Sunday, 11 December 2016

Lessons of Sleaford

Labour was never going to win the Sleaford by-election, any more than they were going to win at Richmond Park.  Both are solidly Tory seats, as I said last week.  There is no material for either the Tories or the Liberals and Blair-rights to use against Corbyn's Labour Party here.  But, Sleaford, in particular illustrates the point I have previously made, and shows why Corbyn should adopt a clear policy of arguing for remaining inside the EU.

In 2015, the turnout was 62,000, or 70%, whilst in 2016 the turnout was only 33,000 or 37%.  In 2015, Labour polled 10.690 votes, and in 2016 this was 3,363 votes.  Had Labour's vote fallen proportionate to turnout it would only have fallen to 5,345.  The other 2,000 votes here can be accounted for by the fact, that Labour voters knew they were not going to win, and so didn't bother to turn out to vote.  It could also be explained by some Labour voters voting for UKIP or the LIberals.

The Liberal vote rose by just 100 votes, from 3,500 to 3,606, but had it fallen proportionate to turnout, it would have fallen to around 1750, so the additional 2,000 votes could be seen as a direct result of pro-Remain Labour voters switching to the Liberals who had a clear pro-Remain position, as opposed to the more obscure position of Labour, which continued to support the idea of Leave, and of controls on immigration.

UKIP's vote fell from 9716 in 2015 to just 4426 in the by-election.  Had it fallen proportionate to the turnout, it would only have fallen to 4800, which means that this was actually a bad result for UKIP in a strongly pro-Leave constituency.

What Sleaford shows is this.  If you are a supporter of Leave, you have a clear choice of supporting either UKIP or the Tories.  Given that UKIP only has 1 MP, and is standing at only 11% in the polls, with little or no chance of obtaining any sizeable number of MP's, to influence anything, you are likely to vote Tory.  So, it was no wonder that the Tories did well in Sleaford, whilst proportionally UKIP did badly.

On the other hand, if you are strongly pro-Remain, the choice is to vote Liberal, but other than in a handful of seats such as Richmond Park, there is as little chance of Liberals obtaining a sizeable number of MP's as there is UKIP.  Even if the Liberals trebled their number of MP's at the next General Election, it would only take them to 27 MP's, or about the same number they expected to win in 2015, in their wild optimism that voters would simply forget about the fact that in the previous five years they had been part of a nasty right-wing Liberal-Tory government.

The Liberals can concentrate their limited resources in local council elections and by-elections, as they did in Richmond Park, but they cannot do that in a General Election.  At a General Election it will be obvious to strongly pro-Remain voters that a vote for the Liberals will be more a wasted vote than it has been in the past.  It can only ever simply facilitate another right-wing, hard Brexit supporting Tory government, by splitting the vote against the Tories.

But, the Liberals win in Richmond Park, and the fact that pro-Remain Labour voters seem to have switched to the Liberals in Sleaford, whilst there is no sign of such defection to UKIP, which did relatively badly in Sleaford, shows that Labour needs to adopt a clear pro-Remain stance.  That would cut the legs from under the Liberals, and offer pro-Remain voters a credible alternative to the hard Brexit Tories, and their UKIP outriders.

As Ken Livingstone said on The Sunday Politics there is no chance that the Tories will gain a soft Brexit, even if the Three Brexiteers had any interest in negotiating one.  Labour is right to argue that a hard Brexit will damage the interests of British workers, therefore, but the conclusion should be that there is no possibility of any Brexit that will benefit British workers, and so Labour will oppose it by whatever means.  There is two years to build such a large scale campaign on that basis, drawing in other socialists from across the EU, to present a different vision of Europe, and win British workers to it.

The truth is that there is little chance of UKIP taking seats from Labour in the North, as the Blair-rights and Tory media keep saying.  In all opinion polls over the last decade and more, the issue of the EU and immigration has ranked low in voters concerns relative to jobs, pay, and services.  The EU and Immigration only becomes a significant issue in restricted polls, such as by-elections, low turnout-local elections, or as in supposedly single issue votes such as the referendum.

At a General Election, why would Labour voters in a place like Stoke, which voted heavily for Leave, vote for UKIP?  They have been able to do so in the past, and yes, in low-poll local elections and by-elections, the BNP and UKIP have done well in the past.  But, they have always been wiped out in General Elections.  Labour voters know that not only is a UKIP vote a wasted vote, because UKIP will never gain more than a handful of seats, but they also know that UKIP is just a bunch of mavericks, and right-wing Tories that have no answers for the problems of workers across the country.

UKIP's hostility to the EU and immigration will build not one single house, school, hospital or road; it will provide not one additional nurse, teacher, social worker, doctor, and so on, and in fact will reduce the supply of all such essential workers.  Moreover, UKIP's new leader Paul Nuttall, shows graphically just what a bunch of right-wing Tories they really are.  Nuttall himself, like Farage before him, is a former right-wing Tory.  He has proposed privatisation of the NHS, and attacked a wide range of workers' rights, including the right to maternity pay.

In a whole range of marginal seats, however, where pro-Remain Tory, and Liberal voters are now rightly shocked into concern over the consequences that Brexit will have for them and for Britain, and across the country that amounts to a large number of potential voters beyond the 65% of Labour voters who voted Remain.  Opinion polls show a large majority of people, including those that voted Leave are not prepared to see any fall in their living standards, as a quid pro quo for ending immigration.  Labour has two years to champion the cause of a progressive Remain, to overturn the referendum decision, and to be winning and challenging in every by-election, every local election that takes place during that time, as well as to be mounting a challenge with other European socialists for a different kind of Europe.

It is not only the right position for an internationalist, social-democratic party to defend, it is also tactically and strategically sensible udner current conditions.

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