Broken Britain

Birmingham City Council House by Derek Bennett

CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Trevor Fisher warns that big poll leads can evaporate and says Labour needs to go on the front foot to counter Tory narratives on the financial crises of local councils

Starting to write a political blog on 9th September with the Last Night of the Proms ringing out is surreal and telling. While Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia are fixtures after an irrational campaign by the hard right during the Covid lockdown, today they make no sense at all. The British have come to realize that the future is grim. And Labour does not know how to offer a progressive alternative to Broken Britain.

A poll released by Byline Times on behalf of pollsters We Think in the first week of September revealed alarming degrees of disillusionment with the Tories: to which Labour has yet to respond. The sustained poll leads are similar to those in 1992 (Kinnock) and 2015 (Miliband) both of which ended in defeat – Major scoring the highest vote in history in 1992 at over 14 million, higher than either Thatcher or Blair achieved.  Fear this will be repeated clearly dominates the leadership.

In 1991, a year before the election, Labour saw its opinion poll lead dwindle after Major replaced Thatcher and the big leads Kinnock had over Thatcher vanished, aided by the disasters of the War of Jennifer’s Ear and Sheffield Speech. For the  2015 campaign  Miliband started with a lead of seven points sixteen months before the election which dwindled to nothing and on the day saw an increased turn out of Tory voters – the Tories got 11.30 million, Labour only 9.35 million, and the Lib Dems collapsed from a handsome 6.84 million in 2010 to a pathetic 2.42 million. Fear of another coalition with the SNP calling the shots led to people voting for David Cameron. Miliband lost votes north and south of the Scots border failing to demonstrate an adequate response.

In advance of a possible October 2024 election, Labour is 21 points ahead in an averaged poll which is good, but not as good as Blair had in 1996, when Labour was regularly 26 points ahead.  While the Tories can hold on to December 12th – technically they can hold off till January 2025 but a campaign over Christmas would be suicidally stupid.

While polls in 2015 offered Miliband hope of winning, even in 2014 the lead looked fragile. Chris Mullin recalls in his diaries an encounter with Nick Brown, the former chief whip sacked by Miliband. Mullin, who had left parliament in 2010 asked Brown his prediction, and Brown forecast that in seven months time, when the election was due, a Cameron-Osborne ticket would beat Miliband-Balls. He was right.

Will Labour Lose Its Poll Lead?

In the fourteen months gap between mid September 2023 and December 2024 there is much that could change. But on the key indicators, notably the economy and industrial relations, the Tories are locked into long term problems, and with a cabinet team making gaffes a way of life, Sunak has a mountain to climb. However, on a new area – council competence – the Tories have hopes of exposing Labour to growing unpopularity based on financial crises and internal problems. The two first councils under Labour control to declare potential bankruptcy – Birmingham and Stoke on Trent – both on Tuesday 5th September – showed pitfalls and possibilities.

Birmingham gained national headlines, partly due to being the largest authority in England and also as being subject to Labour intervention, Starmer getting the NEC to intervene to remove the leader. He took the advice of Labour MP for Ladywood, Shabana Mahmood, at that time Labour’s Campaign Co-ordinator, a post she lost in the September 2023 reshuffle when she was appointed Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Justice. While it is too early to say how the financial crisis in Birmingham will play out, the Daily Mail immediately pointed out the new leader was Starmer’s appointment, which was unfair as he had inherited problems from the previous administration.  Fairness and the Daily Mail are too different things, but the NEC intervening in the affairs of a council is dubious politics.

The other council in trouble is Stoke on Trent, and its invisibility is curious, given it is a city of a quarter of a million people and three parliamentary constituencies.  One leading local activist said this was a mercy, as national media cannot apportion blame fairly for the council crisis. The Daily Mail’s obsessional coverage of Birmingham since the announcement supports this view, but the fact that 26 councils are in trouble with a 5-billion-pound debt cannot be concealed indefinitely. The role that the local government crisis will play in the run up to the election will be significant and rebutting Tory attacks will be vital.

Return To Instant Rebuttal?

Whatever else can be said about New Labour, instant rebuttal was successful. As most of the councils in trouble will be Labour councils, it will be easy to blame the local politicians. How these attacks can be rebutted is suggested by Stoke.  In Stoke the basic problems of inflation and increasing demands for social welfare are made more difficult to solve as this is one of the poorest towns in England.

Of 98 councils it has the second lowest average council tax partly because its housing stock is so poor.

More than 90% of the houses are in bands A B and C, the lowest bands yielding the lowest tax. Stoke simply cannot raise enough money from council tax to make a difference. National finance has to be made available. This argument can be won, and the onus put on national government. Whether Labour is going to want to go down this route is another matter.

The case has to be made. Anyone for instant rebuttal?

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