Monday, 9 May 2016

Reading the Ruins

The overwhelming media reaction to last week's local elections was disappointment. Despite furious spinning that Labour should be gaining 200 or more English council seats at this stage, the results did not deliver the negative judgement on Jeremy Corbyn required to justify a coup. While this has been highly amusing, if not surprising (remember the Oldham West by-election), there is a danger that we miss the wider significance of the many and varied votes. The greatest disappointment may well prove to be the failure of the SNP to secure an outright majority in the Scottish Assembly. If they can't do it when all the electoral stars are in alignment, when can they? Similarly, the failure of UKIP to break through (no, Neil Hamilton really doesn't count) during the propitious conditions of the EU referendum campaign suggests that the party is a busted flush as anything other than a xenophobic protest vote.

Zac Goldsmith didn't look too disappointed to lose in the contest to be chosen as London Mayor. Embarrassed would be more like it, given both his crass campaign and evident disinterest in the city and its people. There is already a move afoot by his chums in the media to claim that he was merely a naif fallen among bad men, but that's hardly an endorsement of either Goldsmith or Conservative Party strategists. The truth is that London has been shifting towards Labour for years now, a process completely independent of the Corbyn insurgency, and dissatisfaction with Boris Johnson since 2012 meant the election would be a stiff ask for any Conservative candidate. The Tories have essentially written-off the capital, a fact made plain by The Evening Standard's decision to henceforth marginalise the office of Mayor. This may actually be a good thing if it means less of the solipsistic trivia that Johnson specialised in. Or maybe not ...

The national press and TV insist that Sadiq Khan's victory proves that Labour can only succeed by "broadening its appeal", i.e. adopting right-of-centre policies that show it can be "trusted with the economy" and is "business-friendly". This ignores that the party also did well in the Assembly elections, taking 9 constituency seats to the Tories' 5, and that this improvement is the continuation of a trend that was visible in the Assembly elections of 2012 and the London constituencies in the general election of 2015, i.e. before Khan was ever a candidate for the mayoralty. Given that he was criticised by the press for an uninspired campaign, and that much of the media coverage contributed to this through its focus on Islamophobia and antisemitism, it is hard to believe that this general swing to Labour in London can be exclusively attributed to the personal influence of the MP for Tooting.

The "moderate" narrative also ignores that the major political issues for Labour supporters in London remain housing, transport and inadequate wages, not whether the party is sufficiently accommodating to the City. For all the dog-whistles about race, the subliminal message that cut through was encapsulated in Khan's oft-repeated back-story: brought up in a council flat, dad a bus driver, mum a seamstress. It's hard to believe that this wasn't a sincere promise to tackle the big three issues more energetically than Johnson ever managed. In this light, Goldsmith's decision to endorse a negative campaign looks like an admission that he wasn't capable of building a credible offer in these areas, something that became comically evident in his inability to name Tube stations or identify with the cultural interests of the little people.

One consequence of the increasing unaffordability of Central London, and the boom in new-build flats and buy-to-let conversions in the outer suburbs, is that the Tories' traditional vote-bank in places like Barnet and Ealing is being increasingly offset, something that was visible in last year's General Election. For example, that Merton and Wandsworth swung to Labour was not because the Tory vote fled in disgust at Goldsmith's tactics, or because Labour hoovered up all the votes of Greens or LibDems. In 2008, the Conservatives got 75k votes in the constituency and Labour got just under 49k with another 42k spread among the minor parties. This month, the Conservatives got 73k, Labour got 77k and the rest got 35k. This pattern was repeated across the capital and suggests that net population growth is leading to more Labour voters. Many are immigrants, but from elsewhere in the UK as well as abroad. Wherever they come from, their immediate concerns are housing, transport and inadequate wages.

In Scotland, a 46.5% share of the popular vote looks like the high watermark for the SNP. Though they might have gained sufficient extra seats for a legislative majority with a better distribution of votes, the important point is that there is no popular nationalist majority, and in a proportional representation system that fact guarantees that another independence referendum isn't worth talking about till the end of the decade at the earliest, with the one ironic caveat of a leave vote in the EU referendum. If the vote goes to remain, the SNP will be obliged to develop substantive policies beyond the gestural or hashtag-friendly, and to defend their social and economic record for at least the next 3 years. If they cannot resolve the inherent tensions between their pro-social and fiscally-conservative wings, leading to the kind of timidity they've already displayed over tax, the most likely direction for their popularity is down.

