Lindsey German on the Chesham and Amersham result and the forthcoming Unite leadership election
The Chesham and Amersham by-election result is amazing at a number of levels. Those on the left tend to focus on the truly catastrophic result for Keir Starmer’s Labour, beaten by the Greens to win only 662 votes (in a constituency where allegedly there are 600 Labour members). But the picture it’s worth considering first is that the Tories – who are riding high in the polls – lost a 16,000 majority and the Lib Dems went on to gain an 8,000 majority. That is a spectacular turnaround for any parliamentary constituency. It can only be explained by multiple causes of dissatisfaction.
I am sure that the issues of HS2 and the changes in planning regulations played a big part. There is a widespread feeling that HS2 is not only destructive of some beautiful countryside, but a highly disruptive, wildly expensive and completely useless elite project. The Tory plans for housebuilding are no doubt being opposed by some who don’t want their views spoiled, but opposition also reflects the failings of these projects, which lack proper infrastructure, and amenities build on green space and turn villages into dormitory towns for commuters.
However, neither of these alone can explain the scale of the Tory defeat. In all the commentary that I have read no one has mentioned the pandemic and its consequences. Indeed, the general view is that Johnson has enjoyed a ‘vaccine bounce’ up till now. The Lib Dem victory surely puts an end to that (and to Labour’s pathetic justification for its polling weakness). The by-election result must at least in part reflect the experience of the pandemic and lockdown for well over a year now, and the simmering resentments over nurses’ pay, the care homes disaster, the Tories’ cavalier attitude to lockdown, corrupt awarding of contracts and so much more.
This seems to be ignored by the commentators, but it is inconceivable that none of these factors played a part. Instead those like the BBC’s favourite pundit John Curtice still want to frame all election results in terms of remain or leave in the EU referendum. These debates may still play a part but surely 5 years after the vote when we have left the EU (with so far, much less effect on our everyday lives than the pandemic), it is hard to see them as central. After all, if this were the case in Amersham and Chesham, why was it not reflected in the 2019 election?
After the May local elections there was much talk about Labour doing badly in its traditional heartlands, but much less about bad performances in equivalent Tory areas. However, the Lib Dems, Labour and Greens won seats in a number of these areas, suggesting the sorts of discontent we are now seeing in Buckinghamshire.
All of this points to a disconnect between the opinion polls and the commentariat round Westminster and what is going on. This can partly be explained by the lack of any serious national opposition and particularly the complete failure of the Starmer project. To lose one by-election in a long-held Labour seat is a misfortune but to lose two looks like carelessness. Yet that is what is on the cards in Batley and Spen, the seat once held by Jo Cox, the MP murdered by a far-right killer. Her sister is now defending the seat but is under pressure from the Tories and also from George Galloway, who is winning Muslim votes from Labour, especially over the issue of Palestine.
An insulting briefing from Starmer’s team this weekend suggested that he was losing Muslim support because he had been tough on antisemitism. This is a racist slur against the Muslim community, suggesting that antisemitism is rife there. While a convenient lie, the real discontent among Muslims is fostered by a perception that Starmer’s Labour is not interested in dealing with Islamophobia, and is compromised on the questions of Kashmir and Palestine.
International issues play a role in domestic politics in an old imperialist country like Britain. However it would be wrong to assume that Britain’s Muslim community is only guided by such issues: overwhelmingly working class and often among the poorest, Muslim voters are as concerned as anyone else about health, education, housing and government spending cuts.
I don’t really see how Starmer can survive these losses. He has squandered a massive amount of goodwill from Labour members, including many on the left. He has had an incredibly easy ride from the normally hostile media. He has shown himself as narrow and petty, especially in his treatment of Jeremy Corbyn. He has surrounded himself with Blairite ghouls who have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing from the past two decades. And – decisively for a Labour politician – he cannot hold Labour seats or its share of the vote. That will make many of even his erstwhile allies unforgiving, because in the end Labour’s raison d’etre is winning elections.
Boris Johnson too should be very worried at this election result. It reveals a weakness of the Tories which has been hidden by the large parliamentary majority and the awfulness of Starmer. Which is why the talk of an early general election in which the Tories sweep all before them may well become more muted.
Unite elections: three’s a crowd
The elections for general secretary of Unite the Union are some of the most important in recent years. The danger of the right-wing candidate, Gerard Coyne, winning is a serious one. He came close to doing so in the last election against Len McCluskey, and may well do so again, especially if the left vote is split (there is no transferable vote system, which there should be). Fortunately, one of the three left candidates, Howard Beckett, has stood down in favour of his erstwhile rival, Steve Turner, who received by far the largest number of branch nominations, with an agreement that their two manifestos will be ‘blended’. All credit to Beckett for doing so, because to do otherwise is to risk the recent Unison scenario where the left candidates got more votes between them but the right winger won because of their split vote.
Unfortunately the third left candidate Sharon Graham has not done this so there will be two left candidates on the ballot paper. This is in my view a mistake. Coyne winning would be a serious defeat for the left, not just in Unite but across the labour movement. Unite has been associated with Corbynism and the left and Coyne would trample over that. His victory would have a great impact within the union, inside the Labour party where the right would rejoice at such an outcome, and where the attacks on everything Corbyn stood for would be redoubled. It would be demoralising for the left everywhere.
Graham does not seem to have cognisance of this. Indeed her response when Beckett and Turner declared their decision was to lump them in with Coyne as representing Westminster while she represented the workplace. That is a misunderstanding of their respective politics but also of the necessity of a wider political orientation by the union. Indeed her approach is too anti-political, which is dangerous. It suggests that union interests lie simply in the workplace – they do not – and that bothering with the politics of Labour or issues outside the workplace are simply a waste of time. That is wrong and can lead in quite right-wing directions.
Some on the left are supporting Graham because of this industrial orientation but are in danger of projecting their own wishes onto her – giving her what Lenin called ‘communist colouration’ that she does not have. All of us on the left recognise that we need a rise in struggle and stronger workplace organisation to rebuild working class strength and confidence. But that will not come from electing Graham it will come from the development and strengthening of the rank and file in the unions.
Such development will be greatly hampered by a Coyne win. Strikes and campaigns will find it harder to get support, Labour’s left will be further marginalised, and both Tory and Labour leaderships will see this as a victory. I very much support Steve Turner’s campaign – not on an uncritical basis but because I think he has played a very good role in the People’s Assembly in particular and because a victory for him will defeat the right and that is the central question at a time of left-wing retreat within the labour movement.
I would have been content to support any of the three candidates if one unity candidate had been agreed, whoever that was. The fact that Graham supporters seem unable to take this step is regrettable.
There will be a major People’s Assembly demonstration next weekend. The largest working-class demos in recent weeks have been over Palestine, not industrial issues. The movement will be rebuilt by a combination of industrial and political struggle. This election is part of that political struggle – and we should do everything that we can to make sure we win. I don’t see how Graham’s candidacy helps that.
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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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