Last week’s council elections, apart from being very bad news for Labour, told an interesting story about the state of the smaller parties in England. (I’ll leave commenting on the state of the smaller parties in Scotland to those better qualified.)
Smaller parties trying to get established have three problems which make it particularly hard to build support – and which need to be taken into account when we read the results. The most obvious is churn – gaining seats in one area while losing them in another, perhaps because your party’s better suited to harvesting protest votes than to turning out potential councillors. A related problem is the ghost town: a minor party may well be able to make a breakthrough in a ward where elections have had lower than usual turnouts, or gone uncontested – but that’s not to say that they’ll be able to hold it next time round. The third problem for small parties is that of defectors. It’s good to get a defector from one of the big parties – it shows your ideas are making headway and gives you one more voice – but you’ve got to wonder what will happen when they next have to stand for re-election, competing with their old party. (My own Labour councillor lost her seat to a Liberal Democrat this time round; I only discovered after the vote that she’d won the seat as a Liberal Democrat herself, then defected to Labour.) You could even argue that you wouldn’t want a defector to get re-elected, at least not by a big majority – how much of it would they owe to their new-found embodiment of your party’s values, and how much to their personal appeal?
With all of this in mind, here are some figures. I’ve distinguished between seats contested this time round and those which weren’t – if a party goes into an election with 15 seats overall and comes out with 11, this is a much worse result if only 5 seats were contested than if all 15 were. Where seats are lost, I’ve also distinguished between defectors from other parties and home-grown candidates; losing a defector is a misfortune but a predictable one, which doesn’t necessarily say much about the health of the party. I’m listing results for the Greens, RESPECT and the BNP; I’m not including the Socialist Party because the numbers are too small (four seats not contested this time, one defended and lost, no gains). I might have included UKIP (who defended six seats this time, lost three of them and gained two), but nobody seems to know how many councillors they have overall (and I do mean nobody).
|Gained + Held||3||9||63|
Two of these parties described the result as a ‘breakthrough’; the third, more downbeat, conceded that “the number of seats won and lost suggests that the Party is standing still” but drew some consolation from a list of second- and third-placed candidates. I’ll let you guess which the two optimists are; I’ll come back to it at the end of the post, like one of Frank Muir’s shaggy dog stories on My Word.
Now for those problems. Churn is most obviously a problem for the BNP. Despite standing over 700 candidates across the country, the fash managed only to gain enough new seats to offset the existing councillors who lost their seats – most of whom had been elected as BNP. There is abundant evidence that, when given the responsibilities of a councillor, BNP members tend not to be terrifically good at carrying them out; a 1/8 hold rate suggests that this impression is quite widespread. Or else, perhaps more probably, that the voters who elected those seven BNP councillors never actually wanted to, you know, elect a BNP councillor, so much as to ‘send a message’ to the major parties.
RESPECT, similarly, had exactly as many gains as losses. However, the main factor here wasn’t churn but the defector problem. All three of these parties lost at least one defector at this election; the Greens lost two ex-Liberal Democrats and one former Labour councillor, while the BNP lost the services of the former Conservative councillor, non-aligned clergyman and all-round interesting character Robert West. As I’ve said, this isn’t a surprising outcome. (At least one defector to the Greens did hold his seat, but I doubt there were many others.) But the vulnerability of defectors is a particularly pressing problem for RESPECT at the moment. Two weeks before the election, in fact, RESPECT had 20 councillors rather than 18. On the 1st of May, a councillor in Tower Hamlets defected back to Labour; he’d been elected for RESPECT in 2006, but described himself at the time as “leaving New Labour to join Respect“. Preston had two RESPECT councillors before this election; however, one of them (Steven Brooks) had defected from Labour since being elected, and decided to stand down rather than fight the solidly Labour Tulketh ward. That left one councillor, the SWP’s Mike Lavalette, who has been re-elected with an increased majority. The recruitment of Steven Brooks was Lavalette’s second attempt at building a RESPECT group in Preston; his first ally, former local Labour Chair Elaine Abbott, defected to RESPECT in 2004, lost her seat at the next election and has not won it back yet. In fact, the people of Preston have yet to elect a single RESPECT councillor from scratch; Lavalette himself was first elected for the Socialist Alliance back in 2003.
As for RESPECT’s other two sitting councillors before these elections, Abdul Aziz in Birmingham and Wayne Muldoon in Charnwood (a.k.a. Loughborough), both were defectors, from the Liberal Democrats and Labour respectively. Neither had been re-elected for RESPECT before, and neither managed it this time. Aziz was beaten by the Labour candidate, pushing his old party in third place; Muldoon, standing in a two-member ward, got a lower vote than any of the six candidates of the three main parties. The list of unsuccessful RESPECT candidates also features a number of ex-councillors, would-be councillors and former activists with other parties – Labour (Keith Adshead in Sunderland and Raghib Ahsan in Birmingham); Liberal Democrat (Tafazzal Hussain in Sunderland); independent (Les Marsh in York) and indiscriminate (Sajid Mehmood, a community activist and ex-member of both Labour and the Conservative Party, in Calderdale (a.k.a. Halifax)).
