Can you imagine Fiona Bruce, with a straight face, asking the BBC Question Time audience, zooming in or otherwise, “What is the point of the Conservative and Unionist (Tory) Party?” The sinister coupling of a further erosion of civil rights, even as this Tory government restores some freedoms it temporarily suspended for public health reasons, show that it is not at all conservative. Then there is the embattled UK union, hanging by a thread because of the harshest of Brexits this Tory government chose to pursue. It is difficult to describe a party whose membership said Brexit was more important than Scotland, Northern Ireland or even Wales remaining part of the UK as ‘unionist’. Yet it is unimaginable that the BBC would ever air a debate about the Tory party framed in this way.
Not so the Labour party. That was precisely the first question Fiona Bruce posed on the May 13 edition of controversial current affairs programme: “What is the point of the Labour party?” By all means, question the Labour party’s performance in the May 6 elections, but there is no need to couch it in quite such nihilistic terms. It leaves a bad stink of bias, especially when added to the noise of our predominantly right-wing media (87 per cent by circulation) and all the hatred being poured out towards Keir Starmer from the far (Corbynite) left of his own party. He is not an incompetent leader, but then neither was Jeremy Corbyn a spy. All the tabloids have to do is continue to repeat the slurs, and eventually they might stick. Mud does. The idea that Starmer is not a good leader might gain currency. As the Tories know, perception often matters more in politics than reality. They fear Starmer so will use every trick in the book to weaken him.
How can the assertion that the demise of both Labour and Starmer’s career has been greatly exaggerated be backed up? Let us take a look at the results, but first it is important to clarify that West Country Bylines is not party-political. It may appear from some of our articles as if we are anti-Tory, but then you will read other articles praising Tory MPs. What is that all about?
We are dismayed by government actions that undermine our constitution, our democracy and the rule of law. This is a government unlike any we have ever known. It does not govern in the country’s interests, or in the interests of its citizens, but according to a narrow and malevolent ideology. We feel duty-bound to hold it to account.
You would have to be living in denial to think that Labour stood a chance of winning the Hartlepool by-election. They would have lost it in December 2019, had the Brexit Party stood down. As it was, Richard Tice robbed the Tories of victory by taking 25.8 per cent of the vote to their 28.9 per cent, compared to only 37.7 per cent for Labour. The combined right-wing vote was 54.7 per cent, compared to 53.1 per cent in the by-election (Conservatives + Reform UK, the re-named Brexit Party). Of course, the Tories talk it up to make it sound like a great victory, but listening to the vox-pops, some locals attributed the results of oppressive Tory policies to Labour. How can anyone be surprised that a majority voted for Johnson when there was such confusion?
They certainly weren’t really voting for Jill Mortimer. She barely spoke during the campaign, standing quietly in the wings as Boris Johnson or some other Tory grandee pontificated. She had nothing genuine to say about Hartlepool, a place she’d barely visited before being parachuted in to fight the election. Her plans seem to be sketchy and largely cosmetic. If party affiliation were to be ignored, the Labour candidate, an NHS Doctor working at Hartlepool’s NHS hospital, might have been seen as far a better choice. Previously the MP for Stockton South, Dr Paul Williams at least understood the issues facing the town. He was campaigning for local businesses and was having conversations with Liberty Steel, trying to save Hartlepool jobs — a topic the Tories never mentioned.
People wanted change, so they voted for the party that has been in power for eleven years and brought them austerity, above-average unemployment, NHS closures, an increased need for foodbanks and the worst management of the covid pandemic of any European country. Go figure.
Is that an indictment of the Labour party and Keir Starmer’s leadership? Perhaps Labour should refresh its comms team, but if the Hartlepool result highlights anything, it is that our education system is failing us. We need far more emphasis on civics, economics and critical thinking skills. Should Starmer resign? No. Jeremy Corbyn did not resign when he lost the Copeland by-election in 2017, so let us at least be consistent.
This is all very grim. What are the reasons to be cheerful?
Local Elections — an under-reported swing to Labour
This is not an obviously good story for Labour either, which lost seats and councils, but the reasons are complex. Parties whose leaders have been on television throughout 2020 and into this year, talking to us about the Covid-19 pandemic, tended to fare better than the parties of leaders who have not. Undoubtedly, the Tories benefited from the ‘vaccine bounce’ too — but not, it seems, in their traditional heartlands, which appear to be seeing through their populist schtick at last. In his pursuit of Red Wall glory, Johnson has left the home counties undefended.
