Lindsey German reflects on Thursday’s voting and its implications for Starmer and the union
Starmer certainly knows how to lose voters and fail to influence people. Just a day after his humiliating defeat in the Hartlepool by-election his decision to sack Angela Rayner opened a new civil war within the party. His panicky and ill-timed move managed to overshadow a series of results which played much better for Labour, thus ensuring the takeaway from the very mixed election results would be all about defeat and division. Only a truly forensic mind could achieve that double-whammy.
Sir Keir’s knifework, plus leaks that even the loyal shadow cabinet members Anneliese Dodds and Lisa Nandy will be demoted or sacked in favour of Jess Phillips and Wes Streeting, tells you that the unreconstructed Blairites are in the driving seat and want war with the left. Peter Mandelson (and who thought it was a clever move to involve him in the Hartlepool election?) made this clear speaking just after the result: to blame were Covid and Corbyn, and that Labour had only been successful under Tony Blair. The uncomfortable facts are that Labour votes in Hartlepool fell from their level under Corbyn, and that a Channel 4 News poll showed Starmer as the most frequent reason given for not voting Labour.
If anyone should take responsibility for this loss (and the loss of hundreds of council seats) it should be the leader. Instead he’s turning on everyone else in a move which shows how weak and despicable he is. I have little time for Angela Rayner, who has been part of the witch-hunting of the left in the past year, but it is ludicrous to blame her for this.
It’s obvious Keir Starmer is a disaster for Labour and that’s unlikely to change. I will predict now that he will not fight the next general election but will be challenged before then. The Labour leadership’s fixation on winning back ‘red wall’ voters has ended in failure. The obsession with flags in Hartlepool to the extent of putting out a St George’s day leaflet clearly failed – right wing flag wavers preferred the real thing, and left wingers were turned off by it. When people in the north east and elsewhere say that they feel patronised and ignored by Labour they are right. Do Starmer’s team think working class people are fools who will be taken in by him awkwardly holding a pint?
There was a big Labour abstention in many areas and very low turnouts for votes – this is partly explained by traditional Labour voters being disillusioned but also by many on the left refusing to vote for Starmer. Labour won in London, but the Tories’ Shaun Bailey ran him quite close. Unlike most of the other incumbent mayors he didn’t increase his majority. Some of the opposition to Khan is clearly racist, but much of it is because he does little, tacks to the right, and does not lead big campaigns against Tory attacks – most noticeably over Transport for London.
The Tories’ success in the north east and west Midlands should be of serious concern to Labour because it is clear that in those areas particularly, Labour voters do have somewhere else to go – some are prepared to vote Tory but still more just go on strike and won’t vote. Who can blame them given that Labour is not offering them anything? Where Labour was more successful – especially in Greater Manchester and Wales – the candidates had a high profile and had been identified in however limited a way with standing up to the government.
Andy Burnham in Manchester made the point that he won all the ‘red wall’ seats in Greater Manchester which elected Tory MPs in 2019, such as Leigh and Bury. Labour won similar seats in north Wales. Maybe this has something to do with visibly putting forward arguments and challenging the government over Covid-19. Culture wars are used as an explanation for the results, but this is over simplistic and needs unpacking – why did Labour do well in Wales which includes many areas similar to the north east? Labour winning seats in Tory Worthing can’t just be down to young latte drinking graduates.
Class needs bringing into the equation here – and I’m not talking about the false distinction between the ‘white working class’ in the places like Hartlepool and those in the big cities. The working class exists as the majority in both places and there should be sufficient issues in common to unite them on questions of importance: secure jobs, concern about housing, poverty, climate change. That was what Jeremy Corbyn tried to do in 2017 with some success. Part of Labour’s problem now is that it is terrified of looking like Corbyn so it hasn’t noticed that many Tory policies include state spending, creation of jobs and investment projects. The popular Teesside Tory mayor saved the local airport by taking it into public ownership – something Starmer would be too frightened to do. Labour has refused to get behind a decent pay rise for the nurses or attack the fire and rehire policies being pushed by employers.
This is ignored by the pundits who try to paint these results as still about the Brexit referendum. Again there is some truth to this, but it begs the question of whether that vote was itself a symptom and reflection of earlier divisions and discontents. The Tories seem to have hoovered up some of the far-right votes. The People’s Vote campaign and Labour’s second referendum policy obviously did huge damage in areas where there was a strong Leave vote – not least because people there felt ignored.
Everyone also seems to be ignoring local factors - Labour councils are implementing Tory cuts with no serious opposition to their policies and no attempt to get the public behind them in campaigning. So if you’re in say Doncaster, you are seeing terrible cuts in services, real poverty and inequality, and blame the council and MPs. The north east of England in particular has been a stronghold of right-wing Labour, providing once safe seats for Blair, Mandelson, Miliband and other Blairites. As in Scotland, the decline has been dramatic but a long time coming, as Labour took its voters for granted.
This should be a turning point for Labour, but it won’t be. Starmer will double down – leading to increasingly bitter fighting internally and, at best, voter apathy and disdain externally. So these results – despite their better elements – should be seen as part of Labour’s long, slow and painful decline. Already we have seen wipeout in Scotland for the party, with the SNP the main beneficiary. The Greens have also done well in this election, although they don’t present any kind of radical alternative of the sort put forward by Corbyn’s Labour.
The far right made little showing in this election. But we only have to look at Spain this week and the upcoming election in France to see how such ideas can fill the vacuum created by disillusionment with the failings of traditional social democracy. They should be a warning to the left: Labour will not bring about change and we have to build struggles outside parliament to create that.
Can Boris Scotch independence?
The whole political climate is different in Scotland. Here the SNP came very close to winning an outright majority and will have a clear pro-independence majority alongside the Greens. This is a source of some difficulty for the Tories who are saying that they will not allow a referendum in Scotland despite this majority. But that isn’t a tenable position long term and does not begin to deal with the issues around independence. Labour is foolishly sticking with its unionist position which will alone prevent it from rebuilding in the country and there is the unpleasant spectacle of all the main parties vetoing even the right to vote on this question.
We have seen the Spanish state repression against the Catalans, which is an affront to democracy in Europe. Sturgeon will not take such radical moves towards independence. Indeed she is talking about legal challenges and drumming up international support (i.e. from governments) rather than mass defiance.
I don’t know how a referendum would go but I do know that Scottish people should have the right to decide whether they want to stay part of the United Kingdom. That is a basic principle, and I personally would welcome the break-up of the union – which among other things would lead to a united Ireland. There are major implications here for the British ruling class and its favoured party, and this will be bitterly resisted. It threatens among other things not only Irish unionism but the siting of Trident and Britain’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
There are two major points that socialists north and south of the border should take up. We should be showing solidarity with strikes, campaigns and struggles across border divisions, making the point that the working class of all nations have more in common than divides them. We should also demand from the British unions that they support Scotland’s right to vote on this. The unions have not taken a good position on Scottish independence – partly because of Labour’s bad position, partly because they know it divides union members. They should not line up behind Johnson’s manoeuvres, which will only help strengthen the Tories as it did in 2014.
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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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