Friday 2 July 2021

Politics after Batley and Spen

We're supposed to herald Kim Leadbeater's win as some sort of advance. I suppose it is for a leadership accustomed to losing. Meanwhile, in realworldland and among folk whose thought processes aren't abbreviated by factionalism and careerism will see the result for what it is: a holding of the line. This was a barely successful defence of a seat that should never have been in contention.

But it was, and so the failure of the Tories to pick it up is a disappointment for them, if not a shocker. Coming after their unexpected stumble in Chesham and Amersham, the same fortune that smiled on Boris Johnson in Hartlepool appeared to be beaming for Batley and Spen. The LibDem triumph could be shrugged off as a stumble on the forward march to the blue Jerusalem. No serious right wing competitor, check. A Labour candidate who was slotted into place without a proper selection, check. Media momentum on side, check. And the prospect of George Galloway's candidacy tearing chunks from Labour's support, check. Yet the Tories went nowhere. Their vote remained more or less static, indicating a solid block of support, as per elsewhere, but their anticipated enjoyment of an anti-Labour protest vote failed to show. If other seemingly viable options are available, then punters will take them. Hence the counterintuitive observation that Galloway probably spared Labour's blushes does have legs. The Tories were left at the altar by the electorate when enough of them found the silky tones of an outside interloper a more attractive proposition.

Doing the rounds on breakfast TV, the Tory party chair Amanda Milling tried playing down their defeat, arguing it's virtually unheard of a governing party winning by-elections in the middle of their term. We know this is a load of rubbish. Following Survation's constituency poll that put the Tories six points ahead of Labour, with Galloway's so-called Workers' Party also on six per cent, they thought the election was in the bag. They then mounted next to no campaign (Dominic Raab, for instance, found the time to campaign in a council by-election defence in his seat on the day, which the Tories happily lost). The press were briefed that the Tories were happy for Labour and Galloway to duke it out and drag each other into a zero sum game of communalist tit-for-tat. Reports of intimidation and violence against Labour campaigners sat alongside Islamophobic briefings by (unnamed, naturally) party officials. The Tories were banking on the white majority in the seat to find this repugnant and support the party staying out of it. A spectacular miscalculation.

What harmed the Tories was the invisibility of their candidate versus Kim Leadbeater, who by the close of the campaign was not only ubiquitous and energetic, but had effectively branded herself an independent. The second, as Andrew Fisher rightly notes, are events. It was less the spectacle of Matt Hancock's affair and more of him breaking the rules and Johnson initially standing by him. This gave some would-be Tory voters pause. And as the Tories weren't bothering with much of a doorstep campaign, there was no way of responding to the mood. With a second surprise by-election defeat on the trot, can we take this to mean peak Tory has passed? It's too early to say as elsewhere the Tories are still racking up by-election gains at local authority level. For instance, on Thursday night they won four new councillors while dropping one to the LibDems. A case perhaps of contests reflecting changed political realities since 2019 rather than pointing to anything new. The next six months of local by-elections, or an unforeseen parliamentary contest will help shed more light on this.

And Labour? It's fair to say the leadership did everything wrong, and showed they'd learned nothing since Hartlepool and Chesham and Amersham. Kim might have been a personable candidate with bags of energy, but politically speaking she's weak to the point of being homeopathic. So watered down were her responses to Israel/Palestine and pay rises for NHS workers that she'll be right at home in Starmerism, which in its best moments affects to do nice things and at its worst pitches to the right of the Tories. And if Keir Starmer was unwilling to take lessons from elections lost, he's not about to have an epiphany now Labour has won something.

Assuming Labour is serious about winning, what could it take from this? There's plenty, but here's a couple. First, that candidates rooted in their communities can help win elections. Shocking revelation, I know. But as the community organising unit is gone and all eggs are getting put in the basket of CLP "business liaison officers", there isn't much sign the party are about to take this on board. After all, with so many idlng ex-MPs feeling entitled to a seat there's no chance Keir is about to upset their friends in the PLP for local unknowns with no loyalty to the Labour leader and the stupid, self-serving fairy tales they tell themselves. The second? Labour cannot afford to scorch earth its existing electoral coalition as Keir and his coterie have done this last year. Any new Labour leader, any new party leader for that matter, has to reach out to new voters and consolidate the party's base. As chunks of Labour's old cores declined and support bled to the Tories, Jeremy Corbyn's accomplishment was to offset it with new supporters. Galloway's performance and the swing to the Tories are another warning politics is febrile and Labour cannot take its core constituencies for granted. Will the leadership treat this as a teachable moment? I think we can confidently answer no to that one too.

Labour's problem is a political one. It's not really about Keir Starmer's haircut and his grey demeanour. That could be forgiven if he emoted the barest of Labour values, and treated the Tories with half the ruthlessness he's shown his internal opponents. He promised Corbyn-lite with added competence and good showings at Prime Minister's Questions. Instead, we've got a clueless frontman to a project more interested in feathering its own nest than winning elections. The narrow Batley and Spen win means none of this is about to change.


Dipper said...

From a Tory perspective, this is not a good result. Labour narrowly got B&S, but Galloway's party is more likely to fall for Labour than Conservative so is a better win than it at first appears.

More worryingly, the underperformance, as in Chesham, seems to be in the traditional Tory vote.

Breathe. Relax. Party politics is adversarial. Government needs an opposition, it needs to be kept on its toes. Johnson needs to improve his method of government in the face of these setbacks. He is who he is, a figurehead inspirational leader rather than an all-seeing autocrat. He needs to ensure his team can do the tasks he is not up to. Life is about having challenges, and rising to them.

The problem for Labour is that for years there have been two main political groupings; right-wing traditional conservatives, and centrist social democrats. Both these groups now live in the Conservative Party. Labour is trying to cobble together a coalition of Greens, woke young, ethnic groups, and trade unionists, but as we repeatedly see holding this coalition together is hard and frankly makes the job of the Conservatives easier as they repeatedly point at sections of this ensemble and ask if people want to be ruled by them.

Anyway, looks like we are back to proper politics.

Blissex said...

«the barest of Labour values»

My guess is that many among the PNewLP think that "Labour values" means "trotskysm, antisemitism, racism, obeying Putin" and they reject those values.

«Labour cannot take its core constituencies for granted.»

I keep wondering why our blogger repeatedly makes this point and other points that seem to imply that (New) New Labour should care about the "Labour values" wing; it looks as if our blogger thinks that (New) New Labour people are really electoral opportunists and will pander to the not-thatcherite wing, so appealing to electoral arguments is the only way to move (New) New Labour policies a bit to the left.

But to me it looks as if the (New) New Labour leadership are not just electoral opportunists, but they are really committed to whig thatcherite ideology and class interests, even if they do so with opportunistic tactics.

Anonymous said...

Galloway won't be able to practice his brand of communal/ anti-semitic politics in every election and thereby split the Labour vote.

Poor old Owen Jones must have been seething. If only a few more homophobes had voted for Galloway... oh, wait.

Anonymous said...

Jones wanted to see a Labour win in B&S, and anyone who pretends otherwise is doing themselves no favours.