Labour did very badly in the 17 June Chesham and Amersham by-election — down from 12.9% to 1.6%, 622 votes, about the same as the number of Labour members in the constituency.
There is precedent. The 2016 by-election in Richmond Park, South West London was also won by the Lib Dems on a huge swing from the Tories, and Labour’s share fell from 12.3% to 3.6%.
The difference is that in 2016-7 there was a sizeable and mobilised Labour left, which is now much more demobilised. Labour did badly in the polls (up to 20% behind) right up until the Tories called the election in mid-2017, and the Lib-Dems polled relatively well in the same period. Then Labour pulled together with a relatively hard-hitting tax the rich, reverse-the-cuts manifesto, got a sizeable number of campaigners onto the doorsteps, and surged. In the 2017 general election, the Labour vote in Richmond Park recovered from the by-election, though not to its 2015 level. Across the country the Labour vote increased substantially from 2015 and the Tories lost their majority.
The Labour vote can surge again, but only through an active effort to convince voters, not by endless triangulating.
By pandering to socially regressive, nationalistic views while saying little of substance about living standards, workers’ rights and social provision — the Hartlepool campaign with its obsessive English-flag-waving was a startling example of this approach — Keir Starmer’s leadership is dissipating the left-wing core of Labour’s 2019 support, and especially putting off younger voters. That is interacting with wider and longer-term trends which erode and fragment Labour’s past “coalition” of supporters.
Starmer’s leadership continues to sap Labour’s campaigning capacity by attacking party democracy, including by having the machine intervene in local Labour Parties to orchestrate coups against the left and suspending members on often unclear charges with little process.
On 17 June the leadership attempted yet another relaunch, with a “policy review” under the title “Stronger Together: A Better Future for Britain”. Subtitle: “Labour launches roadmap to bring Britain together with policies for the post-Covid age”. The tilt is still “pro-business”. On 21 June, again, shadow Business Secretary Ed Miliband denounced the Tories, not over pay, cuts, jobs, but on the grounds that its £140 billion pandemic support for business has not been enough: “Businesses have done right by our country during this crisis and the government must do right by them”.
On LabourList party chair Anneliese Dodds tried to reassure members that the “roadmap [will work] with existing party structures and democratic processes”. The structure she cites is the stitched-up, policy-diluting National Policy Forum.
Labour already has a raft of policies debated and voted for at its conferences. The next Labour conference is in only three months away (25-29 September, Brighton). The left and labour movement should insist conference decides the policies — and more generally use the conference to call Starmer to heel.
The Labour left group Momentum has launched a “re-founding”, too filtered and top-down in our view. But Momentum members have voted for eight left-wing motions to promote for submission to the conference. Many Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) will decide motions in July, and we would highlight a motion pushed by Momentum Internationalists, “Build back fairer: attack poverty and inequality”, a wide-ranging programme of demands for restoring and expanding social provision by taking wealth from the rich.
We should counterpose that programme to the pallid stuff likely to emerge from Anneliese Dodds’ policy review and build support for it throughout the labour movement and society.