Labour's somewhat hollow triumph

Successes built on low turnout are castles made of sand.

Thursday was a great day for Labour activists across the country, bringing about results which meant one of the most enjoyable election nights in years. Within moments of the polls closing, the Tories very own in-house omnishambles, Sayeeda Warsi, was dispatched to TV studios to tell the nation that Labour needed 700 council gains to be able to call the night a success. Later she tried to increase the number to 1000 - a figure that was nigh on impossible to achieve. 

That early attempt to move the goalposts was telling. Few Labour people seriously thought that 700 gains was achievable, but the Tories evidently did once they saw their vote collapsing on election day. In areas where Labour needs to win in 2015 (Thurrock, Norwich, Harlow, Basildon, Reading, Southampton, Plymouth) the results were overwhelmingly positive. But the gains weren't just confined to the south - in the north west, Labour took Wirral, and wrestled Sefton from No Overall Control for the first time since 1986. In Sheffield, Leeds and Wakefield (to name just a few) huge chunks of the available seats fell to Labour.

And then Glasgow. We were never meant to win. Privately some senior Labour people had begun to concede it more than a week before election day, with the SNP tidal wave engulfing another Labour stronghold. But this time it was the final one. If Glasgow went SNP, the independence drumbeat would have intensified. As it is, Labour has shown that it can beat the SNP, with organisation, fresh candidates and an acknowledgement that the party has changed. Their result was remarkable - to paraphrase a much mocked Ed Miliband speech - the fightback in Scotland starts here.

And I still haven't even mentioned Labour's fantastic results in Wales, picking up Cardiff to strengthen the party's Cymru hegemony.

So Labour retained Scotland's biggest city and won the Welsh capital, but the same can't be said in England, where of course Labour lost the London Mayoral election. I've discussed why I think Ken lost already, but even here a certain defeat that the polls thought would be huge turned into a late night semi-squeaker for the Tories - with some on team Boris seemingly thinking that Boris had lost. That was a testament to the campaign's focus on the ground game, and the determination of Labour activists - both repaid by the election of 12 London Assembly members, and the ousting of Tories like the odious Brian Coleman.

But what cost Livingstone the election - at least numerically, rather than politically - was turnout, and the positive election results throughout the country don't mask the sapping effect that low turnout has on our democracy. Politically, neither party has yet been able to sufficiently enthuse the electorate enough to get past the "you're all the same" factor. Yet Ed Miliband appeared to realise the potency of this existential threat to party politics, when even after such strong results he talked of those who didn't vote at all.

The other side of the low turnout coin is cultural and organisational. As Karin Christiansen rightly pointed out on Friday, "Low turn-out is a problem in general. Both we and the Tories are stuck in low turn-out election strategies, with a race to the bottom: whose vote gets suppressed least wins." Does that sound like the kind of politics you want to be involved with? I know I certainly don't. But that kind of culture pervades all parties now - and is the context in which backlashes like Bradford West should be viewed. 

Recently a party member in a traditionally safe Labour area told me their local organiser "loved low turnout elections" and that the same organiser had told them Labour's aim in elections was "to discourage and demoralise our opponents' supporters from turning out while reminding enough of our voters to do so." It's a style of politics that seeks to drive up apathy. 

Is it any wonder that one of the most commonly heard replies on the doorstep is "you're all the same"?

Getting past that apathy is the real challenge for Labour and Miliband - putting down roots in areas that make Labour support more secure and long term, precisely because the party is in touch with the electorate, campaigning with them rather than just at them, and speaking to them on their terms. Only by making such a shift in the way the party campaigns can Labour stop the race to the bottom and help restore the nations's faith in politics and the ability of the left to change the country.

The alternative is more potentially hollow victories like this week. They may augur well for the future - but just as plausibly the success may be fleeting. Successes built on low turnout are castles made of sand - and unless we act soon, the rising tide of public discontent will wash us all away.

Mark Ferguson is the editor of Labour List.

Glasgow, the fightback in Scotland starts here. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.