The script was clearly written in advance by Jeremy Corbyn’s critics. After, Labour’s “humiliating” defeat in the Copeland by-election, surely Corbyn would “do the right thing” and step aside? Indeed, leading figures from the Blairite camp are likely feeling aggrieved that Labour actually won in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election – a victory that slightly ruins and contradicts their narrative about the “unelectable” Corbyn.
Nevertheless, the cacophony of calls for Corbyn to fall on his sword grows ever louder, with the Labour right wing more determined than ever to stick the knife in. Only by coming out fighting with a bold socialist programme can Corbyn and the Labour Left turn the situation around now.
Hoping for defeat
The Copeland results, where the Tory candidate won with 44% of the vote, most certainly come as a major blow to Corbyn. The seat is in an area that Labour had held since the 1930s. Furthermore, it is the biggest increase in vote share by a governing party at a by-election for more than 50 years, and the first time since 1982 that the party in government have won a by-election.
Alongside the victory in the Stoke by-election, what is also conveniently (and unsurprisingly) not mentioned by Corbyn’s opponents, however, is how Labour’s defeat in Copeland was the desired outcome of the Blairites from the beginning. From day one, these venerable ladies and gentlemen have made their vitriolic hatred towards the democratically elected leader palpably clear. Their motto all the way along has been that of rule or ruin.
Even the actual by-election itself, triggered by the Blairite MP Jamie Reed’s resignation, smacked of a stich-up by the Labour right wing. The selection process for Labour’s Copeland candidate was manipulated to exclude the new – more left-wing – members who had joined in the wake of last summer’s Blairite coup, resulting in a victory for the right-wing candidate by only 13 votes. The Left’s candidate, a well-known local working class woman called Rachel Holliday who has strong links to the area and its labour movement, could potentially have stood out, attacked the Tories, and won. But why on earth would the Blairites want Labour to win? That, after all, would fly in the face of their indisputable assertion that a Corbyn-led Labour Party is unelectable!
At the same time, as John McDonnell – the shadow chancellor and key Corbyn ally – pointed out in the wake of the Copeland loss, New Labour’s key architects have spared no efforts in rising from their political graves in the past week to attack the current leader. For example, earlier in the week, The Prince of Darkness himself, Peter Mandelson, informed his peers in the House of Lords of his conscious intentions to undermine Jeremy Corbyn, stating proudly that, “I work every single day in some small way to bring forward the end of his tenure in office”. Tony Blair, meanwhile, has also graced Labour members with his pearls of wisdom recently – of course not missing the opportunity to make a not-so-thinly-veiled attack on Corbyn.
Hypocritically, these gangsters – along with their current acolytes in the Parliamentary Labour Party and their friends in the mainstream media – praise every Labour candidate who claims victory in an election as “winning in spite of the unelectable Labour leader”: from Gareth Snell in yesterday’s Stoke by-election, to Sadiq Khan in last year’s London mayoral election, and Blairite Jim McMahon in the 2015 Oldham West by-election. But, of course, whenever Labour loses, it is a “disaster”…and Corbyn must accept all the blame!
Decades of New Labour neglect
The reality is that Labour’s defeat in Copeland, and current slump in the polls in general, is not the product of Corbyn’s leadership, but has been prepared by years – or even decades – of neglect and complacency by New Labour and the Party’s Establishment towards the working class. "Labour has done nothing for this area, we need new blood," one local Copeland resident told the BBC. "I am 80 and Labour has been in charge all that time - we need a change," said another.
The figures for Labour’s majority in the Copeland seat are a striking vindication of this trend:
Time after time, the Blairite grandees of the Labour Party have shown their complete and utter contempt for the working class, treating Labour’s heartlands – now scarred from de-industrialisation and austerity – as rotten boroughs. The fact that elitist careerists such as Tristram Hunt, with no ties to these working class communities, have been parachuted into such seats has played an important part in fostering a sense of alienation towards the Labour Party amongst its traditional base. It should come as no surprise, then, that Labour’s victory in Stoke was achieved on the basis of a pathetically low turnout of 38%. Who can blame the workers of Stoke for their “apathy” and lack of motivation to vote?
Leading figures from the Corbyn movement have stressed this point also, with Ken Livingstone, the former London Mayor, responding to calls for Corbyn’s resignation by correctly stating that:
“If you look at the collapse in the vote, 20 years ago when Tony Blair won his first election, we got 58% of the vote in Copeland.
“Two years ago at the last election that had collapsed down to about 4% more than we got yesterday.
