The Labour Party in Swindon maintained its ‘strength’ on the Council, losing one seat and gaining another. Yet that leaves them with 12 seats compared to the Tories 42. The scale of the decline of Labour locally is given perspective when you consider that even at the height of the Thatcher government Labour maintained control of Swindon, or Thamesdown as it was then.
The seat that the Tories took off of Labour was described as ‘historic’, for they won a seat in Parks, a big Council estate which was built in the 1950’s. The Tory victory on Parks – they took one of the two seats, Labour winning the other – was historic insofar as this is the first Tory ever elected in the constituency. The Tory victor was a self-employed plumber, whilst the long standing Councillor who hung on to his seat, is a manager in a civil service fringe body (he and his partner bought their Council house).
The very idea of a Tory being elected on Parks would have been laughed out of town until the last few years. It was one of those areas where it was said that you could stand a monkey for Labour and it would get elected. Yet today even the winning Labour candidate was only 69 votes ahead of the Tory elected.
There are local reasons for the degree of Labour’s decline in Swindon, not least the ineptitude of the local leadership when it still had a small majority on the Council, and since the Tories took over. But, of course, it is the alienation of traditional Labour voters by 10 years of the New Labour government which is the decisive factor. Having said that the remaining Labour councillors have shown not the least inclination or political courage to speak out against their government’s policy, at least in public. Two of them did join a Defend Council Housing lobby a couple of years ago (one of them subsequently left the Party, though not from a left wing standpoint) but there has been no call for the right to build Council housing one again. They have complained that the Tories don’t build sufficient ‘affordable housing’ despite the fact that their own government has been seeking to eradicate Council housing and has maintained the effective ban on building new Council housing.
This refusal to say anything critical about their government, the absence of a call for it to change direction, means that it is very difficult for them to present any substantial policy differences with the Tories. Indeed the Tory Council when criticised by Swindon Labour is able to say, but we are only iplementing your government’s policy.
This local situation presents real problems for the trades unions, of course, with the Tories holding such a large majority, and weak union organisation. As to the situation of the socialist left I will deal with that in the separate post.
Finally, how could a Tory get elected on Parks? The estate is one of the three most impoverished wards in the town. Quite a number of people will have been hit by the removal of the 10% tax rate; probably more than should strickly be the case because given the age profile of the population many people would find applying for means tested benefits degrading. That reflects the national situation where it is estimated that somewhere between £4 and 8 billion of Tax Credits were unclaimed last year.
What was the Labour Group leader’s comment? “We did very well.”