Blue and red walls crack

Should the left refuse to call for a Labour vote because of crap politics and crap candidates? Eddie Ford calls for strategic thinking, not knee-jerk reactions

Igniting media excitement, last week’s stunning Chesham and Amersham by-election saw the Liberal Democrats overturn a 16,000 Tory majority by just over 8,000 votes - a swing of 25% and almost 57% of the total vote. In another humiliation for Keir Starmer, with Hartlepool a recent memory, Labour slumped into fourth place behind the Greens, with 622 votes or just 1.6%. This represents the lowest ever share of the vote by a Labour Party candidate in a by-election.

The reasons for the Lib Dem success are not hard to fathom - proposed planning laws, HS2 and Brexit. For instance, 55% in the Chiltern district voted ‘remain’ on an 83.6% turnout - the highest figure for any area in the UK. And anyone who knows Chesham and Amersham can confirm that HS2 is a big local issue. As for planning, nimbyism is a definite factor. Large numbers of well-heeled voters want to defend their leafy idyll from urban sprawl.

That hardly means that we are in favour of HS2 and projects like it. There is no pressing need to knock 20-30 minutes off a journey from Birmingham to London, just as there was no need to waste huge amounts of money on Concorde to enable the wealthy elite to jet off to New York at more than 30 times the cost of the cheapest option. Anyway, with Chesham and Amersham you had a strong ‘remain’ constituency that had always voted Tory since the seat was first created in 1974 - therefore it is fair to conclude that someone like Jeremy Corbyn must have been their worst nightmare, for all their suspicions of Boris Johnson. This time round, it is easy to see why the Lib Dems were such an attractive option.

As we all know, by-elections allow people to kick the government even if they view it traditionally as their government - then they normally revert to type in a general election. Thus the last three by-elections won by Lib Dems all went back into Conservative hands at the following election. This is not to say that history will automatically repeat itself in Chesham and Amersham, or to rule out a Lib Dem revival of some sort, but many readers will remember that every by-election victory by the party is always portrayed by the leadership as heralding a new dawn.

There has been a lot of talk, mainly journalistic, about a historic shift in British politics - with the ‘Red Wall’ still continuing to crumble in the north, as shown by Hartlepool, and now possible cracks appearing in the southern ‘Blue Wall’, as in Chesham and Amersham. Is this the beginning of the end of the old two-party system dominated by the Tories and the Labour Party? Indeed, there has been renewed speculation about that old favourite, the ‘death of Labour’ - at least as the natural second party of government. This sort of speculation, which we have heard as many times as a Lib Dem revival, is bound to go into overdrive, thanks to the July 1 by-election in Batley and Spen - a constituency that voted by 60% for ‘leave’. According to a recent opinion poll by Survation, the Tories are ahead on 47% - up 11% from the 2019 general election - while Labour is on 41%, similar to its 43% winning share at the general election.1

A big difference in this by-election could well be the George Galloway factor. Galloway’s Workers Party is on 6% in the polls. Palestine is a real issue on the doorstep: not surprising, as Batley and Spen has a large Muslim population. Given the recent Israeli bombardment of Gaza and Labour’s ongoing witch-hunt against supporters of Palestine (under the cover of fake anti-Semitism charges) there is widespread disgust at Sir Keir and his pro-Zionist regime. Another likely reason for the Tory lead is Labour’s candidate, Kim Leadbeater. She is an ardent remainer, which does not bode well for Labour, considering what happened in Hartlepool. Leadbeater is also a political lightweight. She only rejoined the party when they offered her the Batley seat. Her only ‘recommendation’ is that she is the sister of the late Saint Jo Cox.

Under these circumstances some on the Labour left have put on display their profound strategic disorientation. Take the Labour Campaign for Free Speech. Not only does LCfFS not know whether or not it is a campaign for free speech: it does not even know whether or not it is a Labour campaign.

Responding to a “senior Labour source”, who told the media that Labour was “haemorrhaging” Muslim voters, because of “what Keir has been doing on anti-Semitism”, it issued a public statement on June 22, which charged the “senior Labour source” with implying that “Muslims are anti-Semitic”. This might or might not be the case. The language is vague and it could be a simple statement of fact. It is certainly true that “many voters” seem to be turning against Labour because Starmer “is bowing to the Israeli government and refuses to support the Palestinian struggle”. It is also true that this “is not anti-Semitism, it is anti-Zionism”.

No, the problem with the LCfFS statement is the political conclusion: “In the forthcoming Batley and Spen by-election, we refuse to support the Labour candidate, an incredible apolitical and nondescript candidate who was chosen by Keir Starmer directly.”

In the entire history of Labour there have been very few candidates who have held to a genuinely principled position. The CPGB Labour candidates in the early 1920s can be mentioned. Militant Tendency had three MPs until they were purged. Leave aside Militant’s crass economism, its clause four reformism and claims that the Soviet Union, China and eastern Europe, even Syria, were workers’ states. The likes of Dave Nellist were genuine class fighters. But the vast bulk of Labour MPs - and candidates - are and always have been pro-capitalist and pro-imperialist. Certainly when it comes to Israel and Palestine, there is been a long and sorry history of overt pro-Zionism. Kim Leadbeater is no different in that respect.

