The national Labour leadership have imposed a shortlist of just one candidate – right-winger Dr Paul Williams – for the forthcoming by-election in Hartlepool. This was done only a few days after Mike Hill resigned as the Member of Parliament for the constituency, following allegations of sexual harassment.
This stitch-up again reveals the contempt of the Labour Party tops for the views of the party members. And this is no accident, since the bulk of the membership remains far to the left of the careerists who occupy the Parliamentary Labour Party and its apparatus.
The episode highlights the urgent need for activists to fight for party democracy, which is necessary for the struggle for socialist policies. This must include the basic right for party members to select their own parliamentary candidates, based on what political positions they hold.
By parachuting in their own candidate, the Labour leadership are in fact making a Tory victory in the by-election more likely.
Labour stitching up Hartlepool parliamentary candidate selection by parachuting in a single Blairite candidate— Socialist Voice (@SocialistVoice) March 17, 2021
Paul Williams - who tried to stop Brexit - is Sir Keir Starmer's preferred by-election candidate in pro-Brexit Hartlepool https://t.co/Hi8xwdEEzW
Hartlepool, a working class town in the North East, was a Labour stronghold for decades. Yet a Labour victory is now far from certain.
Labour's right wing – and capitalism generally – have completely failed Hartlepool over decades. The prospect of another right-wing Labour candidate could realistically result in the loss of the constituency for the first time in its history.
The problem lies in the fact that the right wing of the Labour Party are correctly seen as being part of the establishment in many areas of the North East. A large number of working-class people feel neglected by Labour, as revealed by the loss of many ‘Red Wall’ seats to the Tories in the 2019 general election.
Hartlepool is an area that's been run down for many years, beginning with de-industrialisation in the 1970s. But since then, the right-wing Labour party bureaucracy has treated Hartlepool as simply a safe seat for its favourite candidates, who are completely out of touch with the constituents they claim to represent.
It is no coincidence that Peter Mandelson – Tony Blair’s ‘Prince of Darkness’ and friend of big business – was parachuted into Hartlepool to serve as its MP in the 1990s. No wonder many residents feel that the Labour Party doesn’t represent them.
The right-wing Labour leadership are of course continuing down this same path.
Hartlepool voted 69% in favour of Brexit in the 2016 referendum. Labour then lost control of Hartlepool council at the last local election to a ragtag bunch of former UKIP councillors, who were backed up by the Tories and so-called ‘Independents’.
This was since the right wing of the Labour Party failed over many years to present any real alternative to the Tories.
Added to this was Labour’s support for a second Brexit referendum – engineered by none other than Keir Starmer. As such, the Party now holds just 6 out of 33 council seats in what was formerly a solid Labour area.
In the 2019 general election, Labour won with a very reduced majority, but only because the Brexit Party and the Tories split the much larger anti-Labour vote.
With the Brexit Party now out of the way, combined with Starmer’s lack of opposition to the government, the Tories could easily win this time round.
The appointment of Dr Paul Williams – an arch Remainer – is therefore clearly a disastrous choice as Labour’s parliamentary candidate for the seat.
Rather than a shortlist of one, an open selection process would have allowed Labour party members to have an input into the political direction of the party in the town.
One candidate whose name was mentioned as an alternative to Williams was Laura Pidcock, who gained a great reputation between 2017 and 2019 as a left Labour MP in North West Durham.
Pidcock narrowly lost her seat at the last election. But as a self-proclaimed socialist, who attacked the Tories in class-terms, she would have been an excellent candidate.
This is the same Pidcock, however, who was referred to by Margaret Beckett – the right-wing chair of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) – as a “silly cow” in a recent NEC meeting. This was after Beckett refused to allow a discussion on motions calling for a recall conference of the Labour Party.
So it is no surprise that the party leadership wanted to keep Pidcock off the ballot paper.
Let’s be honest. If Laura Pidcock had called Margaret Beckett a “silly cow”, newspapers would be splashing on left wing bullying and nastiness.— Owen Jones 🌹 (@OwenJones84) March 12, 2021
But these rules only apply to the left. https://t.co/yhq43Fozak
Incidentally, at the Hartlepool CLP all-member nomination meeting for the Labour Leadership election in 2016, Jeremy Corbyn won by 30-2 votes against right-winger Owen Smith. This illustrated a real desire for change on the part of the local membership – change that won’t be coming soon on the basis of this current undemocratic process.
The Hartlepool decision is symptomatic of the regime that currently exists within the Labour Party at a national level. No wonder then that Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite the Union, suggested that Keir Starmer risks being “dumped into the dustbin of history”.
McCluskey said in relation to the Hartlepool by-election that “if that is Keir’s definition of democracy well it's certainly not mine. It's not even a pretence anymore.”
“A shortlist – actually it was a long list – of one man, it beggars belief. But at the moment in terms of internal democracy within our party, nothing is surprising.” He went on to say: “I regret the fact that a proper process wouldn't have been gone through.”
McCluskey's statement reflects a wider mood of discontent within the party at the direction that the leadership is travelling. After an avalanche of suspensions and bans on discussing policy within the party, this undemocratic process in Hartlepool is likely to raise the temperature even further.
These questions will not be restricted to just the Labour Party, or Unite. Within Unison, where National Executive Council elections are due to take place in a few weeks’ time, the role of the Unison representatives on the Labour NEC has been called into question.
What role did Unison’s NEC representatives play in this imposition of a right-wing candidate? In relation to Hartlepool, the chair of Hartlepool CLP is a current Unison NEC member, as well as being branch secretary of the local Hartlepool Unison branch.
Unison members will be wondering what the imposition of a right-wing candidate in Hartlepool is going to do to help defend their jobs, and the services that they work in.
Surely it is in the interests of Unison members to conduct a full, frank and democratic discussion about what sort of policies and programme Labour stands on in places like Hartlepool.
Hartlepool clearly needs a Labour candidate who is prepared to campaign for bold socialist policies, and harness the burning anger of residents against the rotten status-quo.
Only such a candidate could answer the lies and attacks from the motley crew of right-wing parties in the borough, with a class-based socialist programme that can begin to solve the problems workers in the town.
The risk is that imposing a right-wing candidate via an undemocratic process merely reinforces the concerns that many party members have. What the voters of Hartlepool will make of this is another story.
It is welcome that McCluskey has raised his voice against the direction being taken by Starmer. We agree that Starmer and the Labour right wing must be consigned to the dustbin of history. But as we all know, the rubbish does not take itself out – it needs to be dumped.
As the leader of Britain’s second largest trade union – with close links to the Labour Party – McCluskey is in a position to play a significant role in Labour’s ongoing civil war.
For this potential to be realised, however, grassroots activists in the unions and CLPs need to get organised. McCluskey and the other trade union leaders should therefore urgently organise a conference of the Labour and trade union left to act as a rallying point for the rank and file.
The main item on the agenda of such a conference should be the drawing up of a fighting strategy of the left, in the run up to the Labour Party conference in September. The aim must be to sweep away the current right-wing leadership, and transform the party into a vehicle for socialist change.
Ultimately, only a political struggle – based on a fighting socialist programme – can inspire the membership to take up the task of dumping Starmer into the dustbin of history. This would then clear the way for the main challenge ahead – the sweeping away of the whole rotten establishment, and the socialist transformation of society.