After the May Elections
Essentially, five different elections were held in the United Kingdom on 5 May. One was for the Mayor of London and the London Assembly, and for Mayors in Bristol, Liverpool and Salford. Three were for the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies. The fifth was for many local councils in England, for seats last contested in 2012, a good year for Labour.
These elections were widely represented as a referendum on the party leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. This narrative was promoted by some of his right-wing Labour enemies, but was then taken up by the media for their own purposes. Would the outcome ‘prove’ that the Labour Party under Corbyn was unelectable, giving grounds for a challenge to his leadership, or a virtual coup? In the end, it didn’t prove this at all, although the delay in announcing the outcome of the London Mayoral election until early Saturday morning, and the Bristol outcome even later, weakened the impact of the Labour successes. Since the slow count had some political effect, one wonders who was responsible for it? However, it was the BBC’s Political Editor, Laura Kuennsberg, earlier attacked by supporters of Corbyn for bias against him, who first pointed out that Labour was doing far better in the English local elections than had been forecast by his enemies. Labour won a slightly larger vote share than in 2015, and held on to control of councils in marginal constituencies, which might well be decisive in the next General Election. So for Corbyn and his leadership, in England, the result had to be recognised as signifying a period of respite.
Scotland was a far worse outcome for Labour, although this seems to have had little to do with its leadership in England. It seems likely that the SNP is now at its zenith, still able to maintain momentum from Referendum campaign, and given credit for an ‘anti-austerity’ platform that, in terms of its policies in government, has little substance. Nicola Sturgeon reminds one of Angela Merkel in her capacity to soak up support from all sides, making Labour voters in Scotland, as with the SPD in Germany, see no reason to prefer their party to hers. But supposing, as seems likely, that nationalism is revealed to be no solution to Scotland’s economic and social problems, may a space not now open up on both the left and right for a politics which addresses these problems? Far from being worried by the Tories polling a fifth of the vote in Scotland, we should recognise that there always were at least that number of Conservatives there. Should we not see this as the start of a return to a politics in which the appeal of nationalism can no longer suppress differences of class interests? Scottish Nationalism would have been a feasible project in the 1980s and 1990s, when North Sea oil and gas provided the basis for a self-sufficient economy like Norway’s, but came on the scene too late to have a viable basis.
London and Bristol were triumphs for the idea of the multicultural city. The Mayor of London occupies a significant space, though how Sadiq Khan proposes to use it is uncertain. The idea, put forward by him, that Labour needs election-winning capacities like Tony Blair’s is undeniable. But considering, as we have been arguing in Soundings, that Blair’s New Labour pursued its own version of neoliberal politics – reliance on the financial sector, marketisation of public services, a ‘liberal imperialist’ foreign policy – it needs a great deal more than that. What alternative the Labour Party can offer beyond a mitigated version of austerity and neoliberalism is now the crucial question. The three candidates other than Corbyn in the post-General Election leadership campaign in the Labour Party, talked of little beyond the need for ‘electability’, and it does not seem as though argument in the Parliamentary Labour Party has moved much beyond that point.
However, the contradictions and fissures in the established order are becoming more marked. The economy is not growing, most incomes are stagnant, and the plight of public services under the assault of ‘austerity policies’ is becoming as dangerous for the Conservatives as it was during the 1990s. The disarray of the Tories around the totemic issue of Europe is replaying damaging divisions of the past. The basis for a more positive national identity can be seen in the outcomes of the mayoral elections in the English cities. (Even Scottish Nationalism is not regressive in the Brexit/Ukip way.) The current Tory backtracking on their more destructive plans for the BBC and for ending local councils’ responsibility for schools shows awareness of their own weakening position.
However, we begin to have a sense of déjà vu. Can’t we foresee, if Labour fails to make enough ground in the polls, that the demands for an ‘electable’ leader will become irresistible? And that the candidates for this might have little to offer beyond a return to the methods of New Labour, even if under a different name? That is, we will experience continued accommodations to the regime we have been living through since 1980.
What then of the current Labour leadership, and ‘Corbynism’? There are definite positives here. For example, we have John McDonnell’s efforts to fashion a non-financialised economic policy, close to the New Economic Foundation’s, and with some new intellectual substance. And Corbyn has made some good and brave interventions, such as on the benefits of immigration. Many members have joined or rejoined the Labour Party, and that may have helped in the May elections. But it is hard for a Party to win an election when its leader is opposed by most of his Parliamentary Party (this was Ed Miliband’s problem too), and it seems unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn will gain a mastery of the smooth or dark arts of communication that are deemed indispensable today. Nor, it seems obvious (though not, perhaps, to the leadership), is Labour likely to win power on its own.
The efforts falteringingly begun by Ed Miliband to devise a politics distinct from the destructiveness of neoliberalism and New Labour’s compromises with it, need urgently to be strengthened. We need an alternative view of how our society could be governed. But desirable as this revisionist project is, as far as mainstream Labour politics is concerned, it has scarcely begun.