While the media predictably crowed that the Conservatives had overtaken Labour in terms of seats in the Scottish Assembly, their constituency vote share was actually still smaller, at 22% versus 22.6%. It's possible that Labour might fall further and the Tories grow, but it's also possible that this is as low as Labour can get (a credible challenger to the left remains unlikely, as RISE has shown) and that any further Tory (or Lib Dem) gains will largely be at the expense of the SNP. The Scottish Tories have explicitly set out to position themselves as a "strong opposition", distinguished from the Nats wholly on their support for the union. Insofar as they have social or economic policies, they are the usual apple-pie and motherhood: build more homes, defend the NHS, improve schools, be careful with the pennies etc. In other words, don't say anything that might alienate anyone and keep talking about Sterling as your trump card.

As with Nicola Sturgeon's arrival on the UK political scene last year, Ruth Davidson's popularity owes much to a calculated vagueness in the area of fiscal policy (protect spending, look to cut taxes) and a canny promotion of personality (straight out of the Cameron playbook circa 2005). This is further proof that Blairism lives on most successfully north of the border, where the belief in higher powers that cannot be gainsaid, specifically the market and globalisation, dovetails with the SNP's Europhilia and the Tories' unwavering unionism. This suggests that Scottish politics may actually be entering a period of resentful dependency rather than self-confidence (the fall in the oil price has been psychologically damaging), which presents an opportunity for Scottish Labour if it is willing to promote the case of economic nationalism.

But this would require a conditional commitment to independence and a more assertive relationship with the EU (cue joke about Edinburgh as the Athens of the North), possibly appropriating some of the territory marked out by the Radical Independence Campaign. Neither of these departures would be tactically feasible this side of June the 23rd. The period between 2011 and June this year will probably be seen in retrospect as an interregnum between the old Scottish Labour machine and a new formation of the left in Scotland. Assuming that still sits under the Labour banner, the party may find it itself obliged to take its case onto the streets simply because of its limited representation at Holyrood. Running as an anti-establishment mass movement, particularly if the SNP and the Tories collude in a neoliberal stitch-up, looks like the most credible way forward for the next decade. Trying to be more Blairier-than-thou isn't going to work.

Across England and Wales, the council results were neither here nor there, not because there were no big shifts but because we are 4 years out from the next general election. The increasing reliance of the media on opinion polls to set or reinforce the political agenda has led to local elections being treated as a proxy for large-scale national surveys. This has been exacerbated by the disempowerment of local government over recent decades, which leads the media to assume that voters are largely energised by national rather than local issues. In fact, the electorate have delivered a result that appears to reflect local concerns, hence the "oddity" of Labour doing well in parts of the South of England. The broad story is that the advances Labour made in 2012 have largely been maintained, but this is no more significant for the next general election than that previous result was for 2015. The meta-story is that the narrative of ruination remains a Westminster fantasy.


  1. You're dead right on Scotland, and it is the obsession with short-term polls and elections, and the anti-Corbyn agenda, that prevents the media from seeing the bigger picture. The SNP must be praying for a strong 'remain' vote in Scotland to be coupled with a 'leave' in the UK as a whole. Without that the tide of nationalism will ebb and the SNP will be forced to become even more opportunistic in order to keep voters on board and its disparate band of MPs and MSPs happy.

    The fact that the SNP categorically stated its determination to avoid coalitions and rule as a minority administration shows that it is already grimly defending its new status as the political establishment in Scotland. As you suggest, this will provide an opportunity for Labour. At present there is little room for manoeuvre for an anti-establishment, pro-Union party. But in the next few years the SNP will be desperately tacking in different directions, almost inevitably leaving gaps for Labour to exploit. Whether they are able to do it, of course, depends on the result of the power struggle within the national party.

  2. Herbie Causes Extinction10 May 2016 at 18:48

    Unfortunately the existence of a hostile media and a PLP determined to undermine Corbyn and ultimately oust him are things that will not go away.

    If Corbyn cannot find a way to get rid of these people he will remain a dead man walking. And even if he did get rid of them it wouldn't stop the barrage of abuse from them via the media.

    I think we will need to wait for a few months beyond the EU vote to get a firmer handle on the political landscape.