Sunday, 26 February 2017

By-Election Biopsy

Labour won the by-election in Stoke Central, and lost in Copeland. What do these two elections tell us?

As I said several weeks ago, the by-election in Copeland, probably was not going to tell us very much. However much the mainstream media, needing as always to sensationalise every story to maintain their own ratings and justify their existence, tries to make the Copeland by-election into some epoch making event, it wasn't. The main strand of their argument itself indicates why. Their argument that Labour's defeat in Copeland was in some way epochal has been founded on the rather meaningless statement that it has been a Labour seat for 80 years. In that case, they ought to realise that the voters who first voted in that constituency 80 years ago, are dead and buried, in fact, so too probably are their children. In other words, the composition of the electorate in the constituency has changed during that period.

For a long time, that change in composition had been accompanied by a fall in Labour's share of the vote in the constituency, so that it was now, in any case, a marginal seat. But, also, a significant factor in the constituency has been the existence of the nuclear plant at Sellafield, which provides a large number of jobs for workers in the area, and on which an even larger number of other jobs, and revenues depend. It would be all the same if the major employer in the area were an asbestos mine, and processing plant. The principled position for Labour to adopt, in such a situation, would be to demand that the plant should only be able to operate if it could be done under conditions that guaranteed the long-term health of the workers in that industry, and of the surrounding communities. We know the damage and destruction that asbestos has done to people's lives. Yet, experience teaches us that where workers are dependent upon a large employer in an area, they are reluctant to see its existence threatened, even if the cost is the lives of themselves and their children.

Unfortunately, workers who have to sell their labour-power, in order to survive, are often put in a position where they see no alternative to this trade-off, and therefore, sacrifice the health and lives of themselves and their children, in order to obtain current income, particularly where that income might be higher than average. So, Copeland was never going to be a meaningful test of Labour's position, given that Jeremy Corbyn's position of opposition to nuclear power is well known, and was always going to be highlighted and distorted by the Tories and the media. But, as with so many other such issues where Corbyn, McDonnell and co. have held positions in the past, when the pressure was applied, they buckled and thereby looked weak, and dissembling. That happened over their principled republicanism, with their support for a United Ireland, and so on.

One of Corbyn's main character strengths has been his commitment to stand by his principles over the last thirty years, and his personal honesty and integrity. But, on issue after issue, he has begun to bend those principles rather than stand up and aggressively defend them. Trying to make him do so has clearly been a strategy of the Blair-rights and of the Tory media, and the fact that he, McDonnell and others have complied, now risks throwing away the support of the hundreds of thousands of new members that were drawn into the party, because of those original principles, and that integrity.

What Copeland, Stoke and most other constituencies around the country have in common is that for at least thirty years, Labour had no economic strategy that offered hope for the ordinary working-class people living in them. The Blair-rights, and the Tory media repeatedly hark back to Blair's three election wins, but in many ways they were an aberration, coming not just after a period of eighteen years of Tory misrule, but at the start of a period of global long wave boom. But, it is also a delusion in other ways, because Blair also benefited from illusory inflation of paper wealth that Thatcher had also encouraged and gained by, during the 1980's, as stock, bond and property markets entered a massive bubble, that also provided the collateral for a huge expansion of private debt, which in turn assisted in blowing up those bubbles even further.

Yet, the truth is that after 1997, Blair also saw a steady draining of Labour votes, and the 2008 Financial Crash was the pay back for the policies that essentially conservative regimes had conducted across much of the globe for the 20 years prior to it. Blaming Corbyn for a situation in which Labour votes had drained away, during all that prior period, and had done so as a result of the conservative policies that Labour under Kinnock, Smith, Blair and Brown had adopted is senseless. As the saying goes, you cannot fatten a pig on market day, and it will take more than just a few months, or even years, for Labour, under Corbyn, or any other left social democrat, to undo the damage that was done over those previous decades by Kinnock and his heirs.

And that ought to be the lesson that is learned. There are no quick fixes. Anyone who thinks that things could be remedied by getting rid of Corbyn, and restoring the policies of Blair and co., or some modified version, is seriously deluded. If that were possible, the Blair-rights, and their periphery would already have followed the example of their SDP predecessors, and jumped ship to ride the wave of the rapidly rising support of the Liberals. But, they know they can't. The SDP sank into the Liberals, and now the Liberals have simply just sunk without trace. They are enjoying rising support, but it is the rising support of a heartbeat on life support. 