“This isn’t a decline that’s happened under Jeremy. It’s been happening for 20 years and you hear it from so many ordinary people on the streets saying, ‘What did the last Labour government ever do for me?’
“If we are to turn this round, Labour MPs have got to stop undermining Jeremy and focus on the economy.”
Ken Loach, the acclaimed left-wing film director, also chimed in, tweeting that:
“The loss of Copeland was the fault of the years of Blair, Brown and their apologists in the PLP. The politics of exploiting the working class has led, surprise surprise, to an alienated working class. Those who should represent them but chose not to are the most excoriated and despised of all.”
KL* The loss of Copeland was the fault of the years of Blair, Brown and their apologists in the PLP.— Ken Loach (@KenLoachSixteen) February 24, 2017
Now all the chickens are coming home to roost for Labour. Yet it is Corbyn who, from the start, has become the Blairites’ scapegoat for all the crimes of their anti-working class New Labour project. This latest electoral defeat is, for Labour’s right wing, merely another convenient stick with which to beat the Labour leader.
Which way forward?
The lion’s share of the blame for Labour’s poor performance – in these by-elections and in general – must be placed firmly at the feet of the Blairite camp, who from the beginning have openly sought to undermine and sabotage the (twice) democratically elected leader at every opportunity. By repeatedly plunging the party into crisis with their coups, intrigues, and backstabbing, these right-wingers have done everything they can to make Labour unelectable as a party. Who in their right mind, after all, would vote for a party that is at war with itself; divided and split, with no direction, purpose, or raison d'être?
The main problem for the Blairites at the current time is that they lack any alternative to Corbyn. Their creed is still a toxic brand inside the Party. And after a second crushing defeat in last September’s leadership contest, they are unwilling to experience the embarrassment that another right wing candidate would likely face in a third election.
Nevertheless, the current situation is clearly untenable. Eventually, either the Corbyn movement kicks out the Blairites in the PLP and the Party bureaucracy; or the Blairites will demoralise Corbyn and his supporters to the point of defeat.
The leaders of the Corbyn movement must soberly face up to the facts. Already, the left-wing Labour leader has been isolated within his own party by the right wing, with figures like Tom Watson, the deputy leader, successfully carrying out their “Project Anaconda” – aptly named after the snake that squeezes and suffocates its victims to death, rather than swallowing them head on. At points, Corbyn has even looked like an apparition – almost invisible over the past few months of turbulent political events.
Without any lead from the top on key questions such as Brexit, and with the bureaucratic official Momentum leadership showing an ever-increasing accommodation towards the Labour right wing , even Corbyn’s staunchest supporters are understandably losing patience. After coming out in their thousands to defend the Labour leader against the coup plotters, grassroots members expect to see action – deeds, not words.
Instead, Corbyn missed his opportunity after the second leadership election to democratise the Party and hold his opponents to account. In September, the mood of anger amongst the rank-and-file – disgusted by the Blairites’ summer spectacle – was such that a wave of deselections could have easily been democratically carried out in CLPs across the country. The Party could have been unified behind Corbyn and his programme, galvanising Labour’s new members to organise and take the fight against the Tories. But Corbyn’s call was not for mandatory reselection, but for compromise with those who had just stabbed him in the front.
With the moment lost, the momentum has been lost also (no pun intended). Corbyn has found himself isolated and stranded, reflected in the weak and vacillating Labour position in relation to Brexit.
Kick out the Blairites! Kick out the Tories!
There is still time to turn the situation around, however. The Tories’ strength is superficial. Faced with two years of tension over the Brexit negotiations, cracks will quickly emerge and widen for May and her Tory government. Trump’s state visit, on the back of the Prime Minister’s invitation, has already caused concern and embarrassment for the Establishment. The reactionary US President and his friends in Downing Street will be met by an unprecedented surge of opposition on the streets. Already, tens of thousands have come out militantly in cities across Britain in protest against this renewal of the “special relationship”.
In order to transform the situation, Corbyn must lead the charge to transform the Labour Party. The call must be made for new members to get involved and organised and take back control of the Party at all levels, from top to bottom. Mandatory reselection must be put at the top of the agenda, to renew the PLP and replace the current crop of right-wingers with genuine fighting representatives of the working class. And, above all, a bold socialist alternative must be presented to workers and youth. Only in this way can Labour cut across the xenophobia and chauvinism surrounding Brexit, bring the real class issues to the fore, and put an end to the current Tory government and their programme of austerity.