Despite dire warnings about Labour’s prospects in the Stoke by-election, they succeeded in retaining the seat. Seb Cooke argues that the lessons that should be learnt from Copeland and Stoke are that Labour needs to be more bold and radical.
“UKIP plot to crush Labour BEGINS as leader Paul Nuttall launches MP bid in ‘Brexit CAPITAL” boomed The Daily Express when it found out that Nuttall would challenge Labour in Stoke. It was hardly surprising that the paper in particular was buzzing at the prospect of UKIP unseating Labour. After all, the Express is the closest thing we have got to a house journal for the far right in this country. But in their giddy assessment of Nuttall’s chances in ‘Brexit Britain’, they weren’t alone.
When Nuttall was first elected as leader of UKIP it quickly became common currency that he would eat into the Labour vote with ease.
The Spectator quickly declared that his election was ‘bad news for Labour’, with their coloumist Katy Balls writing:
A skilful media performer, Nuttall’s working-class roots should help the Scouser give Labour a run for their money in their traditional heartlands. For many, Corbyn’s immigration-loving metropolitan party bears little resemblance to the party they once voted for. As Nuttall prepares to win over these disillusioned voters, Labour are clearly worried.
On a similar basis, The Times’ editorial stated that Nuttall could spell a ‘nightmare scenario’ for Labour and began totting up how many Labour seats would quickly tumble UKIP’s way. The Sun made out that Nuttall could appeal to Northerners in a way Farage could never dream of. This wasn’t confined to the right wing press.
The Labour MP Dan Jarvis (who often talks as if he’s auditioning for Top Gear) said that “The Ukip fox is in the Labour henhouse.” The Guardian’s Rowena Mason wrote that Nuttall was “the Ukip figure feared by Labour MPs with seats in the party’s traditional northern heartlands.”
And in its editorial The Mirror was very clear about the threat:
Nuttall looks and sounds like an ordinary bloke and poses a major danger to Labour, some of whose disillusioned voters feel their party has left them behind and are looking for a new home.
There are more examples of a similar prognosis being offered; with most declaring that Nuttall posed some existential threat to Corbyn’s Labour party. You’d imagine that all this hype would have been based on solid foundations. Surely somebody, somewhere would have done some research that led them to the conclusion that Labour were about to be wiped out by a right wing insurgency led by the new UKIP leader.
In the end however it turned out that it was all just built on sand or, more specifically, a one-dimensional view of working class people in the North.
This was a view of working class people as white, uneducated, socially conservative, inherently anti-immigrationist and generally suspicious of the nefarious ‘Southerner’ who didn’t drink tea with their chips and so on. It was a view without a basis in reality and one often formed, ironically, by people who like to pretend that unlike Corbyn they are in tune with ordinary people when in fact they are completely detached.
This of course is related to an overly simplistic analysis of the referendum result itself. This sees the enthusiasm for Brexit in places such as Stoke as a primarily reactionary phenomenon that could easily translate into support for UKIP.
In any case, the Stoke by-election was a chance put their theory to the test. The “Brexit capital” with some of the lowest wage rates in the country was the perfect place for Nuttall’s northern strategy, gobbled up by the commetariat, to take on Corbyn’s Labour. It failed. UKIP’s overall vote was down and their share of the vote only increased by 2.1%. In 2015, the party’s vote share jumped by 18 points compared to 2010. All that bluster and the party didn’t budge. As Nuttall himself declared after the result, UKIP was ‘not going anywhere’.
Unsurprisingly given the circumstances and some of their candidate’s emphasis on Englishness, Labour’s vote share dropped by 2% and there was no upsurge in support for the party. But that was never really on the cards, and the repeated terms under which the election was fought was to fend off an insurgent UKIP who were getting talked up across the board. On that basis, Labour succeeded and that’s a credit to the huge ground campaign.
UKIP have now been plunged into a fresh crisis and Nuttall is being both attacked by the likes of Aaron Banks and being undermined by Farage’s hostility towards Mark Reckless.
So where are all the embarrassing climb downs from those who predicted the opposite outcome? Why aren’t they apologising for getting their political calculations so wrong?
Instead of admitting their error, the same people now focussed solely on Copeland, trotting out a barrage a statistics which were supposed to reveal how earth shattering the result in West Cumbria had been.
Yes, Copeland needs to be discussed and yes, the result was bad, but the relentlessness focus on Copeland should be qualified by what it was really about. It didn’t only provide an opportunity to wildly talk up a second coup and hammer Corbyn, it also created a distraction from the Stoke result which contradicted the shoddy political analysis that was now being used to explain Copeland as political earthquake.
