Frontline volume 2, issue 1.

Local Elections in England and Wales Local Advances but no National Alternative

Nick McKerrell gives an overview of the May elections in England and Wales, which saw steps forward for the left in the shape of Respect, but also gains for the fascist British National Party.

As the slow motion car crash of the last days of Tony Blair continues the local election in England and Wales of May 4th 2006 provided once again a useful snapshot of the state of politics in those countries and indeed the state of the left.

Labour fell into third place just behind the Liberals (26% to their 27%) losing 319 seats where Cameron’s New Tories gained 40%. However this itself masked regional differences with the Tories making advances in South while still failing to get footholds in major cities – no councillors at all in Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle and Oxford for example.

This local splintering of political allegiances has also been reflected in advances made by left groups. In Frontline’s analysis of the 2004 European elections: the following point was made

“So across England we have a number of left organisations polling quite well in very localised areas but in some instances competing against each other and in more instances not being on the ground at all leaving the far-right to step in.”

At one level this has become even clearer in the context of local elections two years on.


Respect made a quite remarkable breakthrough in Tower Hamlets (where George Galloway is the sitting MP) in the East End, briefly in the early nineties home to the first BNP councillors. They ended up with 12 seats and are now the official opposition to the Labour administration. In neighbouring Newham they also won 3. Outside of London one of the leading members of Respect, Salma Yaqoob, won a seat with a very impressive vote in Birmingham.

The Socialist Party who stood 20 candidates across England consolidate their localised support with 3 councillors in Coventry (where the bulk of their candidates stood) and 2 in Lewisham.

Quite significantly though the SP also made a breakthrough with a single-issue candidate against NHS cuts – a local GP won a seat in Huddersfield with over 2000. The endorsement of this strategy shows the very disparate nature of socialist politics currently across England.

The backing of such a candidate and their recently launched Campaign for a New Workers’ Party shows the CWI- affiliated SP have moved a little from their “One True Voice” approach which has dominated their thinking and strategy for the last half dozen years. However this has not been evident as of yet amongst their supporters in Scotland.

Other forces did well in certain areas. The Independent Working Class Association added to its local councillor base in Oxford and a Wigan based group the Community Action Party won 4 seats – they actually form the opposition to Labour there.

This group has a fairly left anti-cuts, anti-New Labour programme but also takes strong positions on crime and anti-social behaviour. Again a barometer of the quite confusing localised state of left politics in England.

Local Campaigns

There has been a constant criticism of Respect that it plays exclusively a pro-Muslim card in elections, some on the left have even used the term “communalist”. This has always been exaggerated however and it is a major advance that large sections of the Islamic community are attracted to a force on the left despite the fairly vague programme of Respect.

However it has to be noted that Respect’s largest votes and most spectacular results occurred in predominantly Muslim communities: in Tower Hamlets, Birmingham, Preston (where they have two councillors). There were some limited exceptions to this for example in Bristol where a well-respected trade unionist based in his community ran Labour very close.

But this localised support is really only what other left forces who made electoral advances are doing – responding to a community and promoting campaigns which are important to them: whether on the bloody war in Iraq or NHS cuts or housing campaigns. For socialists this should be ABC and to make advances in the Scottish council elections the SSP need to maintain this approach particularly using the People not Profit banner.

The only difficulty with this is if you don’t raise the broader banner of socialism but immerse political forces solely in localism. This is explicitly the IWCA’s policy for example but there is an inherent possibility of this when a left force has a base in one particular community.

Pluralist Organisation

The problem is there still seems to be no credible left force capable of uniting all these bases of support in a pluralist socialist organisation. Arguably Respect still has that potential but it is still an open question two years on from its launch if it will move in that direction.

On the general radical front the Green Party, which has that mantle more in England than in Scotland now, combine local support (they have 9 councillors in Norwich for example) with a national identity – they gained 20 councillors on May 4.

Any English left organisation that emerges will need to take into account the large regional differences within that country perhaps with devolved autonomy.


Ironically this process has a counter-point in the Nazi right with the British National Party who doubled their number of councillors on May 4th. Now there support is very localised by playing on racist fears and discontent in specific communities – in Barking & Dagenham in the East end of London they won 11 councillors but they also have a national far-right organisation. This is an organisation that will have to be explicitly countered in the immediate future by the left in communities across England.

So there was some good news for the left in the English results but also a glaring reminder of the need for a unified force on the left. Whatever difficulties the SSP have encountered in the last two years that problem has not developed in Scotland because of our existence.