Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat :
Eyad Abu Shakra
TT

Aswat Asharq Al-Awsat : England: The Local Elections’ Two Strong Messages

Despite the government and the party leadership's haughty denials, the wholesale defeat of the ruling Conservative Party at the local elections in England was predictable.

All the opinion polls conducted over the past few months, without exception, predicted that the Conservatives would suffer heavy losses. However, analysts disagreed on whether these losses would be "catastrophic" enough to pressure Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to resign before the general elections, or if they would be "tolerable" and allow the party to catch its breath and choose its fourth leader in four years without panic!

Prior to the announcement of the final results Saturday afternoon, it seemed that the outcome would be "catastrophic." The Conservatives lost control of ten local councils, leaving them with only six, and they lost 468 seats, leaving them with only 508 local representatives. Moreover, the Conservatives failed to unseat Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has been strongly criticized by car owners and drivers for expanding the "Ultra-Low Emission Zone", leaving many Labour supporters worried he would lose.

On the flip side, the Labour Party wrested control of at least eight councils, raising the number of councils under its control to 49. In terms of seats, Labour gained 185, increasing their share to 1,140, but these figures do not paint a full picture of the result. They do not shed light on important details, and the most prominent of them are:

- Not all of the councils and the Conservatives lost went to Labour. The Liberal Democrats also made strong gains. The centrist party seized control of two additional local councils, bringing their total to 12 and allowing them to surpass the Conservatives. In terms of seats, they won 505, adding 102, meaning that they also have more seats than the Conservatives. The Green Party, which has links to the Labour-left, won 69 new seats, raising their total seats to 179, but they failed to win any councils.

- Independent candidates from various backgrounds and regions managed to make breakthroughs and influence the results to varying degrees.

- The anti-European Reform Party (formerly Brexit Party) has reportedly cut into right-wing support for the Conservatives, especially in rural regions and affluent suburbs. However, Reform only won two seats.

- Despite doing better than any other party, the Labour Party only secured around 35 percent of the vote. This figure does not suggest that it will, as some have predicted, win a landslide victory in the upcoming general elections like that of former Labour leader Tony Blair in 1997, which ended the "Thatcherite era." A "landslide" typically requires winning over 40 percent of the vote, with the remaining votes distributed reasonably favorably among competing parties.

Accordingly, it can be said that the first thing that these results tell us is that the Conservative Party, under its current right-wing leadership, has suffered a severe blow, making it highly unlikely that this leadership will remain in place for much longer. The Conservatives’ problem is made more difficult by its successive changes of leadership since the Brexit referendum in 2016. This instability has left the party suffering from internal bleeding, consuming leaders to the same extent that it has undermined their credibility and limited their options.

It's worth noting that before embarking on his "Brexit" adventure, former Prime Minister and Conservative Party Leader David Cameron, who is currently the country’s Foreign Secretary, believed that he would win the referendum on leaving Europe, allowing him to "crush" the extremist isolationist wing of the party and rooting out its populists. That is why he voluntarily committed to holding the referendum. However, his assumption about the outcome was unfounded. Thus, Cameron resigned (after remaining in power between 2010 and 2016) and was succeeded by a transitional "moderate", Theresa May (2016-2019).

However, when the economic and political repercussions of the exit from the EU began to emerge, the growing faction of defiant right-wing extremist Conservatives rushed to double down and push on. As a result, the leadership of the party and the government changed hands three times in just four years, from May to Boris Johnson (2019-2022), then Liz Truss (for a month and a half) and finally Rishi Sunak (2022-present). Today, there is no real indication that a sensible moderate Conservative faction could push back against the extremists and seize control of the political arena.

For Labour, the results of the local elections - despite their positivity - sent a message that was no less serious or perilous.

The results have reminded the current leadership to avoid underestimating the voices of dissent that have been demonized by the "Israeli lobby" in recent months. Interestingly, this lobby was the driving force behind the election of Keir Starmer as the successor to Jeremy Corbyn, who represented the radical leftist.

The stance adopted by Starmer, who has close links to Labour Friends of Israel, on the displacement war in Gaza has shocked a broad segment of the party’s electorate, not only Arab and Muslim voters, but leftists from across the spectrum as well.

However, the Labour leader and his clique stuck to their unwinnable bet of compensating for its loss of "dissenters’" votes by adopting Conservative policies and strongly supporting Israel and the Likud right. More importantly, they underestimated the scale at which these voters would choose not to vote or to tactically vote for the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

Indeed, that is exactly what happened in several areas of England, including neighborhoods and suburbs with significant Muslim populations, such as the Birmingham suburbs and Manchester suburbs like Oldham, where Labour lost absolute control of the council because of the activists’ opposition to the Gaza war. It's worth noting that the UK’s largest urban centers, in terms of population, are Greater London, Greater Birmingham (West Midlands), and Greater Manchester (Northwest).

In conclusion, the Muslim vote first, and the Arab vote second, has had an impact on the Labour Party in major urban centers. Thus, neglecting these voters in the upcoming general elections would be a real gamble.