Monday 6 May 2019

Notes on the Local Election Votes

Few things demonstrate the truism that politics is about interests above anything else than the spin put on election results. The outcome of last Thursday's are a case in point. We had the BBC with its screaming headlines of a meltdown of the two main parties, as if losing 80-odd councillors is a tragedy up there with misplacing 1,300 of the blighters. In addition to desperately spinning that Brexit poses Labour the same kind of existential threat it does the Tories, we saw big councillor hauls by the Liberal Democrats and the Greens likened to an eating of the second referendum pudding. If only Jeremy Corbyn would stick the remainer oven on then Labour can look forward to the tasty, sugary treat of a whopping majority. This, of course, would mean overlooking the hundreds of seats gained by independents up and down the country whose views on Brexit on aggregate are usually some way off remainer central - though it hasn't stopped some "learned" folks talking the most clueless rubbish.

Anyone with the slightest ounce of political curiosity, or for that matter, integrity, would look at what happened on Thursday and entertain the possibility we might be seeing more than one thing happening, that more than one thing could be in a state of movement and change. How could it be, for instance, that Stoke's Tories proved immune to any backlash in the so-called capital of Brexit while getting pulverised elsewhere, that the LibDems didn't knock lumps out of Labour, and how Labour made advances in some leave areas and fell back in others. It's almost as if local factors, which are but rumours to most Westminster commentators and Brexit obsessives, were also important. That said some patterns can be discerned amid the swirls and vortices of voting movement. Why votes went all over the place is not magic, despite the overabundance of magical thinking about them.

As Simon Briscoe notes, the LibDem surge looked impressive but the underlying numbers do not show an enthusiastic surge to the yellow party. Taking Chelmsford as his case study, the story is less a matter of LibDems winning and more one of the Tories losing as their voters tended to stay home, observing a collapse in turnout since the last time these seats were contested in 2015. Readers might recall something else coincided with this set of local elections, boosting turn out and, in some areas, delivering more Tory and Labour votes than you would ordinarily expect for council contests.

Then again, there is more going on than Tories staying at home. Sticking with Chelmsford, the LibDems gained 26 seats overall with the Tories losing 31 in total. However, in 2015 the Tories won 10 councillors off the yellow party. In other words, sure some Tory voters abstained, but others switched. This is to be expected. In the last year, the LibDems re-consolidated their "traditional" position as the none-of-the-above party in local council by-elections thanks to the welcome collapse of UKIP. In 2018, they were much more likely to take votes and seats from the Conservatives as opposed to Labour. This also proved true, to a lesser extent, of the Greens as well. Why? Because of the particular way the Tory vote is disintegrating. Long argued here, if the Tories were heading in a populist right direction, then more moderate, softer Tory voters are likely to jump ship not to Labour, but other alternatives. Well, that direction hasn't unveiled itself yet (though the emergence of the Brexit Party as an ostensibly attractive new force is sure to push the Tories to the right) but those "moderate" voters aren't sticking around and are, as predicted, going elsewhere. Disintegration, if the polls are to be believed, is hitting them from both sides, and had the Brexit Party stood council candidates the Tory losses were guaranteed to be even heavier. For now, John Major's 1995 record of 2,000+ losses remains intact.

Nevertheless, as per Stoke the Tories didn't go backwards everywhere. Here, Derby, Swindon, Bolsover, all are places that bucked the national trend and some quite poor Labour wards went Conservative. This isn't something waving your blue passports and equipping Labour activists with Vera Lynn ring tones will fix. It means appreciating how the recomposition of Labour's vote is uneven, and how in some hitherto Labour constituencies community infrastructure has been torn down. The sorts of institutions that worked to reproduce class-based collective identities after retirement have withered, and this is a big problem. Effectively, retirement as a socio-economic status is petit bourgeois. Income is fixed and often low, it can be and often is atomising, and in the active part of retirement you are more likely to follow one's inclinations, money permitting. The collectivism and organisation of work no longer claims its pound of flesh. The spontaneous consciousness of living this way is individual and individualising, and is at odds with any trade union and class consciousness acquired during one's working life. And as social being tends to beget the way we think about our existence, this limits the appeal of leftist politics precisely because the petit bourgeoisification* of retirement meets weaker counter-veiling tendencies from residual working class institutions. This is not a counsel for despair, but a challenge to the labour movement. It's not impossible. Political science isn't rocket science, after all. Labour in Liverpool and Manchester has consistently proven immune to these processes, and Preston council with its model of Corbynist localism retained a comfortable majority, gaining four more seats as the Tory vote wilted. Labour therefore has to merge with and be part of the lifeblood of these communities. It has to be a campaigning presence, but importantly a vehicle for socialisation and community and this isn't a process than can be short circuited, even with an influx of hundreds of members motivated by national politics.

Nevertheless, this serves as a reminder that while politics polarised during and for a good period after the 2017 general election, and the Brexit effect in the locals was weak, in the aftermath of Theresa May's fiasco and on the eve of a EU election contest that rewards protest voting, should we not be surprised to see Westminster voting intention and these elections inflected by the same fragmentary dynamic?

*Definitely need a better word for this process.


Shai Masot said...

This blogger's analysis of the local election results is *much* better than Tory-lite Luke Akehurst's on Labour List. Not being a hideous mutant Blairite gives the former a real head start.

Boffy said...

"It has to be a campaigning presence, but importantly a vehicle for socialisation and community and this isn't a process than can be short circuited, even with an influx of hundreds of members motivated by national politics."

More important is that tens of thousands of members were motivated by international politics. That's why although there was a surge of members in 2015, a large part of the surge came in 2016/17 after the disastrous Brexit vote, as many younger people responded to it, in the same way that in the US, the Trump election, which is part of the same ideological trend as Brexit, provoked a response from young outward looking members of the population, and led to a flood of new recruits to the Democrats, and a surge in grass roots organising.

Of course, if the Democrats machinery ensures that Biden becomes the Democrats candidate for 2020, they will demobilise and demoralise all of that new membership too, just as Corbyn is doing here.

Unknown said...

"Mmmm. Second referendum pudding." - Homer Simpson

WillORNG said...

I'd draw your attention to exhibit;

East Goscote

8 years ago they elected a BNP councillor, then a Conservative, who was so "good" even the Conservatives deselected them, momentum eat ya heart out...

Anyways, mother of 4 Laurie Needham smashed it with near 60% of a higher turnout.

Greens Fell Torys..

P.S. I played a tiny part in her success, canvassing older Torys, one a confirmed fascist, and finding them considering voting Green was quite an experience.