Indeed, despite the national press looking at these results through the simplistic, England-centric framing of ‘Tory good, Labour bad’, there was a 2.5 per cent swing from the Tories to Labour, according to internal research by the Liberal Democrats. To put that in context, the Conservatives broke through the Red Wall in December 2019 and won an 80-seat majority with a swing from Labour of 4.5 per cent, so Starmer has already clawed back more than half of that. What makes that increase all the more remarkable is that these local elections saw the demise of far right-wing parties like UKIP and Reform UK (aka the Brexit party), whose votes were mopped up by the Tory party. Starmer needs to do more to win a general election, of course. Still, the situation is not as negative as portrayed.
Another important point is that turnout is low in local elections. That may seem like a counter-intuitive statement. After all, lack of democratic engagement is not something to celebrate; that’s how dictators get in. The point here is that it shows that only a small portion of the country has bought into this authoritarian government’s regime. Yes, they are still winning, but we are not all nationalist-populists. That is a reason to rejoice, let alone be cheerful!
If we can increase turnout, we can win. That’s how Dominic Cummings won the Brexit referendum. He found three million disengaged voters and convinced them Brexit was the answer to all their problems. We can do that — minus the industrial-scale lying about preposterous panaceas that turn out to do the opposite of what was promised.
Due to Covid-19 restrictions, parties were not allowed to go door-to-door until the campaigns were fairly advanced. This benefited the Tory party which has the financial wherewithal to do mail-shots instead. The progressive parties, which are not so well-funded, depend more on in-person canvassing. This may well have caused some distortion in the results. Then, of course, there was the famous vaccine bounce, which impacted local results as well as the Hartlepool by-election. Each individual impact will have been small for sure, but in a first-past-the-post context, every little bit helps.
Labour claimed 11 out of 13 mayoral races, including the defeat of two incumbent Tory mayors and winning the three newly created mayoralties. The reason to be cheerful here is the performance of women, who are still under-represented in our political class — not so much in the ranks of progressive parties, but in those of our ruling party, where only 24 per cent of MPs are women.
Norma Redfearn won a second term in Doncaster, while Joanne Anderson, Tracy Brabin and Ros Jones each became, not only the first women to win their mayoralties, but the first ever mayors in their cities or city regions. Joanne Anderson had the additional ‘first’ of being the first female person of colour to be elected as a mayor of her city, while Tracy Brabin is the first female metro mayor (directly-elected leader of a combined authority) of West Yorkshire.
Why does this matter? Money. Mayors have the power and the budget to effect significant, positive change in their cities or regions, under authority granted to them by the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act, which became law in early 2016. You see the effectiveness of this in areas like Liverpool (which has both a city and a metro mayor) and Greater Manchester, where the Labour vote was undented and there is still next to no Tory presence on local councils. They can avoid a ‘Hartlepool’ situation where local representatives are unfairly blamed for the Westminster government’s policy failures.
As you might imagine, the government is not happy with this situation. It will seek to downgrade the mayoral election process from a form of proportional representation that gives each voter a first and second preference vote, to the least democratic option, that of first-past-the-post. This, coupled with the introduction of a requirement to show photo-identity to vote, in order to address an imaginary voter fraud ‘problem’ — but really to attempt to suppress the votes of those who tend not to vote Tory — shows just how anti-democratic our current government is. If we are not careful, we will end up in a one-party, authoritarian state.
Progressive Parties Blossoming
The reasons to be cheerful are not all about Labour! Although we cannot end without mentioning their strong performance in the national parliament of Wales, where the party picked up an extra seat. The Green Party saw its vote share increase in every individual region where local elections were held and Sian Berry, the party’s candidate for London Mayor, came third, helping to raise the profile of the party. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats held their own, taking an additional council in England and a 17 per cent vote-share — much higher than their normal seven to nine per cent showing in polls.
In Scotland, the performance of the SNP was sensational. They won a majority of seats in the national parliament for the fourth time in a row, with an increased vote-share, and only narrowly missed out on an overall majority by one seat. The Green Party consolidated their lead over the Liberal Democrats and their position as Scotland’s fourth party (behind the Conservatives, second, and Labour, third), winning a seventh seat.
This is a notable performance because there was a bit of skulduggery, with a fascist organisation setting up a party called ‘Independent Green Voice’. In their logo, the word ‘green’ appears in capitals under a green leaf, and the party is listed above the Scottish Green Party. Over three hundred voters have complained to the Electoral Commission about the confusion and it is thought that the ruse denied the genuine Green party two further list seats (allocated by proportional representation) in the Scottish parliament.
This government and the far right will continue to play dirty like this. However, we can build upon the positives of these May elections. Our Biden moment will come. One day, Johnson and his kakistocracy of a government will be gone, and the relief of not having to wake up and worry about what they will do today to ruin our lives and make us all a little more divided and a whole heap unhappier will be palpable.
Let us work towards that shining, hopeful path to a fairer, more just, more democratic, more united and happier society.