There were some headline results in the May election which seemed to be good news for the left, Caroline Lucas winning in Brighton and the BNP being wiped out in Barking council being amongst them. Unfortunately the detailed results point in the opposite direction. The election was a disaster not just for Labour but for all the left.
The BNP in fact did rather well. In Barking, Margaret Hodge was returned comfortably but the BNP increased its vote and came a comfortable third. They lost all their seats on the council because of a factor common to all minority parties across the country. Council elections have even lower turnouts than general elections. The coincidence of the two pushed up council participation and in most councils this meant that minority parties were squeezed as the increased vote went mainly to the big three. In Manchester, the Green Party polled its highest ever vote in Hulme ward, where it once had a councillor, but was pushed into third place as the Labour and LibDem vote soared. In Lewisham, where the Green Party had six councillors, they held on to only one as turnouts doubled.
In the general election, Lucas’ win in Brighton, itself a rather aberrant result in that she won with only 31% of the vote in what is effectively a four-way marginal, conceals poor results elsewhere for the Green Party. Having made a huge effort to stand in as many seats as possible, in nearly all places the vote went down compared with 2005, often by 40% or more with the voting in London being particularly dismal. Just to pick out a few constituencies: in Hampstead, the vote dropped by over 62% to only 759; in Calder Valley which contains the almost legendary green town of Hebden Bridge and a ravaged Labour Party, it went down by 37% whilst in Manchester Withington, the vote dropped by 50%. So far as I can see, outside Brighton, the only constituencies to save their deposits were one of the Norwich seats and Cambridge. So bang goes a couple of hundred thousand pounds.
The votes for fringe left parties almost defy description with perhaps the prize going to the Workers Revolutionary Party whose candidates bought their votes at almost £10/ballot just on the basis of lost deposits alone. In Manchester Central, the WRP actually produced a leaflet sent round on the election freepost which proudly announced that their candidate lived in Hackney in London and attended Goldsmiths College. Jonty Leff amassed precisely 50 votes for this effort to be surpassed by four by the Socialist Equality candidate. Neither bothered to attend the count.
A little further away from the mad left, the peculiar socialist alliance known as the Trade Unionist and Socialist Alliance at least scrambled into three figures but often only just. In Manchester Gorton, a local trade union activist got 337 votes trailing the Respect candidate who got 507. Respect’s collapse from the halcyon days of 2005 when George Galloway actually won a seat was particularly and rather sadly notable. In May, its votes were, roughly, halved.
In contrast, BNP votes mostly increased even though it failed to make any sensational breakthrough. The same is true of UKIP, whose interventions probably cost the Tories a few seats. A summary of the BNP results is that in 2001, the BNP fought 33 seats and polled 47,000 votes; in 2005, they fought 117 seats and polled 192,746 votes whilst in 2010, the BNP fought 339 seats and polled 563,743 votes. Simple maths shows that their average vote is slowly increasing even as they spread over the country. This shows a systematic rather than dramatic spread in support. It is unlikely that they will breakthrough into parliamentary seats under first-past-the-post but their council support will inevitably grow.
What happened in May rather defied expectations. Instead of a drop in turnout and a swing away from established parties there was a slight increase with a clear disinclination to vote for independents and left groups. The election was in this sense rather traditional with the arrow on the wheel-of-fortune stopping in the segment of the wheel marked ‘No Overall Majority’, the result predicted for months beforehand. What was rather surprising was instead of the usual pattern of such results in the past – to struggle on a with minority government and call a quick election – there was a swift pact to form a coalition, so swift as to arouse suspicion that it was a deal already in place.
The problem now for Labour and the rest of the left is that this coalition is looking rather stable. Of course there is some whistling in the wind about discontent in leftist LibDem circles and there will undoubtedly be some defections. But this does not indicate structural instability. The point is that the LibDems have always been most comfortable as a centre party. Their recent outflanking of Labour on the left really came about because of the shift in Labour to itself become the national centre-right party rather from any ingrained progressive tendency. Just talk to anyone who lives in a city run by the LibDems. You will find very few red flags being hoisted over town-halls.
This coalition has advantages for both parties. It enables Clegg to restore his party to their natural place in the political spectrum and he will gladly give up a few of his left-leaning members for this. Besides, there is a whole line of authoritarian Labour government measures just waiting to be knocked over to appease this group. Goodbye ID cards is just the start. Lookout for at least one big defence project to be stopped, possibly even a moratorium on Trident. And aren’t we all just waiting for the inquiry into the allegations of a cover-up over torture. This will be held over until Miliband (D) is safely elected then we can all enjoy the sight of his misleading, not to say lying, to Parliament being exposed over leisurely public hearings. And then there is the Chilcot show soon to resume. What’s not to like? And of course there is always the holy grail of PR if not now then maybe, possibly, some time.
For Cameron, apart from the satisfaction of re-decorating No. 10, there is the chance to ditch his recalcitrant, almost mad right-wing. Does the prospect of a few defections to UKIP really worry him?
No, the problem for the British left is a deep one: that this coalition will do what New Labour was always striving to achieve, the formation of a stable centre-right bloc based upon English nationalism. It was always this last that was a major stumbling bloc with Scottish Labour being its solid bastion but also its albatross, something it could not shoot but which still hung around its neck.
So what to do? Phrases like ‘rainbow coalition’, ‘progressive alliance’ and so forth as widespread but the fact is that no one really knows how to form these. All the leadership contenders apart from poor Diane Abbott, dependent upon David Miliband’s charity to even be nominated, would quite clearly sit comfortably in the Tory/LibDem coalition. Their efforts to distance themselves from the policies which they themselves instigated already looks desperate, by September one can look forward to complete mental collapse. The central issue remains that any kind of new left coalition must depend upon a significant fraction of the Labour Party breaking from the centralised right-wing control under which it presently resides even if it subsequently form some kind of alliance with the right-wing. At present this seems unlikely with excited chatter about flocks of new members and a change in party structure. Dream on but remember that all parties get a membership boost in the run-up to elections. The BNP claims to have 8,000 new recruits something which may have more substance than Labour’s boasts.
Perhaps a boost for a new book which I co-authored would help. Left Out: Alternative Policies for a Left Opposition tries to provide some answers. Available from Amazon and good book-shops (ISBN: 978-1-4457-8182-2) or by downloading from www.hegemonics.co.uk or, soon, from Lawrence and Wishart’s website, it tries to tackle the problem of how some kind of left alliance could be formed over the next five years. Inevitably it is only a start but at least it is a beginning.