Crushing defeats for the Tories in Tiverton and Wakefield show Johnson’s Brexit electoral coalition that gave him victory in 2019 is disintegrating. Brexit voters in the South West opposed to the Liberal Democrats’ Remain stance and Wakefield Labour voters opposed to the party’s Brexit position helped give Johnson his premiership. Today the Brexit rhetoric is crumbling in the midst of airport chaos, unpicked crops rotting in the fields, shortages in the shops and the worsening economic position of the country compared with Europe. The golden age that leaving Europe was supposed to usher in has failed to arrive as we face the worse cost of living crisis for many years.
Since the partygate crisis has worsened 40% of his MPs voted against him, Johnson has doubled down in trying to recreate that reactionary electoral bloc. The brutal dumping of refugees in Rwanda, the attacks on the European Court of Human rights, the ridiculous idea of bringing back imperial measures and more recently the deliberate escalation of the conflict with the rail workers were all attempts to win back his base. Such policies made no difference when people were asked to vote for or against the government on Thursday.
Even the opinion polls have registered a shift in people’s attitudes on these issues. Support for the racist Rwanda policy is less than one might expect. When the media carry out their vox pop exercises on the Rail strike more often or not they are obliged to record support for the strikers. From trying to demonise RMT leader, Mick Lynch, as some sort of evil Marxist, the media have been obliged to recognise the union leader’s command of his brief and ability to run rings around media pundits and Tory ministers. The right-wing Spectator even lionised him in an article. One national opinion poll gave a majority supporting the strikers. Hugh Laurie, the well-known actor and no leftie, has tweeted praise for him.
It is not clear that the Tory plan of upping the ante by bringing in scab agency labour will work in their favour. It might even create more sympathy for the strikers. In a context where the majority of working people are seeing big hits to their living costs, it is easier to build solidarity with the rail strikers and indeed with industrial action in other sectors. All the positivity about the essential workers in the public sector during the pandemic is making it more difficult for Johnson to drive a wedge between them and his supporters.
Oliver Dowden, Conservative party chairman, resigned almost immediately after the results were declared. This could be the most significant immediate fall-out. Party chairman do not usually resign after such by-election debacles. They spin the line – with some justification – that by-election defeats do not always lead to government defeats in the next general election. Here the resignation letter refers to disquiet in the Tory party about ‘recent events’ which is a clear reference to the rising Tory concern about Johnson’s leadership. At the end of the letter, he pointedly reiterates his continuing loyalty to the Tory party rather than to Johnson. Dowden is the first minister to quit since the vote of confidence was narrowly won by Johnson. The media is correctly interpreting this as someone deserting the sinking ship.
Tory MPs have hung on to Johnson not because they think he is a paragon of virtue or honesty – far from it – but because he was seen as having that electoral magic that could keep them their seats even in a very divided and crisis-ridden country. These by-election results are so bad that it is will increase the feeling among MPs and activists that the party can only have a chance of winning the next election with a change of leader. Wakefield was always marginal and might have been priced in as an inevitable loss given the difficulties of the energy crisis and post-pandemic pressures.
But to lose by the biggest by-election swing in electoral history in Tiverton is another matter. This area of the South West made up of farms and small towns is the Tory heartland. It has been since time began. Johnson won in 2019 because he won against the remaining Liberal Democrats in this region. The Lib Dems have been historically strong in this area. There is a huge swathe of seats the Tories will lose to the Liberal Democrats if this swing was repeated, even on a lower level, in the next general election.
Labour’s decisive win in Wakefield, with a 5000 vote majority will strengthen Keir Starmer’s position. There had been rumblings in the party, including from his Blairite backers, about his performance. He gave a bizarre underwhelming response to Johnson’s no-confidence vote both in the media and at the prime minister’s questions. Starmer’s condemnation of the railworkers’ strike and banning of any front bench MPs going to support picket lines did not go down very well, even among some of his supporters. His condemnation, yet vague concern for the need for a ‘fair settlement’, combined with accusing the government of being responsible lacked the clarity and coherence of Mick Lynch’s interventions. Like his anguished plea at the shadow cabinet for the colleagues to stop calling him boring his pulling back of frontbenchers from picket lines just drew attention to his cackhanded political inexperience.
The Labour leadership has always managed to scab on big industrial disputes (e.g.Kinnock and the miners) while allowing its MPs to let off a bit of steam by appearing at picket lines. Wes Streeting, the darling of the Blairites, must have got some inside information that maybe the Durham police were going to issue a fine to Sir Keir so he appeared at a picket. If you want to be the next leader you have to get some union support. Once the edict came down from the leader’s office of course Wes jumped back into line, apologising for his lack of understanding of the party line.
In his immediate post-electoral statement Starmer emphasised several times how it was the work that has been done in sorting out the Labour Party that has brought the victory. Labour had reconnected with voters and moved on i.e. Corbynism is dead and look at us winning back the red wall. The depth of unpopularity of this government at the moment is such that voters were voting Labour because they opposed Johnson, not because they had been inspired by Starmer’s vision statement on security, prosperity and respect.
Undoubtedly the informal Lib-Lab non-aggression pact where the party does not put resources into unwinnable seats in return for the Liberals doing the same where Labour are the real challenger to the Tories functioned effectively. It is an indictment of an unfair first past the post system but it is an element that surely makes a Labour government increasingly probable after the next election. Perhaps not with an outright majority but the Tories are very unlikely to win. True, under Kinnock Labour won two stunning by-elections but Major still won the following general election. However this time it feels much more like the run-up to the Blair victory in 97. This time the economic conditions are only going to get worse for working people.
For the left in the Labour party and elsewhere it is good to see the Tories roundly defeated. It is also better for the movement to have even a moderate Starmer government than another bout of the Tories.
However, the task of developing an anti-capitalist alternative to both the Tories and to Starmer remains the key question. It requires that socialists build networks inside and outside Labour along with environmental activists which can carry forward struggles like the rail strike or closing down polluting incinerators at Enfield.
A political discussion is also necessary that draws the lessons from the Corbyn defeat and works out how to build the organisation we need to challenge the power of capital. Such an organisation will be neither a Labour Party ‘captured’ for socialism nor the simple transformation of the existing left groups outside Labour. Our mission in Anti-Capitalist Resistance is to contribute to that practical work and discussion.
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