Hand-wringing while ignoring the elephant in the room: a word on the local elections

Several things made these particular local elections different to normal. For one, we have just come off the back of one of the most divisive referenda the country has seen in the post-war political period. Feelings are raw and continue to run high on both sides of the debate. Coupled to this, the local elections were held in the shadow of an imminent general election. The general election is likewise overshadowed by the EU referendum and is being touted as a mandate for the sitting government to press through whatever form of Brexit they wish. Additionally, the previous Conservative government foisted metro mayors onto the large metropolitan areas of the country – an idea inexorably pushed forward by George Osbourne – by withholding funds from those who refused (or, providing extra funding for those who consented, as per your preferred form of spin). For many in large metropolitan areas, such as Greater Manchester, the vote for a directly elected mayor changed the nature of the local election question being posed.

Whilst certain results were not remotely surprising – such as Labour’s mayoral double in Manchester and Liverpool – others were not readily foreseen. Three are particularly noteworthy: the Conservative mayoral win in Bristol, the annihilation of UKIP and the sharp rise in the Conservative Party vote. The last of those may not, on the face of it, appear unforeseen – clearly there were predictions along these lines – but it was not simply the scale of the increase but also from whence it came. For example, Ben Houchen won the mayoral election for the Conservatives in Tees Valley. This is long-standing Labour territory and can only be summed up by comments tweeted by Tom Newton Dunn – political editor at The Sun – who stated, ‘a very senior Tory told me yesterday “I’d s*** in my hands and clap” before we ever take Tees Valley’. The point, if crudely put, is clear enough.

We are now getting the standard form hand-wringing and the questions of where did it all go wrong. Was it Jeremy Corbyn on the doorstep? Was it Tim Farron not liking gays enough? Did Paul Nuttall look just a little too much like a womble? Was it policy, publicity or popularity? Let me make a few observations.

First, it should be noted that Greater Manchester rejected the idea of a directly elected mayor in 2012. What a surprise, then, to find ourselves voting for one last Thursday. There was no follow up referendum to see whether the people had changed their minds, we were simply presented with a list of mayors for whom we were to vote. Is it any wonder that Manchester saw a woefully low turnout of 29% and my area, Oldham, an even more pitiful 24%? It is hardly surprising that few people turn out to vote when, having already specifically stated they do not want the form of governance now being foisted on us, their expressed wishes – stated in the clearest possible terms – are simply ignored as though the question had never been asked. What is more, elected mayors are not a progressive move but reduce democratic accountability by concentrating 1/3 of the vote in the chamber in the hands of one person. The move appears, at face value, to be a move toward localism when it is, in fact, the opposite. The country is crying out for regional parliaments and instead we are having our representation cut in the form of concentrated power in the hands of a single individual.

The other elephant in the room concerns another referendum. Nobody seems willing to admit that Brexit is the issue. UKIP have collapsed because they now have no purpose. As serial defector Douglas Carswell nauseatingly repeated as he left the party that took him in following his prior defection, it is ‘job done’. Iain Duncan Smith likewise put it clearly when he said:

The thing that Ukip were set up for was to get the referendum and let the British people decide. And the irony is that a year ago the British people did make that decision… And of course that means Ukip have really no skin in this game anymore. Because what’s the point? The real point is that you have a government going to deliver on what the British people want.

UKIP’s collapse is so easily explained. The referendum on the EU has taken place and they got the result the party was setup to achieve 25 years ago. There really is no reason to vote UKIP now because the Conservative Party are fulfilling the referendum result – indeed, are the only party with both the will and ability to do so – and thus a vote for UKIP is simply wasted. All of UKIP’s vote has now returned to the Conservatives.

What fewer people seem able to explain is how areas such as Tees Valley have turned Conservative. Why have the Liberal Democrats and Labour both shed votes to the Tories? The answer is plain and simple but few wish to acknowledge it. The issue is, and always was, Brexit.

John Harris produced this insightful video for the Guardian just before the election:

Two points, that are obvious enough, stood out to me. The first was that the urban poor feel so disenfranchised that they see no difference to their everyday lives regardless of who is in power. Typically, this sort of feeling leads to voter apathy. The difference now, however, is that the Brexit referendum was a clear example of where the voice of the urban poor – who overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU – has been heard. If you feel there is no difference to your everyday life regardless of who is in power, but one party agree to enact your democratically stated will to leave the European Union, you may just be motivated to go and vote for them because it will be a tangible something that you wanted to see happen being enacted.

