As safe seats become marginal ones before our very eyes, Lindsey German makes short work of the media voodoo and suggests a plan
What are the important issues to come out of the by election results?
1The most important thing is that Ukip was defeated in Stoke, despite claims that it was poised to win Labour seats. Its vote at 25% is far too high, nonetheless this should mark the end of the claims that it is in a strong position. In fact, since the referendum Ukip has been in crisis, and its support has not grown. The fact that Paul Nuttall, its leader, was exposed as a fantasist is a symptom of that, not a cause. This crisis will be exacerbated by the Stoke result, and by the fall in votes in Copeland. Ukip’s failure is despite a very real atmosphere of racism at present, and despite the best efforts of the BBC to promote the party at every opportunity. Imagine the crowing today if Labour had held Copeland but lost Stoke to the far right.
2Labour’s main challenger is the Tories who in the shape of Theresa May have positioned themselves as helping working people. This break with Cameron means she is able to do well at least temporarily but this is unlikely to last. Issues such as the NHS, wages, further cuts, and falling living standards are ones that Labour must focus on to win its support. It has been badly damaged by internal attacks, the latest being Mandelson’s claim that he campaigns against Corbyn’s leadership every day.
3The defeat in Copeland is a blow to Labour but not altogether surprising. The constituency was already a marginal, the Tories are well ahead in the polls, the issue of nuclear power is central and there were fears over jobs. The former MP, Blairite Jamie Reed, must surely take some responsibility for this loss, presiding as he did over a declining Labour vote and leaving midterm for a lucrative job. Indeed, the biggest fall in the Labour vote came between 1997 and 2001, not between 2015 and now. We forget now that Blair’s landslide of 1997 was never replicated even before the Iraq war, as disillusionment with him set in.
4The same is true with Tristram Hunt in Stoke. He already had the distinction of having the lowest turnout anywhere in the country, he cleared off to head up the Victoria and Albert Museum and again presided over decline having been parachuted into a Labour safe seat despite local opposition. His former aide Gareth Snell is now the MP, despite insulting those who voted Brexit, who include a sizeable majority of the citizens of Stoke.
5Labour has big problems with its base, regardless of its leader. We have seen this most dramatically in Scotland. There has been a very long term trend of declining Labour votes, not just in areas such as Stoke but in the big cities as well. There are a variety of reasons for this but one is the failure of Labour governments and local councils to deliver real change, and indeed to often be the agency of delivering worsening living conditions. Another is Labour’s long term commitment to a neoliberal agenda which attacks working people. The first past the post system tends to hide this phenomenon.
6Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is an attempt to break with this past and with Labour’s decline but it faces big obstacles. One is the determination of most MPs and the party apparatus to continue with the neoliberal agenda. Another is the neoliberal consensus especially in the media which is increasingly pro Tory. But a further reason is the inability of Labour to deliver in the face of this onslaught, which means that fewer and fewer people believe that it can do so.
7The dominant establishment political agenda is pro austerity, deeply racist against migrants and Muslims, and bitterly opposed to any change from below. This is not going to be challenged mainly from parliament, despite the best efforts of the Corbyn leadership. Instead it must find expression in action – whether strikes, campaigns or protests – which challenge this consensus and which can begin to change consciousness. Only this can help rebuild support for the kind of left wing policies which the Corbyn leadership espouses.
8These elections were not mainly about Brexit, which was a one-off vote, but about a range of issues which are explicable in their own terms. They should at the very least mark the end of seeing Brexit voters as one reactionary mass of mindless racists, although that may be too hopeful. The Corbyn position on Brexit was correct in accepting the basic verdict of the vote. The Libdems who are against triggering article 50 did not show any real benefit in these elections, and the Green vote fell.
9Jeremy Corbyn should be supported by the left in and outside Labour in his continued leadership. No one has his record on his consistent support for extra parliamentary movements, and no one has his continuing appeal to large sections of the membership. There is no Plan B for the left in terms of leadership. Any replacement would rapidly be another Miliband or worse – and let’s remember that’s where Labour’s weakness was really exposed in 2015.
Socialists should support the left leadership, but we shouldn’t rely on the parliamentary game. That needs in itself to be much more radical, but we need the movements outside parliament to force government change
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’.
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