Britain - Brown gets his come-uppance - and from a toff!

May/Jun 2008

The newspaper headlines were unanimous following this May's local elections - these were "Labour's worst election results in 40 years". And none of the main parties, not even Labour, wasted any time questioning this claim.

However, it is simply untrue. One only needs to take quick look at the results of the last comparable local elections, back in 2004, to see that this is the case.

Indeed, not only did Labour lose more seats in 2004 (476 as opposed to 331 this year, for the same total number of elected councillors), but it only managed to come third in the election, behind the Tories and Lib Dems. In fact, the 2004 local election was the first election in British history, in which the ruling party came third in the poll. Whereas at least this time round, Labour managed to make it into second position.

Labour's long slide

In reality, this election is only the latest episode in a long series of local election setbacks for Labour, which started in 1998, the first year after it arrived in power. However, it is worth noting that the real low point for Labour was the 2003 local elections, even before the highly symbolic defeat of 2004.

Under Tory rule, throughout the 1990s until 1997, Labour had been by far the largest party in local government. Between 1998 and 2002, however, Labour lost about 2,000 seats. 2003 saw the largest losses, with 833 Labour councillors being ousted in just one election. It was in that year that Labour lost control of Birmingham, the country's largest council outside London, that it had held for two decades.

This result was the predictable high price that the Labour party was made to pay for letting Blair join in the invasion of Iraq, against public opinion. But its consequence was that Labour lost its past dominant position and the Tory Party became the largest party in local government - a position which it has been able to reinforce ever since, in every local election.

The losses experienced by Labour in the 2004 elections were of a different nature, but no less spectacular politically. Indeed it was in these elections that Labour lost Newcastle, which had been a Labour stronghold since WWII, to the Lib Dems and even Doncaster, which had been a Labour town ever since 1905!

By comparison with the 2003-2004 elections, the losses experienced by Labour this year are rather less spectacular. Labour controlled 27 of the 159 councils which were up for election this year and has retained control of just 18. Most of these losses were small towns, of course. However, only one of the 11 councils lost by Labour was taken over by another party (Nuneaton was taken over by the Tories), while the others were left with no overall majority after the election. At the same time, Labour managed to win control of two new councils (Slough and Durham) which had no overall majorities before.

Likewise, most of the 12 councils taken over by the Tories, thanks to the 256 additional council seats they gained, had no overall majority before. The Tories lost control of a number of councils they previously held, without any other party taking over.

But maybe the most significant aspect of this election is that, despite their gains, the Tories were unable to reduce significantly the number of councils without an overall majority, whose number was cut by only three, from 67 to 64, which represents 40% of those councils which were up for election.

Of course, since the Lib Dems are usually more willing to form alliances with the Tories than with Labour, the proportion of these 159 councils in which Labour will be left as a minority opposition will probably be quite large. Nevertheless, the results of this election are still rather mixed. But it was certainly no more a Tory landslide than it was a "historic" Labour defeat.

Tory voters come out of the woodwork

Local elections, especially in smaller councils are often affected by all kinds of local issues which have little to do with government policies, when they are not polluted by factional fights between rival cliques within parties, at ward level. So it is always difficult to draw general conclusions from their results. In particular, the prognosis made by every single newspaper for the next general election by extrapolating these results on a national scale, are largely a futile exercise.

The case of London is significantly different in this respect. Since it first took place, the London Assembly election, and more specifically, the Mayoral election, which is held in between general elections, has played the role of a mini-referendum over government policies. So it is more indicative of changing opinions in the electorate - at least among urban voters. Although, even then, its significance for a general election is limited due to a much lower turnout - even if this time it was slightly higher than in 2004 (45.3% as opposed to 36.9% in 2004).

So, as opinion polls had predicted for some time already, Ken Livingstone finally lost to a public school toff and dubious right-wing former Spectator editor, who few people would initially have imagined would have any chance of beating him.

Not that Johnson's election was due to a Tory landslide. He won by just over 6% of the vote (42.5% to 36.4%), apparently mainly thanks to a higher Tory turnout in the capital's richest suburbs. Even more significantly, he failed to win an overall majority in the London assembly, where Labour actually managed to gain an additional seat this time (in the Brent and Harrow first-past-the-post constituency), without losing any seats in the London-wide list election.

That being said, Boris Johnson's win takes on a different significance when it is put into perspective, taking into account how Livingstone was elected, both in 2000 and 2004.