In Stoke Central, the Liberals more than doubled their vote share from 4.2% to 9.8%, yet the fact is that, it was still only 9.8%; it was just 2,000 votes, as opposed to Labour's 37% of the vote, and 7,800 votes. The Liberals are the future of Blairism, and its is a future that is doomed.

The Stoke by-election confirmed many of the arguments I have put forward in recent weeks. UKIP were quite right to put forward Nuttall as their candidate in such a high profile by-election. They were not to know that he would go into unforced self-destruct. Nuttall had several great advantages. He was an established national figure, with a well developed media presence; he is an accomplished media performer; he had a simple message – its all the fault of foreigners; and in a by-election, he had every chance that the Tories as the third party would vote tactically in his favour. 

A look at the 2015 election figures shows that UKIP should have won in the by-election easily. If most of the Tory voters voted tactically to kick Labour, then UKIP would have won with a majority of around 3,000. But, Nuttall went into self destruct with the silly antics over the house, then with the claims about Hillsborough, which added to previous statements about his PhD., being a professional footballer and so on. As with Trump, none of that seems to have put off the core UKIP vote. Nor did the attempts to introduce silly comments about him not knowing that the Potteries is comprised of six towns. In fact, that excursus says a lot about those that pursued it, because in fact, the Potteries have always been referred to as “The Five Towns”, as reflected in Stoke's greatest author Arnold Bennett's novel, “Anna of the Five Towns”. Although the forgotten town has always been Fenton, not as in Nuttall's case, Tunstall.

But, Nuttall's self-destruction was enough to prevent Tory voters switching to him tactically, and that doomed his chances. UKIP is now politically dead for the foreseeable future, like the Liberals. But, that means that, in Stoke, if Labour cannot enthuse its own voter base, it will lose the next election to the Tories, as all those UKIP voters return to their natural home. They will either go back to the Tories, or else they will go back to their status as non-voters, ready to be picked up by the next demagogue, when the current set of centre ground policies inevitably fail.

And Labour itself has prepared the ground for that. As I wrote some time ago, the principled position for Labour to adopt, was to oppose Brexit. Brexit is against workers interests, and Labour should oppose it. Whether or not workers or Labour voters supported Brexit does not change the matter. In fact, there is an argument for saying that every Labour MP should have resigned their seat to force effectively a General Election, on which Labour could have stood on a position of opposing Brexit, and thereby have gained a mandate for that position.

The Tories will not call a General Election, because if they were to do so, it would trigger a series of reselections of sitting Blair-right and soft-left Labour MP's, who would be replaced by Corbynite candidates. Although the Tories might see that as an opportunity to increase their current majority in Parliament, they know that it would be against their longer-term interest. In place of a situation where there are half a million Corbynite LP members, but only around 15 Corbynite MP's, with around 250 Blair-right/soft-left MP's, the sitaution would be reversed with that half million Corbynite members then also having around 150 Corbynite MP's, and there being only around 25 Blair-right/soft-left MP's.

That would mean that Labour might be weakened in Parliament in the short term, in terms of numbers, but its message would be much more powerful, cohesive and clear, and would be more easily carried out into the country, in support of workers actions, community actions and so on, so as to provide a much more powerful basis for a Corbyn led government in 2020 or shortly thereafter.

But, the weakness that Corbyn has shown on other issues has also carried forward into Brexit too. In addition, as I wrote a while ago, some of the reason for that also seems to stem from the influence of those Stalinist elements around Corbyn, that hark back to national socialist ideas of “Socialism In One Country”, or more ludicrously, in this case, social-democracy in one country, and the influence also of the idiot anti-imperialists of the StWC and other such groups, whose vision extends no further than what they perceive as being bad for imperialism, rather than what is good for socialism and the working-class.

Not only was the collapse into nationalism unprincipled, but even in terms of short-term opportunist electoral politics it was misguided. I have pointed out in the past that the working-class voters of the area did not suddenly become concerned about immigration or the EU overnight ahead of the EU Referendum. Anyone who lives in the area, and my guess is this applies to every other similar area of the country, knows that around 30% of the population holds bigoted views. That is more true of the older and less educated sections of the population. (This is also why the idea of the “metropolitan elite” is bunkum, and yet another example of problems being blamed on a distant other. There are just as big a proportion of people in North Staffordshire who hold the views of the metropolitan elite as there is in London.)

Yet, the fact that a substantial number of workers in Stoke held bigoted views never stopped them voting Labour. They saw no contradiction in holding such views, whilst voting for a Party that opposed that bigotry. Remember, that Mrs Duffy too was a long standing Labour voter! In fact, I know of many Labour Party members that held bigoted views, long before the media decided to create a witchhunt against anti-semitism by some party members. In the 1960's, I remember one Labour Councillor, when the proposal was put to establish the gypsy camp at Linehouses, who said that he would lead the way in burning them out! 

