and distinctly unimpressive local Liberals) it will be interesting to see whether an internal opposition emerges, as it did in the 1980s, ultimately wresting power under Graham Stringer, from the old Labour right. If so that opposition could be an intelligent, egalitarian, ecologically aware, critical one that questions the strategy ofu what is sometimes called the Leese-Bernstein regime (after Sir Richard Leese, council leaderand Sir Howard Bernstein, the town clerk – sorry – Chief Executive).
That strategy is to attract external investment to fund large ‘trophy’ projects such as ‘Airport City’, or the ‘Etihad Campus’ that are supposed to catalyse ‘economic growth’ that will bring benefits to the local population through (what is never referred to as) ‘trickle down’. There is more to it, of course, including some policies that are less problematic, such as achieving more powers for local government, more regional integration, and improving the education (oh sorry that should read skills) of young people in the city. And while doing that, this Labour council, like all others has agreed to manage the brutal Tory cuts, protesting meekly, but failing to mount the kind of extra-parliamentary challenge to the unelected Cameron-Clegg coup regime. No wonder so many people feel left behind. But now there is an undeniable mandate for a strong challenge to London-imposed austerity.
In the absence of that kind of opposition that aligns social, ecological and economic literacy with a commitment to democracy and justice on all three fronts (and obviously against the management of austerity), then it will surely fall to the Green Party – whose candidates have done well,getting as much as 20% of the vote – to be the Modern Prince that binds together a counter-hegemonic coalition. Personally I would rather see a realignment of what I’d probably call liberatory forces – not just of the left but also from the single issue movements, small businesses, and unaligned citizens, but sadly that seems as distant as ever.
A few further thoughts:
On vote share, iin Manchester, the Greens beat the Liberals to second place, taking around 12% of the total vote – in stark contrast the left (TUSC and Respect) did very poorly rarely exceeding 100 votes in any ward. Those on the left need to get behind the real left oppostion, which is the Greens in this country.
People are talking airily about a ‘one party state’ in Manchester. This is inaccurate – there are several parties but only one got elected. Better to call it a monoculture.
Farage says his party is now a serious player – good to know that it wasn’t before.
UKIP has won less than 5% of the council seats contested, and control no councils. They were insignificant in Manchester, except in three northern wards, Charlestown, Moston and Higher Blackley where they came second with votes approaching Labour’s. These are largely white working class wards, on the border with Rochdale, unusual in the city for having a history of fascist (BNP) activity – a pattern similar to what’s happened in the depressed areas of Lancashire where ukip did relatively well. The more cosmopolitan areas, but also other white working class Manchester areas like the 2 Gorton wards gave UKIP few votes.
The Liberals saw their vote dissolve in most areas – in some seats they were defending they were knocked into 3rd and 4th place.
The Greens are now the opposition in Liverpool.
But Trafford is incredibly still Tory.