Indeed, Livingstone's main strength in both these elections was that, while having Labour's official backing, he appeared as a maverick who was willing to stand up to Blair. In 2000, Livingstone won the election largely by posing as a champion of the fight against the privatisation of the London Underground, at a time when Blair was clearly going down that road. By 2004, Livingstone had demonstrated that his alleged opposition to privatisation was just hot air. However, he managed to distance himself enough from Blair's war in Iraq to still appear as an anti-Blair candidate. Even then, Livingstone won by a narrow margin, with only 35% of first preference votes. And if he was finally elected, it was probably partly due to the fact that his Tory opponent, Steve Norris, was an unlikely choice. In any case, in both these elections, Livingstone was able to capture votes both among loyal Blair supporters and among anti-Blair Labour voters.

This time round, not only did Livingstone maintain his share of first preference votes, but he actually increased it (from 35.7% to 36.4%) and he then benefited from a larger share of second preference votes than Johnson, probably largely thanks to the agreement he had made with the Green Party.

However, the flamboyant Johnson seems to have been considered as a better choice by the middle class constituency he was aiming at, since he managed to clean up the UK Independence Party vote completely. It collapsed from over 5% in 2004 to under 1% this time. He also snatched some of the Lib Dems' votes, which fell by 5%, compared with 2004.

More importantly, the increased turnout appears to have worked mostly in Johnson's favour, since his best scores, compared with 2004, are precisely in those better-off areas where the turnout increased most. By contrast, where Livingstone scored best, in the more working class areas of London like City and East, the turnout increase was significantly lower - and this appears to be where the "secret" of Johnson's election is to be found,

In other words, what won Johnson his Mayoral seat does not appear to be a shift in the vote from Labour to the Tories, but the fact that Johnson's campaign managed to bring a layer of better-off voters back to the ballot box, whereas Livingstone failed to achieve this among Labour's traditional electorate.

Brown's policies disowned

But then this is hardly surprising. Eight years on, the illusion that Livingstone represents policies in any way different from those of the government has finally melted away.

His eventual condoning of the London Underground part-privatisation and high-profile heavy-handed handling of strikes by Tube workers appears without any ambiguity to be in tune with the government's privatisation by stealth in public services. His introduction of the congestion charge is rightly seen as a pilot for the national "pay-as-you-drive" toll tax plans that Brown has been toying with for years. His promotion of the Olympics' costly shambles, alongside Blair and the upper-crust of Britain's construction, engineering and real estate industries, can only appear for what it is - a device which will price working class families out of east London, in line with the government's so-called city "regeneration" plans. All this has exposed Livingstone for what he really was - yet another errand-boy for the City, just like Blair and Brown.

From this point of view Livingstone's main theme in the election campaign - "it's me or the Thatcherite" - was a bit too thin to convince voters, who found it hard to see any substantial difference between his language and Johnson's, with both of them bending over backwards to convince voters that their priority was to increase policing across London and ensure that the capital remained the "financial hub of Europe". Livingstone's reiterated claims that he had been "good for low-income Londoners" because of his alleged efforts to build "affordable" homes, was no more convincing, given the severe housing crisis that working class families are faced with across London.

So ultimately, it was clear this time round that voting for Livingstone was merely voting for Brown's policies. And Livingstone's failure to mobilise the working class electorate was an expression of this electorate's refusal to endorse the long series of anti-working class measures and pro-business policies adopted lately by Brown and his government.

Many commentators have argued that Livingstone's defeat was a response to Brown's cut of the 10p income tax band. And there is probably some truth in this, although this measure attracted hardly any opposition from politicians when it was first introduced in last year's budget. No doubt this was because few of them wanted to be accused of challenging the simultaneous cut in the standard rate from 22p to 20p. But the actual implementation of the new rates from April this year, has finally generated the opposition it deserved.

The government went out of its way to deflect criticisms by claiming that its tweaking of the tax credit system had ensured that the number of people who lost out from what amounts to a 10% tax surcharge on the poorest taxpayers, was minimal. But regardless of the amount of tax credits they might receive, there is something obscene in a measure which means that 5 million of the most badly off households will still have to pay an average £100 more in tax per year - which is not insignificant when you have such a low income in the first place. What is more, it will bring in only £0.5bn a year to the government's coffers. That is just 1% of the minimum estimate of what the banking system bailout is going to cost to taxpayers!

But there was more to it than that, because this tax on the poor was imposed against the backdrop of a raft of measures which were all designed to benefit the richest. Indeed, at the very same time, corporation tax was cut, once again, from 30% to 28%. Under the pretext of "simplifying" the way that Capital Gains Tax is computed (the tax paid on profits made out of the sale of assets such as non-residential buildings, many financial assets, companies, etc..), its rate was set at a uniform level of 18%. This was down from the previous rate of 20-40% which had depended on the circumstances of the sale and the particular assets, and now amounts to handing over a big potential premium to a whole layer of capitalists.

