Labour’s wins by‑elections, but rubbish in Rochdale

Dave Kellaway examines five key takeaways from the by-election results in Kingswood and Wellingborough and the chaos in the upcoming contest in Rochdale.


Tories still heading for a general election defeat.

A recent poll, an outlier, suggested that following the Starmer U-turn on the £28 billion green energy plan, there was a 7-point drop in Labour’s support. The recent election results point to this being a blip. Labour continues (particularly with the Wellingborough result) to achieve some of the highest by-election swings since the Second World War. More recent polls, even after the mess the leadership made for itself over its Rochdale candidate, still give it a 20-point lead. The continuing depth of the cost of living crisis, especially increased mortgages, a precarious rental sector and continued high food and energy costs, means people are still suffering. An easing of the inflation rate does not recover what has already been lost from your income. Sunak’s pledges on growth—we are now officially in a recession, albeit a shallow one—and failure to even dent the soaring waiting list for hospital care show even his cautious pledges are not going to be achieved this side of an election. All the racist blather on stopping the boats and flights to Rwanda has not cut through what appears to be an unstoppable wave among the electorate that it is time for a change. 

The prime minister’s glib callousness when he took a bet on TV with Piers Morgan over refugees and made a joke in parliament about a murdered trans teen (Brianna Ghey) has exposed his lack of political nous and human empathy. It is hard to see him turn around the mass perception of him as a nerdy tech bro and billionaire out of touch with ordinary people. On that level, even Starmer scores better.

Internecine warfare is rife in the Tory Party, with its hard right and one-nation factions barely speaking to each other. The four ‘families’ supporting Jenrick, Badenoch, Shapps, or Mordaunt are already in full leadership campaign mode. Shapps is reported to be spending little time in the Ministry of Defence. Each faction knows the game is up for Sunak. A few extremists want to drop him. More than a hundred Tory MPs are standing down and are already touting their CVs. It is not clear that the more traditional Tory centrists have the leadership or the numbers to withstand a shift to a harder right line following a big defeat. Yesterday, Sunak desperately implored the Reform UK people to come onboard into ‘a conservative family’. The combined Tory and Reform UK vote would have beaten Labour in some recent by-elections. Good luck with that. The hard right inside and outside the Tory party have already written off Sunak. We might well see a similar political process as we have seen in France, Italy, and Spain, where there is a merging and overlap between the extreme right wing currents and the traditional conservative parties.

The Faragist hard right is recovering momentum.

In both by-elections, Reform UK—the latest iteration of what was UKIP—did reasonably well, getting 13% in Wellingborough and 10% in Kingswood. Brexit was not the key issue, but criticism of the Tories for not being racist enough against migrants and not responding hard enough against what they see as ‘woke’ culture and the net zero policy on the environment. If these scores were repeated in a general election, which is not certain by any means, the Tory rout would be even greater. Perhaps if Tory voters think all is lost, they may be more likely to vote ideologically for the Reform UK. Some may believe that a decent score for Reform UK would help push the Tory party in the direction they want on migrants or other issues. Clearly, some sort of realignment of the Tories looks likely after the election. Reform UK is actively encouraging this, and in fact, its predecessor always functioned as a sort of inside/outside faction of the Tory party. 

The danger for working people is that a super cautious Labour government, tied hand and foot to the capitalist fiscal rules and a loyal partner of big business, will not deliver even moderate change to working class lives. This would open up an opportunity for a hard right populist party like Reform UK or a realigned Tory party to build a broader electoral base. John McDonnell has been correctly pointing out this possibility for some time. It is urgent for the labour movement to build resistance inside and outside Labour to this threat.

Labour is set to win a general election with a programme of minor reforms.

Some people on the left think that Starmer’s Labour Party will not win a decisive majority if the leadership simultaneously continues to crack down on the left and campaign against 14 years of Tory misrule. They argue that the diminishing membership and supporters will not mobilise, and so the ground army will not be available to win marginal seats. I think this overrates the importance of canvassing, the collapse of Tory support, and how effective Labour’s basic line is—are you better off after 14 years of the Tories?

The by-election result in Kingswood, where the absolute number of votes for Labour were not much greater than in the last contest and where the Greens picked up votes,. shows there is not a wave of enthusiasm for Labour. There could be some slippage among people appalled by its failure to call for a ceasefire. But given the collapse in the Tory vote and the peeling off of some of its support for Reform UK, this lack of mobilisation will probably not affect the overall result. We shall see if this changes in areas of high Muslim community density. Most analysts think the Gaza impact will be marginal. Even if Galloway were to win in Rochdale, that would not be proof that Gaza would cost Labour scores of seats. The situation there is quite unique at the moment.

