Alarm bell for Labour

Submitted by AWL on 8 May, 2019 - 2:19 Author: Rhodri Evans
corbyn in the rain

The local elections on 2 May gave an alarm bell to Labour.

The Tories lost 1,330 seats. They had expected to lose a lot. Those seats were last contested in 2015, on the same day that the Tories won the general election. They had not expected to lose so many. Since the reference point was 2015, Labour had expected to gain. In fact Labour lost 84 council seats. The Lib Dems had expected to gain. 2015 was a low point for them, when they were discredited by their 2010-15 coalition with the Tories. They gained more than they expected (704 seats). The Greens were up 194 seats. Almost as big a gainer as the Lib Dems were "Independents", up 605 seats. The label covers a wide range. Most usually, perhaps, "independents" are Tory-minded people wanting to dissociate from the official Tories. There were also many ex-Labour "independents".

The latest poll for the European election on 23 May shows Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party scooping up Tory-minded and Ukip-minded protest votes and getting a large lead over Labour, and the Lib Dems doing better at the expense of Chuka Umunna's Change UK. There are a lot of different notes in the alarm bell for Labour, and it is difficult to sort them out. At least the following points, though, are indicated:

• Labour's equivocal efforts to "bail out" the Tories over Brexit (as shadow minister Barry Gardiner put it) are losing left-minded voters, who go to the Greens or Lib-Dems (or don't vote). At the same time, they are not retaining Leave-minded voters, who, even if they might be won over by a clear argument on Europe, resent what they see as stalling and manipulation on Brexit. And they are not winning over waverers.

• Labour's party political broadcast before the 2 May poll was slickly made, but said nothing at all about what Labour councils would do. In fact Labour councils will continue making cuts as decreed by Tory central government, modifying them at best by gentler administration. Labour voters don't like that (and are right not to).

• From all we can gather, Labour's campaign was generally weak. There has been a big increase in Labour membership since 2015, but less of an increase in on-the-streets Labour activism. Of late activism has been declining.

• Thus Labour is not rebuilding its base. For decades now, there has been a trend for party loyalties to decay as, simultaneously, parties' "face-to-face" operations in communities (and, for Labour, in workplaces, through union activity) have declined, and politics has become a more atomised affair, mediated through TV, social media, etc.

The increase in Labour membership after 2015 offered a chance to rebuild that base. On the whole it hasn't happened. In particular, Labour's youth movement has scarcely rebuilt at all. Even of those who have actually joined the Labour Party, an academic survey has found 41% who had had no face-to-face (rather than electronic) contact with other Labour Party members (although that survey was done straight after the 2017 general election, which must have mobilised some previously inactive people). And union membership and organisation has not been boosted by the "Corbyn surge".

Socialist politics cannot be built by self-congratulation within a social media bubble, but only by getting out into the workplaces and onto the streets.

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