Then Brown had promised to do something about the long-standing scandal of the "non-domiciled" super-rich - i.e. obscenely rich people who choose to live in Britain, for tax reasons, while living on incomes which are allegedly earned abroad, and therefore not taxable in Britain. However, when it came to the crunch, Brown backed off and the whole issue was dodged in a way which allows the richest among the non-doms to pay a only a nominal sum in tax.

Likewise, Brown had let it be known that he would not let the energy companies get away with the enormous super-profits they had announced for 2007, without doing something about it, after the huge increase in electricity and gas charges, Especially as, on top of it all, part of these super-profits were due to government subsidies awarded to some of these companies for cutting CO2 emissions! So, there were rumours about a windfall tax. But, once again, when it came to the Budget, there was no mention of such a tax. In fact all that came out of the hot air spouted in parliament was a really outrageous promise by the utility companies that they will contribute £225m, collectively, over the coming 3 years to "help out" households experiencing difficulties in paying their bills! Quite apart from the fact that there is no guarantee whatsoever that these sharks will do anything of the sort, such "help" is an insult, considering that at just over £70m a year, it is peanuts compared to last year's estimated £2bn profit made by the 4 largest utilities alone.

Why should working class voters want to condone such policies by voting for Livingstone? This is why working class voters did not mobilise themselves to support Livingstone, unlike Tory voters who supported Johnson - and this can only be seen as a vote of censorship against Brown and his government.

Fudging the issues

So why is it that everyone seems to have such a short memory all of a sudden, going along with the false claim that these are "Labour's worst election results in 40 years"? Well, quite simply because for both Tories and Labour, there is an advantage in blurring the past and fudging the issues in this way.

David Cameron is certainly keen to boast of having inflicted the worst ever defeat on the Labour party. After all, he probably hopes that this alleged "dramatic defeat" can only help him cut a more convincing figure as party leader and would-be Prime Minister - an image which he is still far from having managed to build, judging from opinion polls.

Moreover, given the pro-business record of Labour in government and the huge profits that the Labour administration has allowed the capitalist class to make by milking the state under its management, British capital has no particular reason to want a change in government. And even less so in a period of economic crisis such as today, when it may prefer a government which enjoys the unwavering support of the TUC bureaucracy and which is in a better position to impose austerity measures on the working population in order to make it pay for the damage caused by capital.

In fact the only circumstances under which big business might change its mind in this respect, and shift towards supporting a Cameron-led Tory administration, would be if Brown became discredited and politically fragile enough to be unable to maintain discipline among Labour politicians and, more importantly, in society.

For instance, repeated so-called backbenchers' "rebellions", which echoed the existing discontent among the working class, could reach the point of threatening not only to paralyse the operation of government and undermine its authority in society, but also to boost unwittingly, the resolve of those seeking to fight Labour's austerity measures. Then, British capital might consider pulling Cameron out of his box, but still not without some apprehension, if only because Cameron and the relatively new generation of Tory politicians around him are still untested.

We are not at this point, yet, and Cameron is only too aware of this fact. The Labour backbench "rebellion" led by Frank Field over the 10p surcharge has been extremely cautious, in order to avoid making too many waves, so as not to put Brown, let alone Labour's rule, at risk. And the usual organs of big business, from the Financial Times to The Economist, still express the view that, on balance, Labour can still be of use in government, especially when it comes to taking over the debts of Northern Rock, bailing out the banking system, cutting the wealthy's taxes and distributing the London Olympics bounty to the capitalist class.

So, for the time being, the best that Cameron can do, is to overstate Labour's defeat in these elections in the hope that this may eventually help to destabilise the government and serve his own ambitions to become, at last, the first choice for British capital.

As to Brown, he was unlikely to admit willingly in front of the electorate that this last election is just the latest episode in Labour's long slide out of local government. Nor was he likely to acknowledge the fact that he, Gordon Brown, who was promoted into office as Blair's heir, largely because Blair was considered an electoral liability by his own party, had just demonstrated that he was incapable of reversing the downward electoral trend set by Blair. In fact, this would be accepting as read, the findings of a recent survey published by the Guardian under the deliberately provocative headline "Brown now considered a liability to Labour". Hence Brown is probably the last British politician who might choose to remind voters of the fact that Labour has experienced far worse setbacks in recent years.

That said, elections do not change anything, but they do indicate trends of opinion among voters. This one is no exception. But rather than reflecting any growth in support for the Tories' reactionary demagogy, it indicates a rejection of Brown's pro-business policies - and, from the point of view of the working class, quite rightly so!