Copeland and Stoke Central – putting the responsibility where it belongs

Left Unity comment on the two by-elections that took place last Thursday. – Labour’s Blairite right wing has been waiting for the party under Jeremy Corbyn to lose a by-election and for the first time it has, in Copeland. In fact the resignations of Blairite former MPs Tristram Hunt in Stoke and Jamie Read in Copeland were almost certainly choreographed to give the Labour leadership two by-elections in extremely difficult constituencies.

Right on cue the Labour right and right-wing press have re-launched their ‘Corbyn must go campaign’. Unison leader Dave Prentis joined right-wing MPs and a chorus of newspaper columnists, not least in The Guardian, in attributing the defeat in Copeland mainly to Jeremy Corbyn and demanding that he take responsibility for it. None of them, not even left-wing Gary Younge in The Guardian, pointed out the most obvious facts about Labour’s electoral difficulties.

The first is that Jeremy Corbyn has been the victim of
 the most vicious and most sustained witch hunt of any public figure since Arthur Scargill in the miners’ strike. Since day one after Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September 2015, the popular press has combined with right-wing Labour MPs to drop oceans of abuse on Jeremy. Peter Mandelson’s statement that he works every day for the removal of Jeremy Corbyn is hardly a massive surprise. And he is far from alone among senior Blairite figures.
David Miliband’s statement in The Times that he is ‘deeply concerned’ about Labour’s future and broad hints that he would come back to the UK as replacement Labour leader, is part of the same anti-Corbyn campaign. Uber-Blairite Alan Johnson has demanded ‘relentless rebellion’ against Corbyn.
In fact much of this coverage has had the character of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Blairite MPs say Corbyn is useless and unpopular. The press (and the Tories) repeat this ad nauseam, in fact so much it becomes a sort of public ‘common sense’. And funnily enough this starts to have an impact on Labour voters and the public in general. In these circumstances it is extremely difficult for Corbyn to get the leadership’s anti-austerity message across. And in consequence even some left-wing figures like Owen Jones begin to cave in to the anti-Corbyn consensus.
As Liam Young points out in The Independent Labour’s electoral difficulties did not start with Jeremy Corbyn. He says:
“What cannot be easily changed overnight is the historical trend of dwindling Labour support since Blair won huge majorities and then failed to radically reform many areas of our country, leaving millions of voters behind between 1997 and 2010. Labour’s share of the vote in Copeland has been in decline since then, and last night’s result fits perfectly within the pattern.”
“The decline in Labour support in these areas did not start when Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader; it started when a New Labour project took hold of our party and decided to ignore working class communities across the country. The fragility of Labour’s core vote in Scotland and the North was an issue long before Corbyn arrived as an easy scapegoat for the existential crisis that we face as a party.”
The media was near-unanimous in assessing the by-election results as, to quote Matt Frei on Channel 4 News, as a ‘catastrophe’ (he was followed up by the lamentable cynic Michael Crick). Nearly every single report gave much more prominence to Copeland than to Stoke. But in both cases Labour faced very obvious local difficulties.
Like many former industrial areas, Stoke is mired in dire poverty, a result of the collapse of the local ceramics industry and the failure of successive governments, including Labour under Blair and Brown, to offer any significant help. A 2015 report said Stoke had 60,000 people living in poverty. More than 3,000 households depend on food parcels and there is £25m in unpaid council tax. In 2009 there were nine BNP councillors, although the intervention of UKIP has pushed them aside. Sixty nine percent of the population voted Brexit, and Labour locally and nationally is seen as having abandoned the working class in the city. This was prime territory for UKIP to win a by-election and in the circumstances Labour defeating UKIP’s new leader was a significant achievement.
The overarching problem in Copeland was obviously Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-nuclear stance in a poor area overwhelmingly dependent economically on the Sellafield nuclear fuel reprocessing and nuclear decommissioning site.
Blairite MPs and the right-wing liberal commentariat have contributed massively to the ‘monstering’ of Jeremy Corbyn. Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian is quite correct about how the right can get rid of Corbyn. Don’t go for another leadership election, says Freedland, Corbyn will win yet again. On the contrary:
“Change will arrive when enough people inside the Labour left, Momentum, or those trade unions that endorsed him twice, conclude either that the experiment has failed or that ambivalence and passivity in the face of Brexit are no longer bearable.”
The key phrase here is ‘trade union leaders’ and the key leader in question is Dave Prentis of Unison. He said that Corbyn needed to turn things around and delivered a ‘final warning’ to Jeremy. This has been coming ever since Unison first backed Corbyn in the 2015 leadership election. Nine of the union’s 12 regions backed Jeremy Corbyn and Dave Prentis had no option but to follow suit. He is not alone in biding his time and waiting for the appropriate time to ditch Corbyn. Peter Mandelson was open in late 2016 in wanting a rapid general election that Labour would lose, and thus force Corbyn out.
Make no mistake. Mandelson, Johnson, Blair and the rest of them are happy to see hundreds of thousands of members flood out of the Labour Party as the price for defeating Corbyn. Indeed they would much prefer to see them go – because they are generally well to the left.
Theresa May could indeed see this moment as an opportunity to call a general election, and get a renewed mandate just as the difficult Brexit negotiations begin. To face that possibility Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership team need to re-focus. They need to make it clear that they will fight tooth and nail against any ‘hard Brexit’ settlement and will demand access to the single market and the maximum possible free movement of labour. To make that work they need to come out fighting for the right to remain of European workers in Britain and of course for the rights of Brits who live in Europe. And to do that they have to be in the forefront of advertising the benefits of immigration and multiculturalism. If they do that they can take the leadership of sections of those voters being dragged behind the Liberals and Greens.
Many commentators have observed that Labour cannot hope to prevent another Tory government except by saying that it will form a government bloc (not a coalition) with the SNP. If it does that, it gives a real perspective for an alternative to the Tories and will win the votes of many people desperate to keep the Tories out.
To be the champions of the rights of immigrants and to refuse to rule out governing with the support of the SNP will bring harsh attacks from the Tory right and the media. But harsh attacks from the Tories and the feral right-wing press are coming anyway.