Conservatives brace for tough times following 'Partygate'

By Robert Griffiths
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, May 22, 2022
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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a COVID-19 press conference in the Downing Street media briefing room in London, Britain, Dec. 15, 2021.  [Photo/Xinhua]

Britain's local government elections on May 5 confirmed that support for Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his ruling Conservative Party has been on the slide since late last year. Almost 7,000 seats on 200 local councils across England, Scotland, and Wales were up for election. The Conservatives, or Tories, lost a net total of 487 seats – fewer than predicted – whereas the main opposition Labour Party gained just 108. 

The biggest winners were the Liberal Democrats, who added 224 more councilors to their tally, and the Greens who gained an extra 87.

The number of local authorities controlled by the Tories fell by 11, while Labour extended those under its control by five, the Liberal Democrats by three.

In Scotland, the ruling nationalist SNP gained one council and 22 seats as their Green allies grew by 16 seats. Scottish Labour staged a small comeback, winning an extra council and 20 more councilors. The Liberal Democrats took an extra 20 seats.

In Wales, the ruling Labour Party consolidated its position with 66 more seats and one more council. While the Greens and Liberal Democrats made small gains, the Conservatives fell back heavily, and Plaid Cymru took control of three more councils even though its total number of councilors fell slightly.

Why the Tory setback on May 5?

Boris Johnson's personal popularity had plummeted when the "Partygate" scandal hit the media headlines last December.

Many voters are still angry that Johnson, his advisers, and civil servants broke COVID rules during lockdown periods, holding staff parties at a time when everyone else was subject to strict controls about where they could go and who they could meet. Indoor gatherings with friends and relatives were banned; so too were visits to hospitals and care homes to see ill or dying loved ones.

The Prime Minister's earlier claims that staff parties had not taken place, or – if they had – that he had never attended them, or – if he did – no COVID rules were broken, have been discredited in turn. So far, the Metropolitan Police have fined the Prime Minister and one hundred of his associates for illegal conduct during the lockdowns.

This affair has reminded the public of the scale of infections and deaths in Britain due to COVID-19, made worse by government decisions to release thousands of vulnerable hospital patients into care homes soon after the start of the pandemic. Then, in order to safeguard business interests, the Tories imposed the two main lockdowns too late and ended them too early, whereas, on the second occasion, the Welsh and Scottish governments opted for longer lockdown periods.

In the immediate run-up to May 5, householders across Britain were hit by the doubling of gas and electricity bills as well as sharp rises in the cost of food, petrol, council tax, and National Insurance. The Bank of England added to the gloom by predicting higher inflation and unemployment to come as well as an end to economic growth next year, while perversely raising the cost of borrowing for consumption and investment.

Nevertheless, the Prime Minister's personal ratings have been recovering during the Ukraine crisis, as he presents himself as a strong and decisive supporter of President Zelensky.

All of this has meant that the Tories did not do as badly on May 5 as expected, especially outside London.

The second significant outcome of the local elections was Labour's failure to make much headway outside Britain's capital city, notably in some of its former strongholds in the Midlands and north of England. These include the so-called Red Wall constituencies, where Johnson and his party's slogan to "Get Brexit Done" took almost 40 seats off Labour in the 2019 General Election.

On that occasion, several million voters ceased supporting Labour because the party had tried to sabotage their referendum vote to leave the European Union. Many have not forgotten, nor forgiven, Labour and the main architect of its disastrous "second referendum" policy, namely, the party's current leader, Keir Starmer.

As Starmer continues his purge of left-wing members from the party, more than 150,000 of them have resigned and taken their activism and their membership dues with them. This undoubtedly damaged Labour's campaigning capacity during the elections.

Nor has Labour been helped by the widespread perception that the party and its leader lack the policies that might make a difference to people's lives and prospects.

Thirdly, around two-thirds of the electorate see no point in voting for local councils that have lost significant powers and resources to central government over the past 40 years. Labour shows no sign of persuading them otherwise.

Had a General Election taken place on May 5, projections indicate Labour would have secured 35% of the vote, compared with 33% for the Tories, 17% for the LibDems, and about 5% for the Greens. While local elections are not a reliable guide to subsequent General Election results, Labour has taken some comfort from this modest advance from its position of one or two years ago. 

Starmer is under growing pressure to agree to a formal or informal electoral pact with the LibDems, Greens, and even the Welsh or Scottish nationalists in order to unseat the Tories. But Labour will have to pay a heavy price in the long run for any such deal. It would mean no Labour General Election campaign in up to 150 constituencies, plus a second referendum on Scottish independence, which the SNP and Greens are rightfully demanding.

Furthermore, many ex-Labour Brexit supporters might see any such alliance as a covert vehicle for taking Britain back towards the European Union, its single market, and a customs union.

In any event, those with hopes that "Partygate" will bring down Johnson and his government anytime soon are likely to be disappointed, as Boris Johnson sits on a working parliamentary majority of 75 at Westminster, and the Tory MPs who owe him their seats still believe he can pull the winning rabbit out of his magician's hat in time for the next General Election.

Furthermore, having repealed the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, Johnson or any successor has regained the freedom to call an election any time between now and the end of 2024. This allows plenty of scope to postpone vote-losing public spending cuts and engage in vote-winning bribes in the 'Red Wall' and other communities mired in poverty and unemployment under the guise of "leveling up."

Even so, the Tory-run ship of state faces a turbulent passage in the months ahead. Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are under continuous pressure to rescue millions more families from imminent poverty with an emergency budget, cuts in fuel duty and VAT, and a "windfall tax" on oil company super-profits.

The Communist Party and others on the left want to go further and are campaigning for radical and popular policies such as a Wealth Tax on the rich and public ownership of energy, water, railways, and postal services. They are working closely with trade unions and the People's Assembly to turn the all-Britain demonstration on June 18, called by the Trades Union Congress, into the basis for a mass industrial and political movement for far-reaching change.

Robert Griffiths is a former Senior Lecturer in Political Economy and History at the University of Wales and currently the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Britain.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors only, not necessarily those of

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