From all of us in the city who didn’t vote UKIP, to all of you across the country, we’re sorry. Portsmouth rarely makes the national news, and when it does it is normally for either tragedy or farce – massive job losses or a local MP cavorting with a Russian spy, y’know that kind of thing. On the same day that the local paper, The News, ran a rave review of Jim Davidson’s recent gig at the King’s Theatre, we were informed that UKIP had run roughshod over the local political landscape.
The headline news was that UKIP had gained six council seats in the local election, taking out Mike Hancock in the process. Their gains came at the expense of all three major parties although it was the hapless Liberal Democrats who suffered most. But the headlines told only half the story. In addition to the six seats they won, they polled second in four other wards, and third in three more. Their poorest showing was in Central Southsea where they finished fourth. Across the 14 wards in which the local elections were contested they amassed 11,761 votes, more than either Labour or the Liberal Democrats.
Labour party group leader, John Ferret, warned of the “mayhem” to come, thus winning the soundbite of the night award. Which was nice, because Labour won sod all else. Despite the odd pockets of Labour Party resistance, recent local elections, in most wards across the city, have been a straight fight between the Tories and Lib Dems. Of the two coalition partners it was certainly the Conservatives who fared better, holding four seats and gaining another, even if it did send them to the very edge of a permutation-based meltdown. The sight of Donna Jones working out whether the Tories wanted to do a deal with UKIP or Labour or both must have sent shivers down Grant Shapps’ spine.
In comparison the Lib Dems held only three of their council seats and lost five. In part this is a result of their long-running, and on-going, implosion which began the moment they entered into government with the Tories. If you get a reputation as a shower of liars who jettison your principles at the merest sniff of power, it’s difficult to shake off, regardless of how many times you say, “in the national interest”. Of course, their troubles have an additional Portsmouth-specific dimension. Portsmouth South MP, Mike Hancock, may have resigned the Lib Dem whip after a string of scandal and allegation, but his name remains synonymous with the party locally. The Lib Dems are finding out that, both locally and nationally, shit sticks. It will be cold comfort that they still polled better than Labour.
Before the election I saw one Labour party member – a guy I’ve known for more than a decade and for whom I have a great deal of respect – say that any UKIP victories would come as a result of voter apathy. It seems a little cheeky to suggest that the electorate simply can’t be bothered: the onus is after all on politicos to persuade people to use their vote rather than harangue them for sitting disdainfully on the side lines. To be fair, I thought Sion Reynolds, the Labour candidate for the ward in which I live, ran a principled campaign, calling for money to be reinvested in Sure Start centres, the creation of apprenticeships in the city and a no eviction policy for those hit by the bedroom tax. He finished third; UKIP won.
Now you could blame this on the 24.5% turnout (or traditional voting patterns if it makes you feel better), or you could think outside the Charles Dickens box and cast a critical eye to the Labour leadership. Perhaps too many people think Ed Mili-bland is just not the kind of inspirational leader they want to get behind. Perhaps they still remember the wars, the tuition fees, the failure to repeal the anti-trade union laws from the previous Labour government; voters have long memories. Perhaps they’re put off by the austerity-lite package and the pseudo-marketing spiel in which it comes wrapped. You can speculate until Peter Mandelson freezes over but crying “Apathy!” just smacks of the old Berthold Brecht line about wanting to dissolve the people and elect a new one.
The truth is that in Portsmouth, as in so many working class towns and cities across the country, there is a profound belief that none of the three main parties are speaking for us. Unemployment is high, the job losses coming at the shipyard will have a devastating effect on the local economy. Once upon a time the local rag would carry a weekly pull-out supplement advertising hundreds of jobs; now the handful of available positions barely stretches to two pages. Things are so bad that the Coalition has sent down Michael Fallon to be the new Minister for Portsmouth. Yeah, cos there’s no problem on earth that can’t be solved by the addition of another Tory. For most people all the politicians look alike, sound alike and are all on the take. This is the context for UKIP’s local election results. Sean Hoyle, who stood for the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in Eastney & Craneswater, was right when he said that it was a vote for “none of the above”.
A protest vote can go left as well as right. Yet TUSC made no headway in Portsmouth, collecting votes that ranged from the barely acceptable to the simply embarrassing. By pursuing a strategy of standing a candidate in every single ward they spread their resources so thin as to barely register in most places. Even in the Charles Dickens and Central Southsea wards they hardly troubled the tellers at the count, and these are areas in which the left (in the guises of Respect and the Socialist Alliance) has previously achieved respectable results of around 200 votes. Speaking as someone who has, in the past, campaigned and written election leaflets for TUSC candidates, I can’t see the marriage of convenience between the SWP, SP and the RMT’s bank balance making much progress in the future.
Over the coming weeks and months there will no doubt be a school of thought that says UKIP’s success, in Portsmouth and around the country, was a flash in the pan.; their newly elected councillors will crash and burn. It’s a possibility, but for those of us repulsed by UKIP’s racism and long-tired of Nigel Farage peddling his “I’m not a privately educated, ex-investment banker, I’m just a geez, like you, innit” schtick, we can’t sit back and wait with such complacency. I don’t for a minute believe that we can change the world by getting the right people elected to the right positions, but the left badly needs an organisation that will have an impact at elections. The best bet in my opinion is Left Unity, although the road ahead looks long and fraught with difficulty.
In the meantime the political battles continue, even if our two minutes of democracy have come to an end for another year.
The next meeting of Portsmouth Socialist Network is this coming Wednesday 28th May at 8pm in the Oasis Venue on Arundel Street. You can find more details here.