It’s an unusual city in that the Socialist Party hold seats on the council, and regularly out-poll most of the other “protest parties” in most city-wide seats. Local ex-MP Dave Nellist leads the Socialist group on the council, and is generally well thought of by friend and foe alike. This name recognition, coupled with a history of doing constant and consistent grassroots work and having a relatively strong presence in local trades unions (beyond the SP’s usual boltholes in Unison and the PCS), means that the SP are able to punch above their weight at election time. It also contributes to an atmosphere on the left that is qualitatively different to that in any other city – the SP have several times more members in Coventry than the Socialist Workers’ Party do, and I’m fairly sure that the far less acrimonious atmosphere on the local left, is not unconnected to this.
This is just one of the reasons why Coventry is not in the usual line of West Midlands cities, most of which have a more significant leftover working-class Tory vote than elsewhere in the UK. Although Coventry council is currently Tory controlled, this is extraordinarily aberrant in the city’s local politics (the last time having been a one-off in 1978), and furthermore on most figures I’ve seen, the decline of the local Labour vote begins almost exactly when the leadership of the local Labour group became more adamantly Blairite than previously.
The result of which is that (following a “palace coup” in the Labour group a few years ago) the Labour Party locally does everything it can to distance itself from Blairism, its group leader declaring at a hustings during this campaign that he had “never seen himself as New Labour”, and taking highly critical stances on Single Status amongst other disputes. Labour leaflets throughout the campaign banged home traditional themes about saving the NHS, fighting “Tory cuts”, positioning themselves as the party of added investment in schools, public services, as fighters against racism, all of those traditional issues that are music to the left’s ears.
Now, of course the left will say (with justification) that this is rank hypocrisy, these people support a government that has instituted all of the cuts and stealth privatisations of recent years, it’s easy to pose left when you’re in opposition, etcetera. However my point isn’t about how genuine this was. The point is that it worked. Labour gained four seats in Coventry last Thursday, their vote held up throughout the city, and they are now more buoyant than they have been for years.
The SP on the other hand, in spite of a gallant and fully committed campaign, lost the seat that they were defending in the “Socialist State of St Michael’s” to a Labour candidate whom they had beaten on a number of previous occasions, and were bested by the BNP in the two other wards where they stood. Whatever your opinion on working within or without of the Labour Party, I think you’d have to be saddened by this result – these people do spend the entire year doing legwork in the interests of working class people in one of the most deprived wards in the city. What’s more, they work with all communities rather than so-called “community leaders” within that ward as well. Seeing them slip back a little is always going to be a concern when they do a good job not only in and of themselves, but also in terms of pinning the Labour Party to a set of political stances that you won’t see expressed quite so vividly in most of the rest of the UK. The result does also raise concerns about next year, when it comes to Nellist’s turn to defend his seat: this was the first time in eight years that the SP have lost a straight one-on-one election to Labour in St Michael’s. That’s not so bad when the losing candidate is an unknown, but if Labour were to get the scalp of the one SP figure with instant name and face recognition across Coventry, the impact could be disastrous for the SP locally, and would also not make things look too rosy for the wider left.
What merely adds to the oddness of the result, is that the SP’s actual vote didn’t slip by more than 30. It was a significant rise in Labour support (not only in that ward, but city wide) made the difference. And this after one of the most left-wing Labour campaigns I’ve seen in a decade. Just goes to show that whatever Blairites may tell you, taking stances which at least pose to be in the interests of working people in cities and shouting them from the rooftops really is a vote-winner – unless of course Coventry is even more unusual than I’d thought.