By Maciej Krzymieniecki
The recent local elections provide important lessons for the labour movement as a whole. In many areas the Labour vote decreased and the party lost overall control over some of its core local authorities, such as Merthyr Tydfil, the home constituency of Keir Hardie, the first Labour MP in the House of Commons.
This and many other significant losses have only added to the cacophony of calls from the Labour right wing for Corbyn to step aside.
However, for many grassroots Labour members, who witnessed the election processes in their local communities, a different conclusion has been reached: a fighting leadership of the working class is needed at all levels in order for Labour to make an impact. To achieve this, we need to break with the Tory-lite, “dented shield” policies of the past. In short, Labour councillors, instead of helping to implement and administer Tory austerity locally, need to be mobilising the entire labour movement and leading a mass campaign to fight against the cuts.
This won’t happen overnight, but the struggle for it starts at the local level. There is no doubt that many Labour councillors have the most selfless intentions when it comes to building a better society. In Swansea, for example, many fantastic results were achieved by passionate Labour candidates, winning areas such as Dunvant and strengthening their positions in core seats like Castle.
However, good intentions in taking care of local communities are not enough when they are overridden by the logic of the capitalist system and its political representatives, who demand that the working class pay for capitalism’s crises.
In wards where there wasn’t even the mildest opposition to the cuts, it is no surprise that a lot of Labour voters chose to stay at home; 40% is now considered a decent turnout. It is clear that with no real alternative being offered by local Labour leaders, people won’t vote – let alone campaign – for something they see as no different from the broken status quo.
Labour’s election strategies in many towns and areas have been unfortunately limited to conducting “research” and utilising all sorts of technical campaign devices, such as voter tendency algorithms, rather than working out and campaigning on a fighting plan to break with austerity.
This lack of fight from Labour locally is a reflection of the limits of attempting to reform capitalism in an epoch of crisis. Rather than hoping for crumbs off the table, Labour needs a vision for sweeping aside this rotten system. Councillors should not limit themselves to managerial tasks, but use their powerful platform to represent working class communities, both inside and outside of council chambers – and without compromise.
Canvassing as a Labour candidate in Swansea’s Sketty ward, along with a team of other candidates, I attempted to make these points in plain language during conversations with ordinary people on the doorstep. One elderly ex-Labour voter told me that the Labour Party has not knocked on his door in over twenty-five years. More importantly, he said he didn’t even get clear responses regarding basic local issues, let alone in terms of any long-term vision.
It is clear that the people are looking for answers, and the failure to provide a meaningful one will lead to further disillusionment with Labour, as shown in the multiple losses across the country in the recent local elections. As it stands, Labour is too often seen as being neglectful and complacent with regards to longstanding heartlands such as Wales. It is no surprise, therefore, that many left-wing independents – formerly Labour members – stood and won in previous Labour strongholds such as Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent, due to frustration and anger towards the right-wing Welsh Labour Party.
In Swansea Uplands, for example, two Labour councillors abandoned their areas after milking expenses for brand new iPhones and laptops, before moving elsewhere for better paid jobs. This scandalous attitude meant that other – honest left – candidates with a proven track record came close to losing in these elections, as a result of being tarred with the same brush as their careerist colleagues. The Labour membership must ensure that selection meetings weed out these careerist types and stand genuine class fighters in their place.
“Better to break the law than to break the poor”
For elected Labour councillors, it is now more important than ever not just to talk the talk but to walk the walk.
British history is full of heroic episodes where councillors have stood their ground and made a difference. In the Poplar rates rebellion of 1921, Labour councillors understood their tasks as workers’ representatives. “If we are to face the contempt of the court, or the contempt of the people”, they explained, “we will choose the contempt of the court”, gaining massive support on the streets and eventually protecting the people of Poplar from the axe of Westminster.
Similar battles have been fought in Liverpool, Clay Cross and other cities and towns in the past, attracting masses of workers and youth to enthusiastically struggle for a better life.
The capitalists and their Tory friends are proving day-to-day that the law doesn’t apply to them, with the Conservatives somehow escaping scot-free from the recent investigations into electoral fraud, for example. However, if these respectable worthies are not willing to abide by the law, then why should we when it comes to choosing between Tory austerity and protecting the poor and needy in our communities? As George Lansbury – the former Labour leader – declared as an anti-cuts councillor during the Poplar rebellion: it is “better to break the law than to break the poor”. All cuts must be resisted; none must be implemented.
As Bertolt Brecht once said, first comes a full stomach and then come ethics. Labour councillors should oppose Tory-imposed austerity by any means necessary. There can be absolutely no excuse for do-nothing city council CEO’s making six figure salaries whilst people commit suicide or end up on the streets due to poverty and cuts. Any talk of “not being able to do anything” is dishonest and disingenuous when such anomalies and hypocrisy are left unchallenged.
The fight starts locally – and we urge all our readers, including councillors who want real change, to join us in this struggle. This land is rich enough to provide for us all and if we struggle together, united, we can break with this barbaric system that has failed millions worldwide and establish instead a socialist society based on the principles of equality, fairness and genuine democracy.