74. Is there still such a thing as a local election?

Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

8 May 2022

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The local elections are done. What have we learned?

Local elections are supposed to be about local issues, about potholes, drains and bins. Of course that was never going to be the case with the elections we have just had. For many voters this was an opportunity to give their views about the government’s performance since 2019. Knowing and fearing this, many Conservative candidates have tried to distance themselves from the party brand, describing themselves as “local Conservatives” or even going a step further and condemning their peers in Westminster. And given what we have been seeing over the last few months, who can blame them?

A local candidate all too aware of how embarrassing it is to be a Tory today

After the deluge – what next?

We in Oxford for Europe are not a party political organisation. However, we would be naive if we did not reflect on the implications of these elections for the fulfilment of our long term aspirations, ie the return of some sanity into debate and decision making about Europe. Given the zeal with which the New Conservative party has wrapped itself in the nationalist flag and demonised all things European, we really cannot wish it well. It is time for a change.

Has this been brought closer?

From the perspective of progressives like ourselves this election has been a bit of a curate’s egg. What about Oxfordshire?. After years of Tory control, West Oxford District Council has gone to no overall control, with the possibility of a traffic light coalition similar to the one which one is running the County Council. Cherwell is still a Tory run council – the only one in Oxfordshire, and even then with a diminished majority. Similar movements have occurred nationally. The Tory collapse, with the loss of about 500 seats across the UK, is pretty impressive but less than some, including some within the party, had been predicting. Perhaps the talk of 600 seats down was a bit of expectation management, and has allowed the party to claim that things could have been worse. In London Labour outperformed expectations, with three boroughs going from blue to red, and now when Boris Johnson walks out his front door he finds himself in a Labour controlled Westminster council area. On the other hand, as in Cherwell, the Tories have managed to hold on in many rural areas, and the hoped for Labour breakthrough in the Red Wall never happened.

This is all the more striking when we consider that the elections took place after a particularly bad time for the Tories, with the “partygate” affair still unresolved, an absolute cacophony of allegations of sexual misdemeanours, the cost of living crisis about which the government is almost ostentatiously doing nothing, and of course rapidly accumulating evidence of how Brexit is altering the lives of ordinary people for the worse. Going beyond that, the election happened before Durham Police tapped Keir Starmer on the shoulder.

Taking all that into account, it is fair to say that Labour could have hoped to do better, especially if they want to form the next government. At a national level it was in fact a Liberal Democrats who increased their vote share most dramatically, and there may be a lesson in this. Much of the battles of the next two years will be fought not in the ‘Red Wall’ but in the ‘Blue Wall’, and Labour really need to reflect very hard on whether their policy of in effect aping the Tories over Brexit is going to help them or hinder them. Even more importantly, perhaps, there is a lesson that Labour really will struggle, on current form, to gain an overall majority. The obvious corollary is that they would be wise to cooperate with other parties who may well finish up as their future partners in government. While that is unlikely to include the SNP, there certainly are precedents for co-operation with the Liberal Democrats, Greens and even Plaid Cymru. I find it saddening when members of opposition parties – most recently Emily Thornberry – talk about co-operation as if it were in some way a dirty word. It is essential. The organisation Compass has been working hard to press this case both at a national and at a local level.

It gets worse…

Amidst all the talk of Ukraine and inflation, it has been all too easy to lose sight of other important issues. Brexit is still very much alive. Its harms are continuing to proliferate like a cancer in this country, and yet we hear ministers repeatedly talking about “getting Brexit done” as if that had happened or indeed as if doing so were in some way praiseworthy, when an increasing majority of the country thinks otherwise. Worse still, politicians of whatever hue who publicly express regret over Brexit are castigated as unpatriotic and backward looking. For myself, I’m happy to say that I will stop talking about the harms of Brexit, but only when they have been undone. Hell will freeze over first.

Secondly the pandemic. It is mischievous to say that this is history. There are still over 1000 people dying each week as a result of coronavirus, and this represents about 10% of all deaths. To place that in perspective it is well over 10 times the number of people who die in road traffic accidents. Yet the government and most of the media collude in pretending that it has gone away. We even have a health secretary who, to his great discredit, is offering to name and shame hospitals which are still exercising Covid precautions. This is a fundamental assault on the freedoms of people who are vulnerable and who are prevented from mixing in society because of the continuing avoidably high prevalence of coronavirus.

