Where is Labour going?
Batley and Spen, a constituency in West Yorkshire, had a by-election on the first of July. There were a number of surprises – most notably, that the seat was held by Labour. The election was taken to be something of a judgment on the Labour Party as a whole, with polling suggesting that it would be a 6 percent lead for the Conservatives (Survation, 18 June). Losing Batley and Spen would have been a particularly painful blow for Labour, as it was the constituency of Jo Cox, the Labour MP who was murdered in 2016 by a neo-fascist, Thomas Mair. Her sister, Kim Leadbeater, won the seat this year by 323 votes (a lead of 0.85 percent of the vote, having won about 35 percent overall). The seat had been Tracy Brabin’s, a Labour and Co-op MP, since the by-election following Cox’s death. Her leads were 16.7 percent (55.5 percent overall) in the 2017 general election, and 8.7 percent (42.7 percent overall) in 2019. While Labour’s holding the seat was unexpected, considering how narrow the victory was, and how the seat has often historically been Labour’s more strongly, this is by no means a turning-of-the-tides.
One of the other surprises was that almost 22 percent of the vote went to George Galloway’s ‘Workers Party’, which he describes as ‘the working-class patriotic alternative to fake woke anti-British ‘Labour’’ (Telegraph & Argus, 12 May). The party’s Deputy Leader, Joti Brar, is vice-chair of the CPGB-ML. Whoever they represent it is not the workers. Their website announces that they are a ‘socialist organisation’, but also that they ‘defend the achievements of the USSR, China, Cuba etc’, and that the party ‘believes in the importance of a planned economy, in the directing role of the state. Free-market fundamentalism has gutted Britain of its industries (…) castrating our society and adversely destabilising proud working-class traditions, culture and way of life.’
One would be hard-pressed to find a better example of what one-time leader of the Italian Communist Party Bordiga derided as ‘the typically opportunist conception of the labourist or workerist party to whom all those individuals who are proletarian in terms of their social condition are admitted by right’, to say nothing of the alarming fetishisation of oppressive state-capitalist regimes, past and present.
Socialism’s goal is not to preserve ‘working-class traditions, culture, and way of life’ – on the contrary, in an important sense, it is to abolish those things. We demand the elimination of class, not the extension of the proletarian way of life to the whole of society. Indeed, isn’t it dissatisfaction with the proletarian way of life that gives motivation to socialist sentiment in the first place?
At any rate, the result was astonishing. Galloway took himself to be ‘standing against Keir Starmer’, and that 22 percent backed the Workers Party, placing it third overall, can reasonably be read as an indictment of the Labour Party as it stands. Indeed, perhaps the only reason Labour didn’t lose is sheer luck. The week before the election, the news broke of then Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s affair and breach of the social-distancing rules he himself set out. This and the Conservative Party’s reaction (or lack thereof) did not reflect well on them, and presumably led to a drop in Tory turnout on the day of the vote. Keir Starmer’s declaration that ‘This by-election is a turning point (…) Labour’s back, and the promise of a better future is back too’ (Guardian, 2 June) is certainly too quick. Indeed, comparing leads over the years, it is not a turning point at all. It is a continuation of the dwindling of victory margins Labour has seen.
Indeed, some of the party’s campaigning tactics showed signs of panic and desperation. Leaflets were distributed showing PM Boris Johnson with the Indian PM Narendra Modi, of the radically Hindu nationalist BJP. This was to appeal to the Muslim vote, especially given continuing human rights abuses in Kashmir, a region disputed by India and Pakistan for generations. The frantic appeal to votes led to some internal division within the party, with Labour Friends of India requesting withdrawal of the leaflets. The vote still remained divided: Kim Leadbeater was heckled and intimidated after being questioned about her stance on LGBT rights, Palestine, and Kashmir (Guardian, 27 June). One man who chased her said he was acting on behalf of Muslim parents concerned about LGBT-inclusive education. Across given demographics, then, Labour has not won many hearts.
The victory will, of course, still be welcomed by the Labour party. But it is not a victory that they can take much comfort in. Indeed, looking at it as anything but an immense stroke of luck is probably mistaken. The signs point to a need for change in the Labour Party, if they want to win again – and that change, contrary to what Starmer has suggested, has not already taken place. George Galloway’s Workers Party is an important surprise in the election – Labour would be remiss to not take some note. Handing over 22 percent of the vote to a rival left-leaning party is not a concession they are in any position to make.
Labour’s position is somewhat precarious now, with no signs of a forthcoming reversal in fortunes. The reason they won seems to have as much to do with the Conservatives’ blunders than their own successes. Starmer’s jubilation had better be a mere façade if Labour is to return to serious positions of power in parliament. He writes that ‘Batley and Spen was an important win – in the most difficult of circumstances. But it is only the start.’ Even this might go too far. Perhaps it isn’t the start, but a mere confirmation that Labour is going nowhere fast.