Fresh from barking up the wrong tree in Stoke, the pack had now moved on to somewhere else and again, we were all expected to listen to the noise as if it were some kind of glorious insight. But more than this, they shifted the goal posts. Whereas before the challenge was for Labour to hold off UKIP (which they did), it was now the case that the seat was never really in contention in the first place.
John Hammett, the leader of USDAW, and Richard Angell, leader of Progress, even lumped both by-elections together as equally bad on the basis that Labour didn’t increase their vote share in Stoke. Dan Hodges referred to Stoke as a “barren wasteland” because Labour’s vote had almost halved (he didn’t mention that turnout was way down of course). Ian Dunt of politics.co.uk said the party won Stoke because of the “resilience of the Labour brand” in spite of Corbyn, failing to recognise the effect of Hunt’s resignation or decades of the area being let down by New Labour.
And Jonathan Freedland, the liberal commentator and defender of Tony Blair, derided any attempt to celebrate the result in Stoke whatsoever: “Some loyalists are trying to offset it with the fact that Labour staved off defeat in Stoke” he wrote in The Guardian’s lead Op Ed the day after, “as if retaining a rock-solid seat against a carpet bagging, tweed-wearing counts as some kind of triumph rather than the minimum ask of an opposition party in midterm.”
Freedland was right, Nuttall was an easy target. But the awkward truth, however, was that in a much bigger election with much greater consequences, the US presidential election, his chosen candidate had spectacularly failed to secure an in-the-bag election against a candidate who’s liabilities made Nuttall’s colourful life as the former PhD student and Tranmere Rover’s star, who headed a charity board and lost a close friend at Hillsborough, seem fairly innocuous.
It’s laughable that the lessons the left and supporters of Corbyn are supposed to learn are coming from those who told us Hillary Clinton would have a better chance of beating Trump than Bernie Sanders. They were catastrophically wrong then and now we are living with the consequences. They were also wrong about Stoke. But instead of having the good grace to step back and admit, like Blair once did, that they no longer understand the world, they instead busy themselves by re-writing history and attacking the radical left, throwing wild punches in the hope that they might make everyone’s head fuzzy so we forget how wrong they are.
The dismissal of Stoke (in a similar way to Clinton’s dismissal of states such as Michigan) is based on a cynical view of working class voters that says they should always vote Labour (or Democrat), no matter what. And the deliberate focus on Copeland is also about elevating potential Tory voters as the panacea of the electorate whose supposed intelligence and endless quest for budgetary responsibility is the holy grail of British politics. This represents the failed strategy pioneered by Mr Blair and Clinton that eventually wiped Labour out in Scotland and put UKIP in the running in the first place.
The left does need to learn lessons from Copeland and Stoke. Namely, they are to be more bold and radical in the model of Bernie Sanders’ primary campaign and Corbyn’s second leadership bid. Had Corbyn’s candidate been chosen in Copeland, it may well have been possible to take the fight over the NHS away from chats on the doorstep and into the street, forcing the issue onto the Tories much more directly.
As locals who campaigned in Copeland attest, the candidate was a former councillor and seen as part of the establishment there. And the old method of electioneering, where you simply identify your vote and encourage it to turn out, does not suffice in a time of political crisis for a left candidate under constant siege. Different methods need to be adopted.
These are discussions to be had around elections, but this isn’t what much of the ‘left’ critiscism of Corbyn is about. It’s purpose is to deliver a more centrist opposition.
Having said that, we shouldn’t abandon genuine criticism of Corbyn, but the picture is more complicated than simply one of Corbyn’s Labour drifting more to the right and to electoral defeat.
The political crisis for May will intensify, and anyone who wants to speak of a nonexistent opposition should look to the victory in the House of Lords over EU nationals that was led by Labour. It will be a monumental challenge to make that amendment stick, but it should be welcomed that a movement on the ground trying to defeat May over this has support in the Labour frontbench.
The party publicised the NHS demonstration in London and supported it in a way Labour hasn’t done in decades. Corbyn and McDonnell delivered very strong speeches just as they had done during the doctor’s strike last year.
If the radical left sits back and waits for Corbyn to deliver in the way we want, we will be waiting a long time and inevitably be disappointed. But if we organise and recognise that through doing so we are able to change the world and influence our political landscape then we have a chance of utilising the radicalism that produced Corbyn to turn the heat onto our government.
These are lessons we learn with a vision for a better society that breaks from the pro-capitalist consensus and sees working class people as the key part of doing that. Those who got it wrong over Stoke and wrong over Clinton do not have the answers.