Labour's by-election success in Peterborough is a vindication of the Corbyn project, argues Richard Allday
No matter how the anti-Corbyn lobby try to spin it, Labour’s victory in the Peterborough by-election has vindicated the candidate’s decision to campaign on the real, material problems caused by austerity in the constituency, and has proved a severe setback for all those fainthearts who have been advising Corbyn to ditch his radicalism, ditch his advisors, ditch his relationship with Len McCluskey and Unite, the union - in fact, ditch everything that separates his politics from the bland elitism of the Westminster suits, and embrace the Blairite recidivists advocating a second referendum, ’sensible’ policies and a return to the business-as-usual gravy train.
Well, we now have a chance to evaluate the ‘electoral suicide pact’ that Campbell and his ilk claim Corbynism to be, and it turns out their fears were misplaced. So that’s the 2017 general election that they called wrong, and now the Peterborough by-election has blown up in their faces. Anyone less deluded or arrogant than Campbell, Hodge, Streeting, etc. might have the humility to admit their error … sorry, I must have dozed off there and slipped into dreamland.
Despite reports that “Labour scraped home”, in fact Lisa Forbes won with an increased majority (683 this time, 607 in 2017) on a lower turnout (48% this time, 66.7% in 2017). Slim, undoubtedly, but remember, this was a Labour candidate facing an uphill battle from day one. The previous (Labour) MP was removed from office after a criminal conviction, so Lisa had to overcome the taint associated with that; and the press combined with the Tories, Farage and the right wing of Labour to try and make Brexit the sole topic of the campaign. Secondly, the Tories prior to the 2017 election had regarded Peterborough as ‘theirs’ – Peterborough had never before returned a Labour MP under a Tory administration. It was in no sense a given that Labour should expect to win it this time.
Thirdly, both locally and nationally, the press had been giving a massive plug to “the peoples’ bigot”, had tried to turn it into a Leave/Remain fight, and had derided Corbyn’s Labour Party as being neither one thing nor the other.
On top of this, Lisa is a Unite activist and the union strongly supported her campaign (as she strongly supports Unite’s policies); McCluskey had personally endorsed her candidature (the kiss of death according to the Blairites), and she quite clearly based her campaign on opposition to austerity. As with Corbyn in the 2017 general election, Lisa focused her campaign on the misery caused by Tory cuts and the need for a government ‘for the many not the few’, and it touched a chord.
Ian Maidlow (Unite’s senior fulltime officer in Peterborough, and Political Officer for the union) said that Labour was helped "by having a very strong working-class candidate in Lisa Forbes, with an excellent track record in fighting local cuts and opposing austerity. She refused to allow the Leave/Remain argument to poison the campaign, and she has been vindicated". He also points out that, although the party nationally threw resources at the by-election, that there was a good turn out on the ground from lay activists, and ‘like talking to like’ is a massive boon for any political party.
The pundits and the labour right pitched this as a test case, confident Labour would stumble. In large part, their confidence that Labour would lose this election was based on their ignorant and prejudiced view that working class Leave voters are knuckle-dragging racists who will respond to dog-whistle politics. Peterborough has shown them their bigoted and elitist assessment of us is just that: bigoted and elitist. It also demonstrates that whether you voted Leave or Remain, we still need houses, schools and hospitals, decent jobs and a healthy environment, and if we concentrate on uniting to achieve these, our differences can fall into perspective.
This emphasis on finding common ground is also the best response to the vile politics of Farage’s Brexit party. He abandoned UKIP allegedly because they had moved too far to the right, with their open racism and overt Islamophobia, but that his core support is as deeply imbued with racism as ever is demonstrated by The Brexit party’s allegation that ‘Labour won because it relied on the Pakistani vote’. Which just goes to show that, for the Brexit party, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve lived here, if you don’t fit their nineteenth century view of proud Albion, they are not going to accept you.
The size of the Farage vote should serve as a wake up call to the left in general. It shows the potential for a populist right to tap into the anger of those who feel completely ignored by the establishment. The only effective antidote to this is to offer them an alternative from the left that both addresses the real grievances, and points to the real causes. Whether they wish it or not, those who argue for Corbyn to become more ‘moderate’ in the mistaken belief it will make him more electable, are actually selling the pass to the alt right.
In summary, Peterborough is a vindication of the Corbyn project, and an argument for ramping up the fight against austerity, not toning it down.
Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage. A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.
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