Labour’s by-election defeats do not signal an electoral disaster, argues CHRIS WILLIAMSON. But clinging to old policies could cause one
THE outcome of [the] Parliamentary by-election in Sleaford and North Hykeham was another bad night for the Labour Party, after an even worse performance in Richmond Park the week before.
There is no doubt that the tumultuous events that punctuated 2016 contributed to Labour’s disappointing performances. The ill-fated coup that was launched against Jeremy Corbyn, when the Tories were in complete disarray following the Brexit vote, was particularly unhelpful.
But whatever the mitigating circumstances, a lost deposit in Richmond Park and slipping from second to fourth place in Sleaford and North Hykeham is clearly not good enough. However, if it serves as a wake-up call to those inside the Labour Party who have been behaving like fifth columnists, these by-elections will have served a useful purpose.
Sadly there wasn’t much evidence of any let-up from the malcontents in “Continuity New Labour.” They seized on these miserable results with the kind of glee you would normally associate with Conservatives, following a Labour setback. According to these political soothsayers, Labour is heading for “electoral disaster.”
This is, of course, more poppycock from people who have been trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy ever since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader in September last year.
The party has never done well in these seats. Even in the landslide of 1997, Labour only achieved 12.6 per cent of the vote in Richmond Park and in Sleaford and North Hykeham the Tories enjoyed a 5,123 majority. But that didn’t stop the calumniators from using the by-election outcomes to launch yet more fault-finding forays against their own party, who they disingenuously claim to “love.”
That is not to minimise the scale of the task confronting Labour; the negative opinion polls and these two by-elections present a formidable challenge. But winning more support isn’t going to happen by capitulating to market economics and scapegoating migrants. Such an approach would certainly lead to “electoral disaster” and create the “existential crisis” that the doom-mongers have been peddling.
We have already experienced two disastrous general election defeats by offering a softer version of the neoliberal economic agenda idolised by the Tories and the immigration controls craved by Ukip. We can, and we must, do better than that. The denialists refuse to accept that such an approach will not bring the electoral dividends they claim, let alone tackle the structural inequality afflicting modern Britain.
The calamity caused by underfunding and privatising public services, the job insecurity faced by millions, particularly young people and the housing crisis that is blighting Britain can be traced back to New Labour’s timidity. It was the former Tory chancellor, Norman Lamont, who accused John Major’s government of being in office but not in power.
Tragically that charge could equally be levelled against the New Labour administration between 1997 and 2010. Yes, of course great things were achieved by the Blair and Brown governments: the Northern Ireland peace process; the minimum wage; the reduction in NHS waiting lists and the Sure Start initiative are just a few examples. I have written copiously and spoken on innumerable occasions about Labour’s achievements during that period.
But the sad fact is, New Labour surrendered to corporate power and was unwilling to use government as an economic as well as a social tool. Consequently, New Labour’s successes were tempered by increasing inequality and the advances it did achieve were built on sand.
Corporations were given carte blanche to offshore decent jobs to low-wage economies, private landlords were allowed to charge excessive rents with impunity and the privatisation of public services continued apace. Moreover, trade unions were sidelined by Blair and Brown who refused to repeal much of the anti-trade union legislation brought in by Margaret Thatcher. Their submission to corporate power even saw ministers dragging their feet on implementing employment rights for agency workers because of pressure from faceless corporations.
This failure to challenge the neoliberal economic model they inherited has enabled the Tories — ably assisted by the Lib Dems between 2010 and 2015 — to sweep away most of New Labour’s achievements. According to the Child Poverty Action Group, the number of children living in poverty in the UK is increasing and a staggering 66 per cent of them are in working families. The King’s Fund has said NHS waiting lists are rising sharply, and figures released by the Department for Education show the closure of Sure Start children’s centres has risen every year since 2010.
This is the legacy of the Blair/Brown years and it requires a radical alternative, not more of the same failed orthodoxy. If they had restructured the economy and empowered trade unions, workers would be in a much better position and the party might still be in office.
New Labour’s failings meant that local government was plunged into a funding crisis within months of the 2010 general election. If they had devolved meaningful powers to local authorities, including an ability to raise revenue, Labour councils could have been a bulwark against an extreme right-wing Tory government; just as they were in the 1980s.
Instead, they infantilised local government and used it as one of Whitehall’s delivery arms. Council contracts were also offered to the private sector resulting in diminished accountability, inferior terms and conditions for workers and deteriorating quality of service to the public.
It’s high time “Continuity New Labour” acknowledged these shortcomings and accepted its responsibility for Labour’s flagging poll ratings. Although their attempted political familicide has resulted in hostile media commentators writing Labour’s premature obituary, grassroots support for Jeremy Corbyn remains strong.
The Labour leader’s next big test is the 2017 county council elections, and I have a feeling the party will do a lot better than the psephological ghouls are predicting.