The second point was made clear by the Liberal Democrat voter in a quandry. On the one hand, he liked the Liberal Democrats and he supported many of their local policies. On the other, he voted for Brexit and now finds himself torn. He is faced with a choice between a government he does not want, enacting policies he doesn’t like, yet gaining the EU exit he voted for; or, getting a government more to his liking domestically whilst not getting the democratically determined exit from the EU he wanted. The real irony of the video – taken before the local elections – is that the Lib Dems in Bristol camped out on an anti-Brexit ticket because the city voted to remain in the referendum. Imagine their surprise, then, when the Conservative candidate won the mayoralty. That result is only difficult to explain if you are hell-bent on insisting most rational people really wanted to stay in the European Union and it is only a few knuckle-dragging, uneducated, xenophobic fools (who certainly don’t live in wonderfully liberal metropolitan areas like ours) that caused us to leave.

The real shocker here is not the overwhelming move towards the Conservatives. The story is that only one party are clearly prepared to deliver on the democratically determined will of the people. Labour’s losses are readily explained this way. The issue – despite what many centrists in the party wish to say – is not Corbyn per se. The issue is that Corbyn abandoned his own principles on the EU. Don’t forget that he has said the following:

His long-standing opposition to the EU is well documented. Corbyn, not unlike myself, stands in the Bennite tradition including (as Giles Fraser so rightly pointed out here) opposition to the EU.

Had Corbyn originally come out as anti-EU, the entire debate during the EU referendum would have changed. We would have a genuine choice between the form of Brexit being pursued by the Conservative, a Brexit driven by Labour principles and an anti-Brexit option in the Lib Dems. Not only that, Labour’s heartlands would know they have a champion seeking to uphold their democratically expressed will whilst supporting them domestically. As it is, we are faced with either the government we want or the Brexit for which we voted. Moreover, we are being presented with a form of Brexit that majors on issues of immigration when, although many want out of the institutions with whom we have become embroiled, are not – to quote Tony Benn – ‘hostile to foreigners, but that I am in favour of democracy’ (a point a I make clear here, here and here).

The lessons here are simple (if only we have eyes to see them). The urban poor have become disenfranchised, seeing no real difference to their everyday lives regardless of who is in power. They have been treated with contempt, even to the point of specifically asking their opinion on metro mayors and then roundly ignoring them. Many voters – across the class spectrum – were determined to leave the EU and yet only the Conservative Party are prepared to enact the democratic will of the people. This leaves many in the unenviable position of choosing between a government they support and effectively (or, actually, in the case of the Lib Dems) remaining in an institution they have specifically indicated they want to leave; or, leaving the EU and yet voting for a governmental programme with which they feel deeply uncomfortable. In stark terms, for many it is a choice between giving up democracy, sovereignty and equity or damaging the poor and vulnerable, clamping down on immigrants and asylum seekers and offering tax relief to those who least need it.

For people like me, it is Sophie’s Choice. For the disenfranchised urban poor, the perception is that nothing ever changes so we may as well at least get the Brexit we want. Let’s not keep ‘looking for answers’ and ‘trying to explain it’ when there is a massive hulking elephant in the room. You can’t keep kicking a dog then wonder why one day he jumps up and bites you. You can’t hold the people in contempt and then wonder why they don’t put you into power. We may decry Conservative Party domestic policy all we want if that is your penchant, you may point to the superiority of Labour if you please, but neither party’s policy positions have been directly determined by referendum. The one time anything has been asked, only one party is actually prepared to listen.

As Tony Benn famously commented on Ted Heath:

He has a deep contempt for Britain, the British people and parliamentary democracy. He is trying to climb back to power via the Treaty of Rome, and put Britain under government from Brussels for ever. In 1970 Mr Heath solemnly promised that he would not take Britain into the Common Market without the full-hearted consent of the British people. He broke his pledged word then, and he now says he will not accept a ‘No’ vote on Thursday. Heath promised more jobs and higher living standards inside the EEC. These promises were all broken, and he now tells us we are so poor we cannot come out; beggars can’t be choosers. That is false, too. Heath’s leadership has been a total disaster for the British people. The Tory Party threw him out.

Apparently, it seems, it is a folly many within Labour and the Liberal Democrats wish to emulate. With similar clarity, Benn also made this particularly relevant point:

If democracy is destroyed in Britain it will be not the communists, Trotskyists or subversives but this House which threw it away.

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