Rochdale shows Starmer’s factionalism at its worst.

As Martin Forde, author of the eponymous report on internal disciplinary procedures, has commented, there seem to be two weights and two measures when it comes to making comments connected to Zionism, the Israeli government, the offensive against Gaza, or antisemitism. If you are on the left of the party, like Diane Abbott, and you make some ill-judged remarks that are deemed antisemitic, you are immediately suspended, even if you make an apology. Whereas if you are pro-Starmer, a much more lenient approach is adopted. So Azar Ali, the now-ex-Labour candidate in Rochdale, repeats an unsubstantiated conspiracy that suggests the Israeli government organised the massacre of its own citizens on October 7, but his apology is accepted, and he remains the candidate. Further comments about ‘Jews’ in the media’ that are clearly antisemitic lead to a five-hour meeting (decisive action?) before he is dumped. LabourHub has produced an excellent, detailed article on this factionalism. Clearly, if you are one of the Starmer faithful, your candidature is subject to minimal due diligence. If you are on the Corbynist left, your social media posts are exhaustively perused to see whether you might have shared a platform with someone like Ken Loach—this is what happened to Jamie Driscoll in the North East. Of course, in Rochdale, this approach has come back to bite Starmer badly. We now have the surreal situation of three former Labour candidates competing, and Labour has to abstain from taking any position on who should be elected. Which brings us to what do we do about Galloway’s candidature?

Should we vote for Galloway?

If you look at the left press or follow social media, there is a debate over whether to vote for George Galloway of the Workers Party. A signed article on the Counterfire site more or less calls for a Galloway vote without it being defined as an official CF position. The SWP refrains from taking a position on who to vote for and correctly criticises his reactionary positions on a series of issues. The Socialist Party,after correctly criticising Galloway’s divisive sectarianism but not his anti-workery spiel (i.e., he won’t consider joining their TUSC electoral platform), clearly calls for votes for him. The Morning Star has an article by Andrew Murray that is very sympathetic to Galloway, does not mention any downsides, and, to all intents and purposes, endorses him.

Most of the articles and posts highlight the deep problems with Galloway’s overall politics while recognising his correct position on Palestine solidarity. Despite already providing a focus for left realignment and development when the Respect party was formed (and he won a Tower Hamlets seat), Galloway acted as the sole leader, which other currents had to follow; otherwise, he would ignore them or split. After later winning a Bradford seat, he has not managed to build a significant current to the left of Labour.

What is worse are his positions against ‘wokery’, the ecologists, and the LGBT+ movement. He is also for migrant control. He notoriously denounced the actions of people stopping asylum seekers from being taken away in Scotland. Reports say he has been known to make homophobic and anti-trans statements too. Maybe he thinks this helps his electoral intervention.

Some comrades say that small left groups do not need to take a position on who to vote for in national elections. True, if we do not say anything, it is not going to be an item of discussion at the workplace coffee machine. However, most ordinary people do understand politics almost exclusively through elections. Often, it is the only time they get involved in a minimal way. They have no detailed knowledge of the intricacies of George Galloway’s politics. For the Muslim community and progressives in Rochdale and elsewhere, it will be perceived as a big boost for Palestine solidarity. It is also inconsistent for small left groups to publicly support industrial action and solidarity with Ukraine or Palestine when they have little influence, yet not take a stance on elections that temporarily dominate politics.

Nearly always, the left, when calling on people to kick out the Tories, either implicitly or directly, calls for a Labour vote. A lot of these Labour MPs we elect are no less savoury characters than Galloway. However, we called for a vote for them because we thought it makes a difference whether we have a Labour government or a Tory government. This is in terms of how easy it is to fight back and because we support, as a first step, limited reforms such as those on labour laws banning hire and fire or zero-hours contracts. The US left voted for Biden where it was necessary to stop Trump and in France the left voted for Macron to block Le Pen. Your options are limited where there is no democratic proportional representation.

What has to be evaluated is the impact of Galloway winning in Rochdale. Yes, it will not mark a step forward in organising a left alternative to Labour, but it will have a positive impact in putting the Palestine issue at the centre of political debate and making it visible in the media. A vote supporting Galloway would require judging how his victory might impact this pivotal issue. Should the ACR or other left groups participate in Rochdale, they must explicitly state their profound disagreements with Galloway’s damaging political stances. We would particpate as an independent force, publicly outlining our dissent with Galloway’s positions on migrants and LGBT+ communities. Failing to voice our criticisms during any intervention would mean surrendering to reactionary ideologies creeping into the broader movement.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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