Thirdly, this government has been able to push through a number of pieces of regressive and undemocratic legislation. The all received royal assent in the weeks immediately preceding the end of the parliamentary session, and did so in effect unamended despite the strenuous and justified but ultimately futile efforts of the Lords. All of these are intended to curb the freedoms of you and me, and yet for many members of the public it is as if they had never happened. They have been sold in such a way as to convince the basest and most nationalistic supporters of the Tory party that the government was in some way delivering their agenda.

The last fair election?

I was going to single out in particular the Elections Act. Much of the discussion around this has been about the need to present photo ID at polling stations. The concern about this is understandable, because it is a solution to a problem which, according to all the evidence, does not exist, and its inclusion is obviously intended as a means of voter suppression favouring the Tory Party. Yet at an international level it is not highly controversial, and many countries already have similar requirements (although the reason they do not find it problematic is that carrying ID cards is compulsory anyway). Even in Northern Ireland photo ID has been compulsory for years. What is much more concerning is the attempt to place the Electoral Commission under ministerial control. Typically for the Tory party, it wishes to escape accountability for dishonest electoral practice, something of which, we may all remember, it was found to have engaged in more than any other party. This is the kind of thing which would rightly be condemned if it occurred in Myanmar or Russia. So one of the tragedies of the election we have just witnessed is that it may well be the last election fought in the UK on a level playing field.

Walking away from Treaties

The attempts in the Election Act to subvert the rule of law should come as no surprise. This government certainly has form. Nowhere is that more account than in its repeated attempts to walk away from its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement, specifically the Northern Ireland Protocol. It tried to break international law, famously “in a limited and specific way” by proposing the Internal Market Bill, then it unilaterally extended the grace periods on exports to Northern Ireland, and now it is proposing to legislate to nullify some of the protocol’s provisions in British law. This perhaps because of a belated realisation that, even if invoked, Article 16 alone would not solve the problems posed by the Protocol. HMG is claiming, in the now notorious words of Rees Mogg, “We signed it on the basis that it would be reformed. And there comes a point at which you say: ‘Well, you haven’t reformed it and therefore we are reforming it ourselves.’ And the United Kingdom is much more important than any agreement that we have with any foreign power,”

It is almost as if our political masters were unaware of how profoundly such threats and such actions diminish them and their country in the eyes of our neighbours. Who, after all, is going to sign treaties with anybody who has such a devil-may-care attitude to them? If the voting public were more alert to this, the electoral cost to the Tories would have been infinitely higher. However they can, sadly, still rely on their friends in the popular press and the BBC to see that this does not happen.

In repeatedly whining about the NIP, of course, ministers are acting as if that were not the ‘oven ready deal’ which got them over the line in 2019. They are appeasing the Spartans in their own party, and of course the Democratic Unionist Party, who are threatening to throw their toys out of the pram unless they have their way. Following the elections, as predicted, the DUP find themselves in second place to Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Their electoral failure may be in part due to demographics, but it should also give them cause to look in the mirror: during the May years they were the party who, against the wishes of their own community, made Brexit possible, and therefore facilitated the protocol they so shrilly condemn. Add to which, of course, the fact that if they looked at their community they might realise that Brexit has placed Northern Ireland, unlike Great Britain, in a privileged position, being in both the UK and EU customs territories. Many voters would prefer to capitalise on this and get on with their lives instead of grandstanding. It would serve all sides far better, especially in these uncertain times, to see the EU as a partner rather than as an enemy.

NI Assembly results. NB SF seats are unaltered. DUP lost 3, therefore gifting them first place. (Irish Times)

Does the Queen wince?

So the next parliamentary session will start with a government which is down but far from out. We can now look forward to a Queen’s Speech replete with evermore egregious and self serving pieces of legislation. Johnson and his cronies are no doubt pleased to have succeeded in beating down the Lords over the last batch and will not let it rest there. From year to year the Queen must find it painful to have to read to parliament more and more attempts from political pygmies to turn the country she loves into a one-party state. It should come as no surprise if she gives it a miss this year.

The views stated here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Oxford For Europe

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