Labour won Stoke. Jamie Reed lost Copeland
A snap analysis of the 23 Feb UK by-elections
For socialists in the Labour Party it will be a relief that the Blairite plan to stage two electoral disasters on one night failed. Nobody can claim losing Copeland was Jeremy Corbyn’s “fault”: the fault lies with the careerist right-winger who abandoned the seat in mid-session to take a better job.
And the Blairite plan to abandon Stoke to UKIP, egged on by the media also failed, when the latter turned out to be led by a hapless fantasist.
However the two by-election results taken together do reveal a big and challenging fact for Labour: in these two very different working class English seats, there is a majority for Brexit, and for the right wing nationalist rationale behind it.
Both by-elections saw significantly reduced turnouts compared to a general election — from 64% to 52% in Copeland and from 50% to 38% in Stoke. Therefore all talk of “swings” has to be tempered by the fact that, in both places, it became a question of whose vote would hold up most.
UKIP’s vote collapsed in Copeland (from 6k in 2015 to 2k votes last night) and it is logical to assume most of their votes went to the Conservatives. UKIP.
In Stoke UKIP’s vote fell from 7k to 5.25k, despite the presence of the leader and a massive press hype; the Tory vote also fell by two thousand. Labour’s vote fell by three thousand, but still left them on 37% to win the seat. In Stoke There may have been some switching from UKIP back to Labour, but more likely Labour’s anti-UKIP campaign bore fruit in the abstention of UKIP voters or their switch to the Tories.
However, in Stoke UKIP and the Tories combined would have beaten Labour, the Libdems and the Greens combined (just).
People berating the electorate of Copeland for voting for a party that’s going to close their hospital, in order to express support for their nuclear reprocessing plant, are missing the point.
People are voting Tory in the full knowledge that the NHS is collapsing, being privatised, that refugee children are being left molested at Calais and that a bunch of Tory incompetents are in charge - because they want Brexit.
Brexit, not nuclear power, is the thing blinding a large section of the English and Welsh electorate at present and that will not change until the negotiations go catastrophically wrong, and the economic disaster unfolds Everybody on the progressive side of British politics needs to understand this will take some time.
There will be calls inside Labour for Corbyn to go, or take the blame: pay them no heed — they were scripted regardless of the outcome. Copeland has been moving for more than a decade towards being a tight seat for Labour: part of the longterm fragmentation of Labour’s demographic base. It’s the kind of place Labour can win back at a general election, but — as with other military-industrial complex centres — that is hard with a longstanding pacifist leader.
However, last night’s results do illustrate the strategic problem for Labour in England and Wales (it has an existential problem in Scotland).
Labour can only win as a demographic alliance of the urban salariat, the small town working class, the young, the majorities in Scotland and Wales, and a section of the better off middle class who don’t like what the Tories are doing.
Without a majority in Scotland, it can only ever form a Labour-SNP coalition, for which there is untested consent among its core English voters.
If you add to this the fact that Labour’s members have twice elected the most left-wing MP in the party to be its leader, shattering its effectiveness as an opposition (through infighting and sabotage) there’s a clear impulse going on among some potential swing voters: “better the devil you know”, especially since the Tories have backburnered the aggressive austerity of Cameron/Osborne and seem prepared to throw money at individual places (as with Surrey County Council) if they vote Tory.
Labour faces two linked challenges: to restore itself as a functional political alliance; and to outline a clear strategy on Brexit.
Taking a hardline position on the Article 50 vote, needed to win in Stoke and Copeland, has lost Corbyn support among the urban salariat and youth: the apparent small swing from Labour to the Libdems in Copeland last night is evidence of that. But in the end that vote was a mere parliamentary procedure. The real task is to outline a coherent position on the substance of Brexit, around which Labour has to assemble what it can of its old political alliance, and then fight for it.
Given the range of differences, this can only be done by outlining clear position papers on Brexit and taking a conference vote on one of them.
My position, repeatedly outlined, is that Labour should accept Brexit but fight for Britain’s membership of the single market, via EFTA, with a temporary brake on free movement. If we don’t get that, then at the end of the Article 50 negotiations I would be in favour of a clear vote against the Brexit plan the Tories bring to the UK parliament in 2018–19.
