Sir Keir Starmer in Westminster, July 2020. Photo: Wikimedia/US Dept. of State Sir Keir Starmer in Westminster, July 2020. Photo: Wikimedia/US Dept. of State

Lindsey German on the triple by-election fallout

The by-election results are more important for what they say about the losers than the winners. The most central fact is that the Tories lost very badly. Two of its supposedly safe seats, in Somerton and Frome in the West Country, and Selby and Ainsty in Yorkshire, were lost to the Lib Dems and Labour respectively. The third, Boris Johnson’s former constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in west London, was held by a tiny majority (indeed the Green vote amounted to more than the difference between the two main parties).

But there were problems for Labour here too. Labour’s failure to win the seat following the disgrace of Johnson and the unpopularity of the Tories is being put down to mass discontent with Mayor of London Sadiq Khan’s Ulez scheme – the ultra-low emissions zone which is being extended from inner London to the whole of the Greater London area from next month.

Much commentary centres on the idea that people in Uxbridge ‘like their cars’, and that they resent ‘green taxes’. Much less talked about is that this is an outrageously high tax aimed overwhelmingly at working-class people who can’t afford new cars. Nor is there any consideration of the fact that public transport in outer London is much poorer than in the inner city and that it is hard to get across London as opposed to getting in and out of the centre. So many people rely on having cars to get to work.

There is nothing wrong with extending the scheme in principle and many reasons why emissions from traffic need to be curtailed. But the zone will charge those with older diesel cars £12.50 a day for the privilege of driving to work, visiting sick relatives or just getting to see people. The scrappage scheme is completely inadequate and people in outer London are finding themselves facing a big pay cut on top of the cost of living crisis and falling wages.

So the Tories cleverly turned this into a referendum on Ulez and narrowly squeaked home. They ignored all other issues that the Tories supposedly campaign on. Labour’s response has been predictable – the candidate publicly opposed the Ulez extension in the hope that this would win him the seat, and Starmer has now himself questioned whether it should go ahead. This opportunism won’t do any good for Starmer coming as it does on top of the dumping of so many of his other pledges – but he is obsessed with dealing with any right wing argument by capitulating to it.

He could for example point out that the idea for the Ulez came from former mayor Boris Johnson and that the extension of it and the congestion charge were demanded by the Tories to deal with income shortfalls for Transport for London.

It has to be said however that the defeat for Labour does also say something about Keir Starmer’s impact and strategy. In fact the Labour vote in Uxbridge went down by several thousand compared with the Corbyn results on 2017 and 2019, which can only partly be explained by lower turnout. And the notable factor in all the by-elections was mass Tory abstention, not enthusiasm for Labour.

Because if there were real enthusiasm for Labour, its electoral chances could not be derailed by a single issue. If it stood up for those on universal credit and opposed the ‘two child’ policy, if it demanded nationalisation of the private utilities like Thames Water, if it supported a rent freeze for tenants, then it would win easily. When it sounds like a pale version of the Tories and refuses to spend the money needed to even begin to deal with the myriad problems facing working-class people, then it loses to a bunch of Tory chancers.

The top-down Fabian style imposition of policies on working-class people is much more unpopular than the media and politicians make out. There is so little control in working-class lives that the feeling that some anonymous body is making people do things they don’t want or shouldn’t have to do is very strong – alongside the feeling that they are being patronised by people who remind them (correctly) of their managers. While the idea of taxing the rich and the corporations is greeted with horror by both main parties, imposing a regressive tax on working-class people is just fine.

If Labour can’t win Uxbridge in these circumstances it demonstrates that Labour is seen as at best distant from the working class and that it has no real alternatives to the Tories. This is not just a personal failing of Starmer – although he is so wooden and lacking in empathy it can’t help – but a failure of the managerial approach which constantly tells working-class people it knows best.

This allows an opening for those who constantly want to define issues as culture wars or about ‘woke’ politics. The right wing get an audience because they are – to be honest – sometimes more aware of these discontents than the left. But of course they have no solutions. We do need to deal with traffic and pollution, we do need people to drive much less, we do need to be acutely concerned about climate change.

But that requires above all major investment in alternatives – good and affordable public transport, a reduction in commuting which is the most extensive in Europe, housing in London which is near work and leisure activities and which doesn’t cost one third to one half of income, as so many pay. Instead, the authorities repeatedly promote cycling and walking (much cheaper than the investment needed in public transport of course) – good for those who can and want to do it, but not an alternative for many. When it is accompanied with a sense of liberal superiority then it is widely resented and quite rightly.

Starmer has no understanding of this. Last week he plummeted to new lows with his refusal to pledge to extend universal credit to all children. Polling shows that he personally has suffered from this in the last fortnight. His scandalous policy has in turn led to the Newcastle metro mayor Jamie Driscoll announcing he is leaving Labour and standing as an independent.

He immediately received over £100k in donations for his campaign and it will certainly be a focus for the left in Tyneside as will hopefully an independent candidacy by Jeremy Corbyn in Islington North.

The main parties will double down on their policies following the by-elections – Labour will retreat further from green policies, further alienating sections on the left. Sunak will hold on to the Uxbridge result to maintain his weak and ineffective government for another year, hoping that Starmer will be spooked into even further retreats. In addition, the Tories will try to use single issues to win support – not least through scapegoating over race.

The needs for an alternative socialist politics has never been greater – but Starmer is driving in exactly the opposite direction.

This week: I will be speaking at a memorial lecture commemorating respected socialist Dave Gibson in Barnsley on Saturday 29 July. Please join to hear tributes, an RMT striker and me on 20 years since the Iraq war.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.