Lindsey German on the hidden lessons of 5 May
Boris Johnson is a very unpopular politician who would lose a general election if one took place tomorrow. Keir Starmer is a very uninspiring politician who would not win a general election if one took place tomorrow. That’s the take from last week’s local elections, where all London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland voted, and around a third of English seats outside the capital were in contest. The Tories lost 500 seats, worsened their performance in Wales and Scotland, and saw their unionist allies in the north of Ireland trounced by Sinn Fein. Repeatedly, Tory canvassers and politicians have said that Johnson’s own behaviour and integrity were central to their defeat on this scale.
At the same time, Starmer’s Labour actually did worse in England than Jeremy Corbyn’s much maligned equivalent four years ago outside London, with its vote falling in most areas. The Lib Dems and Greens both picked up considerable numbers of seats. Even in London, Labour’s winning of Wandsworth and Westminster – building on a process begun in 2018 – and Barnet from the Tories were indeed successes. Much less commented on is the loss of Harrow council to the Tories, or Tower Hamlets to Lutfur Rahman’s Aspire party. Labour also lost two directly elected mayors in London, in Croydon to the Tories and in Tower Hamlets to Rahman. In Bristol where Labour Mayor Marvin Rees has done his best to disappoint, voters simply abolished the post in a referendum.
All this is probably not quite bad enough to see the departure of both party leaders, but only reinforces the sense of alienation and decay in British politics. Johnson’s government is a corrupt and incompetent shambles which is presiding over a worsening cost of living crisis, yet Labour is not seen as an attractive alternative by millions. While the party’s right blame this on ‘long Corbyn’, the lack of alternative to Tory policies and the lack of any sign of life from Starmer – as well as the purging of Labour’s left which no doubt contributed to these poor results – are the real reasons.
While there is no point speculating about the fate of the leaders, it is worth devoting a bit of time to the spectacular upset in Tower Hamlets and the destruction of Labour there. While this has been given no serious coverage in the mainstream media and is dismissed as ‘communalism’ in the casually racist way in which politics within the Muslim community are viewed, it should be seen in a different light. Lutfur Rahman was elected mayor of Tower Hamlets twice, was then removed in an extremely dubious way and barred from holding office by the Tory government for 7 years. His return with Aspire shows the depths of discontent within the Muslim community but also more generally in what is still, despite gentrification, one of the most working-class boroughs in London, with high levels of poverty and inequality.
The Labour mayor, John Biggs, was kicked out after presiding over a mayoralty which ushered in cuts, unpopular new private developments, and fire and rehire of its own workforce. The Muslim community, which is largely Bangladeshi, suffer on every measure of discrimination and poverty in relation to wages, housing, jobs and education. Traditionally loyal to Labour, this has changed over the past decades through a combination of economic and social issues and political positions in opposition the Blair’s wars and to the oppression of the Palestinians. Those issues, overlaid with the widespread perception of racism directed at the Bangladeshis, has led to widespread disaffection. In 2005, George Galloway won the seat of Bethnal Green and Bow for the Respect party, on the basis of campaigning around these issues but also around bread-and-butter class issues in the area.
While Respect’s initial success did not last because of internal political divisions, it was an important attempt to break through the right-wing Labourite politics which took working class people of whatever race or religion for granted. Rahman’s politics are not the same as that, but he too has tapped into some of the same discontents especially in the more working-class areas. The test will be whether his party can begin to deal with the issues facing workers in east London – a chronic housing crisis, exceptionally low wages and incomes for most in the Bangladeshi community, at a time of severe attacks on living standards. These should be his urgent priorities. We should welcome his success against Labour’s regime and the message it sends that workers are not prepared to put up with endless attacks from local and central government without a fight.
In the Green
A much bigger shock to the system, although one expected for some time, has been the Northern Ireland election. Here Sinn Fein, originally the political wing of the IRA, came top of the poll, allowing its leader Michelle O’Neill to become first minister and ending a century of unionist rule in government. It was never meant to be like this. The northern state was established through partition to maintain British rule in the most industrialised part of Ireland. It was always controlled by an Orange ascendancy and Catholics were subject to systematic discrimination. The statelet was gerrymandered to exclude three counties of the province of Ulster because that would have created a Catholic majority.
The movement for civil rights from the late 1960s changed all that. Its repression led to the rise of the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s, the hunger strikes by republican prisoners in 1981, the strategy of the ‘bullet and the ballot’, and – since the Good Friday Agreement – the ballot only. Sinn Fein has come to be the main representative of the Nationalist/Catholic community, while the unionists have seen increasing political divisions. The DUP was given great support by Theresa May’s government because she relied on it for a parliamentary majority. Now it is refusing to accept the election result, supposedly because of the Brexit protocol but, because it does not want Sinn Fein as first minister.
This is an important victory for Sinn Fein and one that we should welcome in the hope that it leads to a united Ireland. That would mean the end of the sectarian state and the development of a different sort of politics, not just one where people are designate because of which community they belong to. It sends a signal to our government that the cosy and damaging relationship between Tories and unionists is coming to an end. It also sends a message to the Irish government which will see such unification not as the ending of 100 years of imperialist British rule but as a threat to its own rule. Already Sinn Fein is gaining support in the Irish republic as well as the north. If it succeeds in Dublin as well as in Belfast, then a united Ireland is surely on the cards - and with it the demand for a much more democratic and equal society than those that exist either side of the border.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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