Tory routed in Blackpool South: What next for Left?

Dave Kellaway looks at what the Blackpool South by-election result tells us about the current political situation and reflects on left strategy with the likelihood of a Starmer government.

 

A YouGov poll carried out a day before yesterday’s vote gave the Tories 18% of the national vote share and Reform UK 15%. In the Blackpool South by election, the Tories got 17.5% and Reform UK 16.9%. Real votes cast in a parliamentary election on national issues were even worse for the Tories than current opinion polls.

The last time there were such swings in elections against a government was in the period leading up to the Blair landslide in 1997. The biggest takeaway from this election is that the left needs to prepare for a Starmer government with a large majority. The second most important trend is the continued disarray of the Tory party and the consequences of a reconfiguration of the right wing of British politics following a Labour victory.

“The biggest takeaway from this election is that the left needs to prepare for a Starmer government with a large majority.”

Tories: stick or twist?

You know things are bad in a political party if your mayoral candidates, such as Andy Street in the West Midlands, keep the party leader’s (and Prime Minister’s!) name off their campaign literature and downplay the national conservative affiliation. People forget that Boris Johnson’s 2019 win was based effectively on a Brexit-dominated coalition with UKIP. The latter pulled back from any effective challenge to Johnson since he was considered the leader who would implement their decades-old dream of Brexit. This coalition is over. Tice, the Reform UK Party (continuity UKIP) leader, has said very clearly before, and he repeated this after the Blackpool result that his aim was to destroy the Tory party. Lee Anderson, former Tory chair and currently the sole Reform UK MP, has claimed today that the Reform UK vote share in the local elections will be better on average than the Tory one. Reform UK came in just a hundred or so votes behind the Tories in Blackpool.

All this is happening even before the possible coronation of Farage as leader of Reform UK (or some new split Tory/Reform UK amalgam). Farage has a national electoral base. The certainty of a Labour victory also encourages Tory voters not just to sit on the hands but to vote for a far right alternative. The Tories are going to lose anyway, so why not try a different brand?

“The certainty of a Labour victory also encourages Tory voters not just to sit on the hands but to vote for a far right alternative. The Tories are going to lose anyway, so why not try a different brand?”

All Tories know they will lose the next election but are debating whether changing leaders or going early before October or November will reduce their losses. Do they stick with Sunak, betting on some good news on the economy, a boost from the racist Rwanda policy, or that something might turn up that could help them? The problem here is that the latest OECD report has a worse forecast for the economy than the government’s. Rwanda does not seem to have made a difference so far, despite the despicable televised roundup of migrants just before Thursday’s vote. In fact, the Bishop of Dover’s support for the compassion shown by protesters in South London blocking the coach to the Stockholm barge seems to reflect the changing public mood on this issue.

If they twisted and played a new leader card, they might benefit from finding somebody (who?) who does human contact better than Sunak, but is it a good idea to change the leader yet another time? The pundits are not wrong to say that in politics, once there is a mass sense of the end of a regime—particularly following the COVID disaster and the cost of living crisis—then the game really is up.

Labour is winning, but voters express no real enthusiasm

Starmer rather overegged the victory in Blackpool, calling it seismic. Yes, it was the third biggest swing against the Tories since the war, but he blithely left out of the equation one of the biggest percentage votes for a second right wing party, Reform UK, that we have seen. John Curtice, the election guru, said on TV that where Reform UK challenged the Tories, the loss in their vote share was five or six points greater than when it was a ‘normal’ contest with Labour. In 2019, UKIP took votes from Labour. Today, it is the Tories who are hit. Another bit of electoral analysis that Starmer left out was the fact that actually fewer people voted for Labour yesterday than did in the general election when they lost. There is no great mobilisation behind Labour. This is hardly surprising given the backtracking on many of the policies that were seen as vote-winners, particularly in 2016. Watering down the rights for workers from day one proposals—zero-hour contracts may now continue on a voluntary basis rather than being outlawed—will further reduce the attractiveness of the Labour offer to working people.

“Watering down the rights for workers from day one proposals—zero-hour contracts may now continue on a voluntary basis rather than being outlawed—will further reduce the attractiveness of the Labour offer to working people.”

What next for the left?

Around 25,000 Labour activists—surely mostly from the left—have left Labour in the last year or so. Apart from the witch hunting of the left, the bureaucratic manoeuvres to prevent any left candidates, and the continuous backtracking of any remaining progressive policies, the failure to support the Palestinians in the face of genocide was the last straw for many active Labour members.