It’s only fair to mention that RESPECT did make two gains in these elections, and that one of them – Ray Holmes’ win in Bolsover – saw the party come from nowhere to take 53% of the vote. That said, Bolsover is an unusual case. Eight of the town’s 20 wards were uncontested, and returned every candidate who stood (thirteen Labour councillors and one Independent); of the other twelve, eight were contested only by Labour and Independent or residents’ association candidates. That leaves four wards, each of which was a two-way battle between Labour and one other party: one ward each for the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the BNP and RESPECT (only the last of whom won). In short, RESPECT are going to have to watch out for the ghost town problem; another time their success could be emulated – and challenged – by other parties (particularly the Liberal Democrats, eternal harvesters of protest votes). We can see how this might work if we look at Ashfield, one of the places where the Greens lost an elected councillor this time out. When Mark Harrison was elected, he and another Green came first and second in a field of four; it was a straight Green/Labour fight, and turnout was around 25%. This time, turnout was up to 40%; two Liberal Democrats were elected, and Harrison was fifth in a field of eight. Keeping a foothold in Bolsover could be particularly tricky for RESPECT, as Holmes’s ward seems likely to disappear. Mindful of Bolsover’s shrinking population and the precipitous decline of some areas in particular, the Electoral Commission has proposed repartitioning the town into fewer and more evenly-balanced wards; Holmes’s ward, Shirebrook North West, is one of the smallest, with a population little over 1,000. Holmes’s 53% translates as 295 votes – compare the 297 votes which got Maggie Clifford 3% of the vote in Brighton’s Hangleton and Knoll ward.
So which two parties called this election a ‘breakthrough’? One was the Green Party, which did after all add a swathe of councillors in some areas (six in Brighton and Hove, five in Lancaster) as well as getting into three figures nationally. The other was RESPECT:
Breakthrough for Respect
In every ward in which it stood, Respect proved a serious player not only to the smaller parties but to Labour, the Lib Dems and the Tories.
Respect was extremely popular in all seven wards it stood in Birmingham. It came in second in two wards and third in four wards, comfortably beating the Greens and the BNP in all seven wards where it stood.
Altogether, Respect elected 3 councillors, bringing the total to 20[sic] across the country. It also secured eight second places and thirteen third places.
Nationally, in the overwhelming majority of wards where Respect challenged the BNP, it secured more votes. The despair produced by Labour’s record has been susceptible to manipulation by the BNP but where Respect stood, more voters chose a progressive and anti-racist alternative to both New Labour and the BNP. Respect also outpolled the Greens on nearly every occasion where they both stood in the same ward.
I dare say all of that is true as it stands, or most of it – but it’s a distinctly selective assessment. If we’re going to compare RESPECT with the BNP and the Greens, I think it’s relevant to note that the BNP successfully defended as many seats as RESPECT (one each), won eight seats to RESPECT’s two, and can cite rather more than eight second places. As for the Greens, they may have melted into nothingness when they were challenged by a RESPECT candidacy, but they did succeed in defending 39 seats and winning another 18 net. To put it another way, they went into the election with over four times as many councillors as RESPECT, and came out of it with over five times as many.
All three parties lost seats gifted to them by defectors from other parties. The Greens and the BNP were affected by churn, the BNP very badly; the Greens (and probably the BNP) also lost seats which had been won on protest votes in ghost town seats. RESPECT weren’t affected by either of these factors, not because of the party’s strength but because of its weakness: the party only defended three seats, and two of those were held by defectors. What’s more important is that, on the evidence of the closing figures, the Greens are now capable of building and sustaining a large enough base not to be affected adversely by these factors: to gain 24 seats while only losing 6 is not at all shabby. The other two parties, for good and ill, are still well below that level. Eight BNP gains was eight too many, and it could easily have been worse – four BNP candidates were in second place by less than 100 votes, while a fifth (in Burnley) actually tied with the eventual (Labour) winner. But for eight gains to be cancelled out by eight losses suggests very strongly that English neo-fascism is still primarily a protest vote – albeit one that lingers on stubbornly in several white working-class areas, like political herpes.
And RESPECT? So far from making a breakthrough, these results suggest that RESPECT barely exists as a continuing political force. On Wednesday 2nd the party was represented, outside the East End, in Preston (two wards), Birmingham (two wards) and Loughborough; on Friday 4th it was Preston (one ward), Birmingham (two councillors in one ward) and Bolsover. Even Mike Lavalette’s impressive win lost some of its shine for me when I learned that his campaign had been prioritised by RESPECT across the North West. I’m sure Lavalette was worth re-electing, but the North West’s a big place. To prioritise Lavalette at the expense of the rest of Preston would have been something of an admission of weakness. To bring people in from as far away as Manchester – where the Socialist Alliance had candidates in six different wards in 2003 – suggests that the party is cutting its coat according to some very scanty cloth. Meanwhile, as the RESPECT candidate list shows, a lot of ambitious, disappointed or excluded people from all walks of political life are pinning their hopes on the party, hoping to follow George Galloway’s example at a local level. I don’t think much of their chances; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, by the next council elections, several defectors have given up waiting for the great leap forward and re-ratted.
We need a Left alternative to New Labour, but RESPECT clearly isn’t it. For the moment, the party is doing better on a local level than the Socialist Party or the post-traumatic SSP, but that’s not much to boast about. On the other hand, its achievements are dwarfed by those of the Greens – who are, among other things, more coherently anti-capitalist than RESPECT’s broad-front reformism will permit it to be. A workers’ party would be a good thing to vote for, but to organise one will take more combative times than these (and younger people than me to do the organising). Till then, the Greens will continue to get my vote.