Labour did not descend to that low level in Stoke Central, but with Labour nationally collapsing into pro-Brexit nationalism, it must have seemed a small step to try to wrap yourself in the flag of St. George in election leaflets. Whether Emily Thornberry took any pictures of them this time I don't know.

Yet, for all this disgraceful collapse into nationalism and jingoism it failed, as I had predicted it would, to win any of the UKIP or Tory votes for Labour. As I said long ago, the idea that UKIP's vote in somewhere like Stoke was comprised of disgruntled Labour voters was always bogus. There are a few maverick Labour Councillors, and we all know who they are in each area, and party members, that saw UKIP as just another vehicle for them to expound their ideas, and seek to gain publicity, and maybe even a Council seat. However, the majority of UKIP voters, like the vast majority of UKIP members, are disgruntled Tories. The remainder of UKIP voters in an area like Stoke, are those elements who are generally atomised and alienated from political life, and who see it simply as a means of kicking out, and expressing their generally bigoted views, developed in isolation from any rational discussion of the facts.

So, the grand result of Labour's collapse into nationalism, in search of these non-existent former Labour UKIP voters, was that Labour's share of the vote fell by 2%, whilst UKIP's share of the vote rose by 2%, as did the Tories. At the same time, the Liberals more than doubled their share of the vote from 4.2% to 9.8%. That was undoubtedly actually a result of former Labour voters who were disgusted at Labour's reactionary nationalist turn, who swapped to the Liberals who advocated a clear pro-Remain position.

And, in fact, as I'd argued several times in recent weeks, not only was Labour's position over Brexit unprincipled, it was even stupid in purely electoral terms. Labour seems to have swallowed the ridiculous notion that the fact that 65% of Labour MP's were in constituencies that voted Leave, was the same things as 65% of Labour voters in those constituencies voting Leave. It clearly wasn't, as I demonstrated.

The fact is that nationally 65% of Labour voters voted Remain. That Labour voters in constituencies that voted Leave, might have been less likely to vote Remain, may be true without that changing the fact that, even in these constituencies, a majority of Labour voters, by some margin, were likely to vote for Remain. The reason is that not all voters in those constituencies voted Labour. In Stoke Central, for example, in 2015, only 40% of the vote went to Labour, whilst nearly 60% went to UKIP and the Tories.

That has now been confirmed by Professor John Curtice, basing himself on a survey of 30,000 voters, conducted by the British Election Study . The survey shows that although support for Remain is generally lower amongst voters for each party, in the North and Midlands, amongst those who voted Labour in 2015, there were still a clear majority for Remain. In the North, the figure amongst Labour voters is 57% for Remain, in the Midlands it is 60%, comparing with 67% in the South, 74% in London, 64% in Wales and 66% in Scotland.

“According to the BES, in Labour-held seats across Britain as a whole 63% of Labour voters voted to Remain, exactly the same as the proportion across the country as a whole. As we might now expect, the figure is somewhat lower in Labour seats located in the North of England and the Midlands, but at 57% it is not significantly different from the proportion (58%) across the North of England and the Midlands as a whole.” 

In fact, as Curtice says, the proportion (around 37%) of Labour voters who voted Leave in Labour held seats, is about the same as the proportion of Tories, who voted Remain in Tory held seats. As I have set out above, and in previous posts, that minority of labour voters, in Labour seats, that voted Leave, are unlikely to drop Labour if Labour adopted a principled position of opposing Brexit, because other issues such as jobs, wages, public services, housing are more important to them. If Labour adopts radical, credible policies on these issues, that is far more important than tailing after that minority. But, Richmond showed this does not apply for the Tories in reverse. Tory voters who are committed to Remain, are far more likely to drop the Tories for their hard Brexit strategy, and to support the Liberals, or Greens, and potentially if it develops a credible strategy to Labour too.

As Curtice puts it,

“Ensuring Labour’s survival in the North of England and the Midlands is not just a question of strengthening the party’s appeal to the so-called traditional Labour voter who voted to Leave. There are simply not enough of them for that alone to be a viable strategy. Rather, it is also about retaining the support of the majority of Labour voters in the northern half of England who voted to Remain. For without them, the party really will be in trouble.”


davidjc said...

Thought you might be interested in this:

Boffy said...


Thanks. I'll have a look. Very busy at the moment. More books to publish, but working on one on Co-operativism.