An example of how the leadership treats the left is the way they have dealt with the Diane Abbott case. Her disciplinary process due to a clumsily written two-paragraph letter, which she almost immediately apologised for, has lasted about a year. Most independent observers accept that it is being dragged out to stop her from being a candidate, despite her overwhelming selection by the party membership a year ago. Members are not even allowed to raise her case on local branch WhatsApp groups, whereas prominent Labour Party members like Harriet Harman or Ed Balls have called for her re-instatement.

Not surprisingly, reports from London suggest that very few activists are canvassing, and the party is relying much more on its councillors to get the message out. Some people on the left inside Labour have suggested in the past that the decline in the number of left activists out canvassing will make it harder for Labour to win. Yesterday’s elections clearly showed this not to be the case. 

Calling on everybody on the left inside Labour to leave and join an independent radical left group is just as counterproductive as saying everyone should stay in Labour because that is the only way to get political change, the unions are affiliated, and the electoral system gives you no alternative. We need the left still in Labour to keep together. A very few local parties may still provide space for the left to organise. However, in many places, the left has lost the leadership of local parties and cannot expect there to be much room for political debate or discussion; already, the topic of Gaza is off limits.

“Calling on everybody on the left inside Labour to leave and join an independent radical left group is just as counterproductive as saying everyone should stay in Labour because that is the only way to get political change, the unions are affiliated, and the electoral system gives you no alternative.”

Stay in Labour or build the Leninist party outside—a false choice

The Labour left need to have their own meetings and discussions, as well as turn outward to work in campaigns and with trade unions. Activists, particularly young people, radicalising on Palestine or green issues are not joining Labour. Who can blame them given the leadership line and the sterility of party meetings? Labour left activists already collaborate with militants in the ‘outside’ left. We need forums where discussion and action by the local left as a whole can take place. We need to work outside our historic silos and link up with eco-activists. Momentum has already announced it will be campaigning independently in the general election campaign. It will be organising a public discussion on the key policy areas that a Labour government should address.

There are still a number of left-leaning Labour MPs who have spoken out on Gaza and criticised the moderate line of leadership that we can campaign for. There may be some local parties where the left can work well. 

Some of the ‘outside’ left makes it more difficult to build a unitary left movement. The decision of Galloway’s red/brown outfit, the Workers Party, to stand candidates against people like Zarah Sultana and John McDonnell just clarifies the dead end its politics leads to. Some other independent left candidates are much more credible and unitary in their approach. Galloway’s remarks in a recent Novara Media interview concerning ‘normal’ families contrasted with gay relationships or the dangers of migration are just despicable and divide the working people he claims to represent. He may win a few more votes by adapting to reactionary attitudes, but he will not build any sort of alternative to Labourism. 

Left groups outside Labour are recruiting. This is unsurprising given the Palestinian mobilisation and the further drift right of Starmer’s Labour. It is positive that new activists are organised and relate to political currents and discussion rather than work as individuals. Some former Corbyn supporters have left Labour and become demoralised and inactive.

Just being in a group can also lead to burnout and demoralisation if you end up spending every waking hour selling the party newspaper. Proclaiming that your small group is the answer to revolutionary leadership builds in the risk of a churn in membership since there is no sign of any revolution around the corner. The launch of the Revolutionary Communist Party with its newspaper, The Communist, replete with hammer and sickle and Lenin pictures, epitomises this approach.

The strategic question we have is how to work with all these fragments of a divided left to develop both a broad mass party or movement of resistance to moderate laborism and a revolutionary Marxist core within it. Neither plodding away within the Labour Party for a new version of Corbynism nor individually recruiting to your version of the true revolutionary leadership while ignoring everyone else are solutions.

“The strategic question we have is how to work with all these fragments of a divided left to develop both a broad mass party or movement of resistance to moderate laborism and a revolutionary Marxist core within it.”

A Starmer government that fails to meet the needs of working people could well lead to a big opening for a revitalised hard right built around a new Reform UK/Tory split formation or a new Orban-style Tory party with Reform UK integrated. This makes the need for greater unity and a clearer strategy for the left inside and outside of Labour more urgent than ever.

[A more detailed article on the local and mayoral elections will be forthcoming at the weekend when all the results are available.]


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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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