Dis-United Kingdom

7th May 2022

Boris Johnson – counting the cost of local election results

What is going on in Britain? There is a cost of living crisis, bad already and set to get worse.  Energy bills have been building and are set to increase further.  The impact of increased energy prices always hits the poorest the hardest.  The Bank of England has just increased interest rates so even those with a mortgage do not escape.  The Bank continues to spread the joy with a prediction that inflation, currently at 7%, looks set to hit 10% any time soon.  In a triple whammy the Bank ices the cake with the prediction of a “sharp economic slowdown” this year.

All of this, quite apart from the quietly forgotten but still circulating Covid 19 virus, is the sort of pressure which should lead to a meltdown at the polls for an incumbent government. 

The local elections across the UK last Thursday were not a good night for the Tories, who lost 500 seats across Britain, but they were hardly a knockout blow landed by the Opposition, especially at a time when they have plenty of ammunition at their disposal.  

Labour did make progress in London, taking control of flagship Tory strongholds such as Westminster and Wandsworth.  They managed to edge the Tories back into third place in Scotland, though the SNP tightened their grip overall, and Labour held their ground in Wales.  The situation in Northern Ireland is largely one contested by Sinn Fein and the DUP so has less impact upon the reading of possible General Election outcomes.  However, Sinn Fein’s victory in becoming the biggest party at Stormont is likely to be sabotaged by the DUP refusing to participate in the Assembly, as part of their ongoing protest against Brexit regulations.

It is always dangerous to extrapolate too much from local election results into how a General Election may turn out.  However, what the results do confirm is that the concept of the ‘United Kingdom’ is increasingly a fiction.  Northern Ireland has been an annexed territory, which should rightly be part of the Republic of Ireland, for a century now.  It must surely be only a matter of time before a referendum on unifying the island of Ireland is triggered.

Labour’s failure to get to grips with the issues facing the Scottish working class has seen Scottish nationalism spread like a poison.  While the SNP still remain short of a decisive majority for independence, they remain a powerful presence and are not going to fade quietly.   Plaid Cymru have less of a hold in Wales but the once powerful support Labour could historically count upon from the Welsh working class is no longer a reliable source of votes.

In all of these cases the nationalists paint themselves as progressives, in opposition to the reactionary forces of conservatism.  This is closest to the truth in the case of Sinn Fein, who are at least seeking the re-unification of their country.  Even then Sinn Fein’s position on EU membership is hardly radical, though they do have a positive charter for worker’s rights within the context of a capitalist economy.

The nationalists may all want change but that does not automatically imply progressive or socialist change.  Nationalism can often be an active diversion away from the real issues which need to be addressed, based upon class and the relationship to the ownership of the means of production.

This ground was abandoned by Labour with the revision of Clause IV in the Labour Party constitution in 1995 under Tony Blair.

The original clause had stated that it was one of Labour’s objectives,

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

The revised Clause IV has an altogether different emphasis, committing Labour,

“to work for a dynamic economy, serving the public interest, in which the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of co-operation to produce the wealth the nation needs”

While Labour leaderships prior to Blair did not exactly wear the original Clause IV as a badge of honour, the shift to the new clause is sadly symbolic of the dilution of Labour policy over decades and its propensity to follow social trends rather than set out a programme for social transformation. The brief window of opportunity, afforded under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, to reverse this trend was quickly snuffed out by the political establishment.

One of the key architects of Corbyn’s political demise was Kier Starmer, now hoping to prove his electability and acceptability to the ruling class by not offering anything too radical, threatening or progressive.  The local election results from Thursday do not suggest that Starmer has moved sufficiently in that direction yet for the ruling class.

Given the travails of the Tory Party in general, and its leader in particular, it is almost as if Boris Johnson is waving the keys to No.10 under Kier Starmer’s nose, yet he still cannot grasp them!

Prior to the 2017 General Election Labour was building momentum, overturning Theresa May’s parliamentary majority.  The last time the current seats were up in local elections in 2018, results were Labour’s best since 1974.  Rather than focussing on the lessons of the 1990’s maybe Starmer needs to revisit more recent Labour history to find a way forward.

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