In Britain’s local elections, apathy and resignation were the real winners
The British public went to the polls last week in the local elections, amidst a spiralling cost of living crisis, a Prime Minister and government mired in personal controversy for breaking Covid-19 lockdown rules, and the ongoing war in Ukraine.
It was no surprise to see the party of government, the Conservatives, suffer losses - they had a net loss of 487 seats, and lost control of some notable councils. This can be seen as the electorate registering its anger with the government, and as a direct reprimand for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The ‘partygate’ scandal has undermined support for the government and for Prime Minister Johnson. During the first lockdown the government introduced stringent rules preventing people from meeting in groups, leaving their homes etc. This led to harrowing experiences of people unable to spend time with elderly parents before they passed, or even unable to attend the funerals of loved ones.
It has since emerged that while the public at large was complying with these rules, the Prime Minister and his inner circle were hosting and attending parties in government buildings. The Prime Minister has recently been issued with a fine by the police for having breached these Covid-19 rules.
''The scale of the crisis confronting the popular classes will mean people are looking for an alternative - if progressive forces in Britain cannot coalesce around a shared platform and vision to offer this alternative, then at best we'll see continued stagnation and apathy reigning supreme, or the door will be open (as the recent elections in France show, with the increased support for Le Pen), for the reactionary nationalist right.''
However, it is notable that in the face of this anger at the government, the main opposition party, the Labour Party, made only modest gains, taking an additional 108 council seats. Most of the seats lost by the Conservative Party went either to the Liberal Democrats, or the Green Party.
It is important not to read too much into these results. Given turnout for the elections was low, it would be unwise to conclude that the local election vote necessarily presages the next General Election vote. Nonetheless, the spread of votes along with the relative apathy in terms of voter turnout does provide a useful, if limited, snapshot of the lay of the political land in Britain.
One point of note is the limited gains the Labour Party made. The combination of the Prime Minister and others being issued with fines for breaching Covid-19 lockdown rules, and the deepening cost of living crisis - with spiralling fuel costs, food prices, rent and real wages tumbling - mean that the main opposition party should have registered a decisive win.
The fact that they didn't speaks to the failure of Keir Starmer and his coterie to articulate any meaningful opposition to the government. Whether on the disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government's belligerent response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or on any other major issue, the Labour Party has at best parroted the government line, and at worst sought to out-flank them from the right.
In the absence of a meaningful alternative to the status quo, the real winners in the local elections were apathy and resignation. The votes for the Green Party, seeing their number of councillors increase to a record high of 542, and, to a lesser extent, the Liberal Democrats, represent modest protest votes. But, in general, these will tend to have been votes from the disaffected middle classes. In a general election, such voters will likely vote for one or other of the main parties.
For the majority of the people in Britain, that is for the working class, the elections offered no real choice, and no hope. This is part of the consolidation of the British political class following the blip of the Corbyn era, and now in Britain even modest social democratic reform is off the electoral agenda.
However, given the scale of the cost of living crisis that people are confronted with, this dispensation cannot hold. Since there is no meaningful electoral outlet for people’s frustration and anger, it will likely lead to an upswing in protest movements. Already, the People's Assembly is taking the lead in coordinating a nascent cost of living campaign, and the main trade union body, the TUC, has called a national protest of June this year which will put this issue front and centre.
What the local elections reveal is that "low intensity democracy", to borrow Samir Amin's phrase, is once again the order of the day in Britain. While some voters did use the occasion to give the incumbent government a wrap on the knuckles, the majority of voters saw no point in voting - for good or ill.
The failure of the main opposition party to provide any meaningful opposition, or to articulate a vision adequate to the crisis people are confronted with, meant the elections represented an effective non-event.
While various parties will squabble over the breakdown of votes, and try to spin things in the best possible light for their respective party - the reality is that the local election results speak to the combination of stagnation, but also subterranean volatility that has marked the British political landscape since at least the Brexit Referendum in 2016.
Labour lost core voters in the former industrial North, and now is shedding young & multiracial city core voters too.— Lutfur Rahman (@LutfurRahmanTH) May 10, 2022
My former party owes progressives serious thinking on what it must offer - not just lashing out at those it's taken for granted who have gone elsewhere #LE2022
The Labour Party's desire to push a message of "course correction" following the modest social democratic offering of the Corbyn era, means that they are incapable of articulating a meaningful alternative to a corrupt, callous governing party. In this context, the local elections speak to the widespread withdrawal from formal, electoral politics that has been a long-term trend in Britain and other Western democracies.
Going back to Samir Amin, he once noted that in the absence of progressive alternatives people, when faced with immiseration and crisis, will retreat into reactionary ones. The local elections in Britain tell us, if nothing else, that the existing political parties and structures are exhausted.
But the scale of the crisis confronting the popular classes will mean people are looking for an alternative - if progressive forces in Britain cannot coalesce around a shared platform and vision to offer this alternative, then at best we'll see continued stagnation and apathy reigning supreme, or the door will be open (as the recent elections in France show, with the increased support for Le Pen), for the reactionary nationalist right.
In immediate terms, then, the local elections in Britain were much ado about nothing. But in terms of the broader trends they highlight, and the possible future developments they hint at, then we have much to learn from them.
Paul O'Connell teaches law at SOAS University of London.
Follow him on Twitter: @pmpoc
Have questions or comments? Email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Opinions expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer, or of The New Arab and its editorial board or staff.