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16 June 2021updated 06 Sep 2021 2:22pm

The threat of Labour defeat in Batley and Spen shows the party is facing a perfect storm

Keir Starmer’s party must finally accept that without a progressive alliance it has no route to government.   

By Paul Mason

There is a distinct possibility that Labour will lose the Batley and Spen by-election on 1 July. This is not because of the factors splintering its vote among white, elderly workers in small towns, but the opposite. The seat’s Muslim voters may defect to the former MP George Galloway, or stay at home, driven by anger at Labour’s perceived weak position on the Gaza war, its new stance on Kashmir and the failure to select a local councillor as Labour candidate.

If so, Labour will face a perfect storm far beyond West Yorkshire. All over Britain, the anger of young Muslims has triggered a wider radicalisation of young people of colour around the #FreePalestine slogan. On the huge London Gaza demos, which I attended, it was obvious that young, articulate Muslim schoolkids had mobilised together and brought their non-Muslim friends. It was equally obvious on those demos that – as with Black Lives Matter a year before – senior Labour politicians had absented themselves. 

Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott were prominent. Young Asian MPs including Zarah Sultana and Nadia Whittome attended local demos and spoke eloquently. But Labour’s front bench, though it made strong and principled statements in parliament, was absent from the streets. As a result, we are now into the second summer of youth political radicalisation in which the labour movement seems detached and irrelevant, even to people who want to connect with it.

Let’s spell out the logic of not voting Labour in Batley (where the party currently has a majority of 3,525). If enough voters stay at home to protest over Gaza, and if some vote for Galloway, Batley will then be represented in parliament by a party – the Conservatives – that is aligned to the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is systematically denying Muslim civil rights in India. One Tory MP reportedly sought to gain support from British supporters of Narendra Modi, while in the run-up to the 2019 general election, third-party campaign groups led by BJP supporters vilified Labour in sectarian terms.

As in the Hartlepool by-election, the splintering of Labour’s traditional vote could gift the seat to the Conservatives. None of this is new. At the 2019 general election, five thousand voters in Stroud thought it was more important to cast a protest vote for the Greens than to elect a Labour MP. During that year’s European Parliament election, I heard Labour members in south London say they were voting Green or Liberal Democrat because of Jeremy Corbyn’s confused stance on Brexit.

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The progressive core of the British electorate still wants Labour to represent its economic interests: better wages, decent jobs, secure tenancies and good public services. But it wants Labour to respect their right to demand more. It wants Labour to acknowledge that being black or Muslim, or decarbonising the planet, are not secondary issues, and for the party to represent a young generation that feels marginalised and powerless.

Labour’s problem goes far beyond dysfunctional leadership or bad comms. It is plagued by an institutional failure to respond to changing circumstances. I meet plenty of people in the labour movement who understand that values, culture and identity are tearing traditional political allegiances apart – and who know what to do about it. But none of them has any significant influence. They are the also-rans when it comes to party positions: the pollsters who didn’t get the contract; the parliamentary candidates who were shunted to the bottom of the list; the think-tankers whose fringe meetings nobody comes to; the leadership candidates who failed to make the ballot paper.

As an institution, the Labour Party is attuned to rewarding groupthink. The current consensus is that Hartlepool and Batley are freak contests; that the Tories are simply enjoying a “vaccine bounce” in the polls; that Scottish independence isn’t going to happen; and that at some point a majority Labour government can be formed by traditional means. 

Unfortunately none of this is true. Hartlepool and Batley may turn out to be emblematic contests for mid-21st century politics; the Tories are buoyed by elderly white voters; Scotland is on the way out of the UK; and, because of all these things, barring some unforeseen event, the old route to a Labour government is barred. 

There is a solution, but before spelling it out, it’s worth noting that there is no institution within the party where the problems outlined above can be debated.

The National Executive Committee? It’s become a venue for harangues, put-downs and walkouts. The National Policy Forum? When does it meet? Your local Constituency Labour Party? Try getting Gaza on the agenda amid the climate of fear among party activists. As for Unite the union, the biggest component part of the labour movement, its bureaucrats have embarked on a death ride, fighting each other even as the Cold War right threatens to seize control.

The left, too, is treading on eggshells rather than confronting the strategic problem. For all the “Starmer Out” rhetoric, machinations during the Corbyn era have left the Parliamentary Labour Party dangerously denuded of potential left-wing leaders and thinkers.

We are not facing “Pasokification”, the hollowing out of a social-democratic party because it refuses to move with a radicalised electorate. We are facing a crisis unique to Labourism, a trade union party built on the assumption that the Union, class-based politics, a first-past-the-post electoral system and the planetary biosphere were all stable and unchangeable things, and that the loyalty of ethnic and religious minorities was unwavering.

In fact, the UK is on the road to break-up. Identity-based politics now trumps class interests. Proportional representation for Scottish, Welsh and mayoral elections has aided alternative progressive parties with their own bureaucratic interests and careerists. The Green surge that has transformed German politics could happen here if people became resigned to the strategic failure of Labourism. 

A route to recovery was demonstrated by a large-scale polling exercise by the Constitution Society this month. If there were an electoral pact in England between Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens, with no change in Scotland, the result would leave the Tories unable to form a majority government and deliver a potential parliamentary majority for a Lab-Lib-SNP-Plaid-Green administration. 

I doubt that government’s stance on Gaza would satisfy Muslim voters in Batley, or that its climate policy would be radical enough for eco-warriors in Stroud. But it would have far better positions than the current administration and could open up the space for grassroots action from below.

If current polling is accurate, there is a large reactionary minority in Britain, clustered around the Tory party in every jurisdiction except Northern Ireland. It will hold on to power at all costs by exploiting the divisions of its opponents. 

There is a progressive majority that could win if it were committed to a basic electoral non-aggression pact, with constitutional reform as the outcome. That’s the salient fact. Anyone who calls themselves a “politician” while ignoring it ought to quit.

As for Batley, I think the seat is winnable for Labour if, in addition to Kim Leadbeater’s strong candidacy, the party mounts an upfront persuasion campaign over Gaza and a fightback in the areas targeted by the Tories, focused around the basic issues of crime, jobs, homes and public services. 

After Hartlepool, Labour activists are beginning to realise that “get out the vote” has to be replaced by argument, persuasion and counter-attack. But win or lose, Batley exemplifies the new state of British politics: Labour’s coalition can only be held together by a strong, upfront, principled and passionate front bench, speaking the language of the people they wish to represent, and listening to what hard-pressed communities actually want.

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