But the reason why the left should support Leadbeater in Batley and Spen has absolutely nothing to do with her. No, we have a strategic perspective of transforming the Labour Party into a united front of a special kind. From that strategy, tactics flow.

True, the key question is building a mass Communist Party. Without that there is no possibility whatsoever of transforming Labour into a united front of a special kind, a vehicle in the struggle for socialism. Hence we come to George Galloway and his Workers Party. Galloway was, from his earliest political days up in Dundee, a Stalinite. But the Workers Party is ultra-Stalinite. At its core is the old Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), a Stalin worship society founded by Harpal Brar.

It is not that a vote for the Workers Party should be ruled out on principle. We supported Galloway when he bravely stood in Bethnal Green and Bow in 2005 in protest against Tony Blair and his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also stood successfully in Bradford West in 2012. Brilliant. But it is all too clear that in 2021 Galloway is not about to win again. He could, though, cause Labour to lose. If the Workers Party pointed in the direction of a mass Communist Party, even falteringly, that would be a good reason to back it. But it does nothing of the kind.

As for LCfFS, its political remit really ought to be focused on the question of free speech - under severe attack in the Labour Party. Is it telling us not to vote Labour in Batley and Spen? Surely that is what “refuse to support” means in plain English. Is it calling for a vote for Galloway’s Workers Party? Is it calling for an abstention? An active boycott? What about the next general election?

Labour Party Marxists will be submitting an emergency motion to the next LCfFS meeting condemning this unfortunate, strategically disorientated and politically damaging statement on Batley and Spen.


Well, if the thesis is that Brexit-supporting former Labour voters in the north are changing the political map, then why cannot it work the other way round? South-east England, especially London, can also change the map, because it strongly voted ‘remain’ in 2016. In a certain sense, nearly anything can happen - making me a bit reluctant to say that the Chesham and Amersham by-election was simply a flash in the pan. On the other hand, we do have a two-party system - almost by definition because of the ‘first past the post’ voting system, which is not going away any time soon. Third parties normally get punished electorally.

Actually, in terms of the last general election, it was surprising that the Lib Dems did so badly. In some ways, conditions should have been ideal for them - with Boris Johnson triggering an election squarely around the Europe question, and ‘getting Brexit done’ eating like acid into Labour votes. You would have expected the Lib Dems to make a bigger impact, since they had a much clearer and less ambiguous position on Brexit than Jeremy Corbyn. He had to be dragged almost kicking and screaming towards a second referendum stance, precisely by Keir Starmer himself.

All of this has to be understood in the broader context of chatter about a centre realignment - not just a Lib Dem revival. The recent by-elections have set certain minds racing, especially in publications like The Guardian, about the feasibility of a ‘progressive alliance’ under which so-called ‘centre-left’ parties would stand down to help other ‘left-leaning’ parties beat the Tories. It has to be said that the idea is problematic arithmetically and electorally. Voters do not automatically tend to the centre. Far from it. More importantly, the whole ‘centre-left’ strategy dovetails with the long-held ruling class project of delabourising Labour. In other words, eliminating Labour as any kind of workers’ party. What is still a bourgeois workers’ party will thereby become simply a bourgeois party.

Starmer has been promising to travel round the country over the summer to ‘hear what people think’. The end result, presumably to be presented to the truncated Brighton conference in September, will, of course, owe nothing to ‘what people think’. Instead, expect, well, at least the possibility of Starmer pledging to complete what that ‘great election winner’ Tony Blair started.

Paddy Ashdown revealed in 2000 that he and Blair “jointly prepared” for forming a coalition for up to 18 months before New Labour’s landslide victory in May 1997.2 According to the ex-Lib Dem leader, Blair would have actively “preferred” to be at the head of a Lib-Lab coalition government rather than governing with his large Labour majority. Now, once again, we have rumours of forming a Democratic or Progressive party.

The treatment handed out to Howard Beckett - who was standing for the leadership of Unite - seemed suspiciously like a manifestation of that line of march. He was suspended from the Labour Party for his supposedly ‘racist’ remark in response to the threats of home secretary Priti Patel to deport migrants, that it was those like Patel who support such ideas who ought to be deported. Top union officials do not normally get treated like ordinary members who can be suspended. Treating Beckett in such a fashion indicates some sort of central decision - it could not have been Labour’s general secretary, David Evans, acting off his own bat. There must have been an agreement to deal with troublesome union officials.

Almost since the moment Sir Keir got elected, there has been chatter about a leadership challenge. But he knows that this is not going to happen. Not only is the ‘official left’ in no position to do anything on that score. More to the point, those who fancy taking over as Labour leader will bide their time. Boris Johnson looks set to get rid of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and go for a ‘you’ve never had it so good’ general election in 2022 or 2023. If Labour loses, Sir Keir will fall on his sword and the usual suspects will line up to replace him - not least, of course, Andy Burnham.


  1. survation.com/conservatives-lead-new-polling-for-batley-and-spen-by-election.↩︎

  2. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/985728.stm.↩︎