Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Friday, May 07, 2021

Not a good day for Labour

I see that I haven’t blogged here for several weeks, partly because I have been engaged in another project, but also because some of the other time which I had was taken up (in the earlier part of my blog-free period) with the selection of two excellent socialist candidates to stand for the Labour Party in by-elections in Brighton.

Unfortunately - on a day in which election results across England appear generally to have been poor for our Party - neither of our candidates was successful.  In Hollingdean and Stanmer, Leila Erin-Jenkins, who would have been an excellent local Councillor, lost out on (what I estimate on the back of an envelope to have been) a 5.5% swing to the Greens (whose rise in this constituency has only really been interrupted by the unpopularity of the Green administration on the Council between 2011 and 2015). 

Although the Tories held on to Patcham (with their candidate who was formerly a Labour Councillor until she was deselected in the run up to the 2019 elections) the Greens again made significant gains with a roughly 9.5% swing from the Tories, pushing our brilliant local candidate Bruno De Oliveira into third place with 18% of the vote.

There is no dressing up such results - and the Party locally as much as the Party nationally  has to understand and respond effectively to very disappointing results. Our candidates are certainly not responsible for these results - in each ward voters would without doubt be better represented had they elected the Labour candidate. This was a defeat for the Party rather than for individuals.

There are some practical things which the Party could have done better (for example, had we been in a position to select our candidates earlier and started campaigning sooner). The perception of a divided Party, which has plagued us locally quite as much as it has nationally continues to do us harm also - but elections are fought between political parties, not by individual parties in isolation and what I think is clear (in Brighton Pavilion at least) is that the “Green surge” of which I wrote two years ago had not yet abated.

Locally, the Green Party continue to have forward momentum which perhaps can only be lost if the Green led administration on the Council manage to lose it again. The challenge for those of us who believe that progressive politics has to be grounded in the workers’ movement if it is going to lead to sustainable social change is to find a way forward which unites social democrats and socialists and connects with the voters.

This is not just a challenge which we face in Brighton. It is a challenge we face nationally and which is faced by our sister parties across Europe where (with the exception of Portugal and Spain) social democratic parties are being eclipsed in a process known by the name of its most noteworthy victim - Pasokification. The political ground on which social democrats could once stand - to deliver some amelioration of the conditions of existence of the majority within the framework of the social and economic status quo - has been shrinking since the economic collapse of 2008, but the roots of decline on the left go back further.

In General Elections in this country, Labour’s share of the vote fell in each election after 1997, falling from 43.2% to 29% by 2010. Only under Ed Miliband was this decline stalled, with a vote share of 30.4% in 2015 before - in 2017 (against weak Tory opposition) we reached a vote share of 40% in 2017 (under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn) falling back to 32% in 2019, when our equivocal position on Brexit led to us losing support both to parties with a clear “leave” position and to parties with a clear “remain” position. 

What stands out in the history of Labour’s share of the vote in General Elections this century is the “blip” of 2017 when Labour’s radical socialist manifesto came as close as is possible - in a country with our traditions and our electoral system - to the “Iberian model” of a social democratic party working with forces politically to its left. In the UK this model can only be applied if Labour charts a clearly socialist course, but the shocking impact of the defeat of 2019 on our Party stands in the way of that approach for the time being - and perhaps for some time to come.

There are clearly different perspectives within the Labour Party about what we should do next and where we go. If we can have a comradely debate based upon an assessment of evidence then we may be able to find a way forward. If we see further bitter division, and the use of administrative measures (such as suspensions, removal of access to Party resources and withdrawal of the whip) to try to resolve political differences, then we will see no progress.

It is a good job I always keep some “optimism of the will” handy because today is a good day for “pessimism of the intellect”.

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