Elections provide cautious optimism for anti-austerity movement.

By Virginia Moffatt
May 6, 2016

I am not affiliated to any political party and have used my vote over the last thirty years to elect candidates for a number of different parties. I have always voted for the party and politician that I believe will ensure the best possible outcomes for people. Right now, I believe that this means politicians committed to ending austerity. The party leaders that embody that philosophy are Jeremy Corbyn for Labour, Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP, Leanne Wood for Plaid Cymru, and Natalie Bennett and Patrick Harvie for the Greens. So I was very interested to see how these parties fared in yesterday's elections (5th May 2016).

This time last year, the General Election result proved very disappointing for those of us who are strongly opposed to austerity. Last night's results are therefore worth analysing to see if the situation is any more hopeful today.

Up until yesterday, many pundits were suggesting that Labour was set for a disastrous evening, and would lose 150 seats. In fact the general picture, is one of very little change. Where councils have changed hands, it has mainly been to lose to no overall control, with Labour losing Dudley, Conservatives losing Worcester (where Greens gained two seats raising the prospect of them allying with Labour). The Conservatives one gain came when a seat changed hands taking Peterborough out of no overall control.

Whilst it will disappoint Labour to have lost more seats than they have gained, the result is not as calamitous as predicted, and in fact the Conservatives have lost more.  And though the focus on seats is important, the real question is whether their share of the vote has gone up. Which is where it gets interesting. Labour has held Northern Councils despite UKIP appealing to disaffected voters and Southern Councils that many thought they would lose. The share of the vote in Southern councils is down six per cent from 2012 when Ed Miliband had a good night. However, he lost that share during last year's General Election. When the share of the vote in key wards is compared to the 2015 election result, Labour rises four per cent against a Conservative loss of four per cent. This is clearly not a ringing endorsement of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and as Paul Waugh points out, Labour really should be making gains in this climate. However, it is an indication that some of Corbyn's messages may be beginning to resonate with voters in the South East where he needs to make inroads.

In fact the two parties didn't lose seats to each other but to the Liberal Democrats (who are beginning to rebuild) and to UKIP (who are probably riding on Vote Leave as well as appealing to disaffected Labour members).  The other anti-austerity party, the Greens, lost one seat, but mainly held steady to their 2012 position. It is likely that the surge of 2014/5 has been stalled by voters shifting allegiance to a Corbyn led Labour.

Meanwhile in Scotland, the SNP have won a historic third victory, though on this occasion they have failed to reach a majority. The big story is of course, the Conservatives taking second place at the expense of Scottish Labour. Less hyped has been the fact that the Greens have come fourth, gaining four seats and overtaking the Liberal Democrats. There are several things to take from this.

Firstly, anti-austerity politicians continue to do well in Scotland, with the SNP and the Greens holding the majority of the seats between them. Secondly, Scottish Labour still do not understand  that their alliance with the ‘No’ Campaign has been a liability for them and they have yet to produce a positive message that will appeal to Scottish voters. Thirdly, the Conservative leader Ruth Davison has demonstrated her electoral appeal. She has also had the advantage of not being embroiled in factional rivalries that beset Labour and the SNP. Furthermore, she provides a rallying point for former ‘No’ voters who may worry about the possibility of a new Scottish referendum if the Vote Leave campaign is successful. These results suggests Scottish Labour has learnt nothing from last year and if the party wants to recover its ground in Scotland, it will need to change course drastically.

In Wales, Labour has also failed to gain a majority though they remain the largest party. Plaid Cymru has come second, Conservatives third, whilst UKIP have picked up their first Assembly seats to gain fourth place. Again, there are several things to reflect on here. Some commentators were predicting electoral disaster for Welsh Labour, and whilst this isn’t a great result, it’s not a terrible one either. It is also to be expected that a party which has dominated for so long, will struggle to maintain a majority. Secondly, Plaid Cymru have improved on their second position, with a great win for their leader, Leanne Wood (taking a seat from Labour). This again suggests anti-austerity views remain popular. Thirdly, the Conservatives had a bad night, failing to gain any seats and losing three to UKIP. Undoubtedly the government’s handling of Tata Steel had an impact here. Finally, UKIP have done amazingly well, gaining seven regional seats at the expense of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (who now have one), which implies that Labour and Plaid Cymru are holding their own against UKIP.

Finallly, in London, Sadiq Khan has convincingly defeated Zac Goldsmith after the Conservatives ran a horrendous racist campaign, with Labour also winning the Assembly. As with the General Election, London is clearly rejecting Conservative policies. The Greens have done well to come third in the Mayoral vote and have held on to their two Assembly seats.  As in Wales UKIP have gained two seats, at the expense of  the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives.

We can see from this, that in Scotland, Wales and London anti-austerity messages continue to be popular. Whilst in local elections, Labour's slight increase in vote share and the Green party holding their seats suggests such messages may be growing in credibility in England.

It still seems far too early to make any predictions about what this might mean for the 2020 General Election as a lot can happen in four years. However, it is worth noting that Labour cannot win on the current share of the vote,  and they still need to find a way to appeal to middle England.  A Conservative victory in 2020 still does look most likely.  Particularly because  800,000 people have been disenfranchised because of changes in electoral registration; the proposed boundary changes will benefit the Conservatives; and Labour has lost so much ground in Scotland.

Nonetheless, I am cautiously optimistic today that these results may show that the political narrative is changing and people are looking for alternatives to cuts. None of us can look into the future and predict with accuracy what will happen, but I believe we can take heart from the fact that after six years the austerity project is beginning to falter. 

I have no idea who will win the next General Election, but I am convinced we can change the agenda, to make cuts so toxic the Conservatives will have to abandon them if they want to achieve success. I am also convinced that if anti-austerity parties working together over the next four years, entering into electoral pacts if necessary, will provide the best chance for a change of government.

Let's spend the next four years redoubling our efforts to end austerity for good. And, perhaps next time round, we'll get the government we deserve.

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© Virginia Moffatt is Chief Operating Officer for Ekklesia.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.