In that situation (which is likely) I would also not only accept but propose Scotland secedes from the UK to save what it can of a socially just society from the wreckage that hard Brexit would bring.
The Shadow Cabinet position is to seek “access” to the single market — but this is a poor starting point, because access is so conditional that the actualities faced by UK business will quickly drive people to the conclusion of a hard Brexit. The weakness in the Shadow Cabinet’s position is that nobody is prepared to say outright the party will block Brexit at the end of the two years if their own position is lost.
Either way, if either of these two positions were properly codefied in party policy, it would no-doubt begin to lose support among young professionals and sections of the progressive salariat who are existentially wedded to the EU as a life project. They will go to the Libdems and Greens, and carry on splitting the progressive vote on the principle of Europe.
We on the left of Labour have to accept that as a possibility — but we cannot compromise. First, the referendum demonstrated a clear majority for Brexit. Second, the EU is an economic and political disaster zone: it is a machine for imposing austerity and injustice and will go on self-destructing whatever Labour’s position is in the negotiations. If anything, the Labour position was not critical enough of Europe in the Brexit referendum campaign. We do not and cannot share the starry-eyed infatuation of the middle classes with the EU and we should not feed the illusion that the decision is reversible by overriding democracy.
The pressing issues for Labour’s leadership today should be to understand the long-term and grave nature of the Brexit crisis and seek to construct an alliance around the project of a soft Brexit with maximum social justice.
Compared to what the Tories and their press backers want, that will still seem like a radical project and grounds for the continued monstering of Corbyn by the right. If the rest of the hard neoliberal Blairite faction wishes to follow Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt out of the commons, or even into the Libdems, that might actually help the situation.
Labour did deploy radicalism and class rhetoric in Stoke to see of UKIP, together with efficient traditional activism.
Day trippers from Fleet Street, like Matthew Engel of the FT, blustering about UKIP having momentum and pazazz, were exposed as fools. In fact, Labour’s winning formula — to turn soft UKIP voters against the hard core of chancers, criminals, fantasists, anti-semites and violent racists who no decent working class person should trust — worked, and should be rolled out nationally.
But neither in Copeland nor Stoke was Labour displaying radicalism at the level we’re going to need to take power in what’s left of the UK, after the right wing nationalist middle class has destroyed it.
In the aftermath of the self-destruction hard Brexit process will bring, and the breakup of the union, Labour can only come to power in England and Wales as a party of radical social justice and anti-racism; in Scotland it needs to embrace the emergence of an independent nation and rebuild as a pro-independence party. We — Labour the Greens and the left nationalists — will come to power as a political insurgency and in a crisis. It will not be business as usual.
So I will not be joining those calling on Corbyn to resign for losing Copeland. Jamie Reed lost Copeland. A Corbyn resignation would give more Jamie Reed look-alikes a last chance to re-impose control.
But turning 68 this year, Corbyn can only ever be a transitional figure in Labour politics. Trump changes the game — upping the tempo of global crisis and most likely triggering a serious military conflict; a second Scottish independence vote will change the game again; the implosion of one or more European democracies likewise.
In that situation I would trust Corbyn above any potential replacement to steer the party through the current crisis.
None of the things he lacks — “pazzaz”, office management skills, a posh accent, an extensive network of friends in Fleet Street— would have won Copeland for Labour last night. Nor was his leftism a liability: orare we going to say Copleand voters were turned off because he didn’t attack the NHS enough, or migrants, or benefit scroungers?
But by 2020 we need a younger leadership team that unites the left and centre-left around a clear and radical socialist programme.
Visiting Berlin last week I was struck by how happy in their own skins are the youthful political leaders in the Schulz wing of the SPD, and in the radical left party Die Linke. We need to find a way for their equivalents inside Labour to find a modus operandi. In the Berlin City Government they rule through a Red-Red-Green alliance, and could rule Germany nationally like that after the coming election.
On the left in Britain we need to find a way for the left and centre left to co-exist within the same Labour team, to respect each other’s ideologies and combine their strengths. And to build a Progressive Alliance to tactically manouver inside the electoral system.
Corbyn’s lasting legacy should be to build all that; create the framework; train the cadres; cement anti-neoliberal economics into the heart of the party’s thinking, and write the principles of a 21st century radical social democracy into the programme, the constition and the practice of the party.