By Martin Thomas
Jeremy Corbyn’s speech in Prague on 3 December went some way to answering those in the Labour Party who are louder, after the Richmond Park by-election on 1 December, for Labour to sink into an alliance with the Lib-Dems or to call for immigration curbs, or both.
“We cannot abandon our socialist principles because we are told this is the only way to win power”, said Corbyn. “The reason we are losing ground to the right today is because the message of what socialism is and what it can achieve in people’s daily lives has been steadily diluted…
“Too often in recent years the left in Europe has been seen as apologists for a broken system rather than the answer to how to deliver radical social and economic reform for the 21st century…
“If we are only seen as protectors of the status quo how can we expect people to turn to us when they see the status quo has failed… We must stand for real change, and a break with the failed elite politics and economics of the past.
“If we do, I have every confidence that the principles of solidarity, internationalism and socialism that we stand for can be at the heart of European politics in the 21st century… Our rhetoric cannot be used to legitimise the scapegoating of refugees or migrant workers”.
Labour cannot be socialist if it sinks into an alliance with the Lib Dems. Labour cannot be socialist if it tries to conciliate Ukip-minded voters at the expense of migrant workers.
Trump’s victory in the USA, a neo-Nazi’s near-miss for president of Austria, and Marine Le Pen’s rise in the French polls, are all bigger facts than Richmond Park, and show that, in an era of capitalist stagnation, instability, and discredit, Labour must be courageous and forthright or slide into a fate similar to France’s 4%-approval-rating Socialist Party president Francois Hollande.
An anxiously “triangulating” Labour Party, trying to assure the Lib-Dem-minded that Labour is not so very different from the Lib-Dems, and the Ukip-minded that Labour resents migration just like they do, will convince no-one.
Poll expert John Curtice made a sober assessment of Richmond Park: “If I were the Labour party I would be worried if the Lib Dems are back in the game. Labour is worrying about losing the socially conservative end of the coalition, but they forget that it is smaller than the socially liberal end… Everyone is going around with an outdated vision of what a typical Labour voter is about. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of Labour supporters [in 2015] voted remain.”
It is no surprise that the Lib Dems won Richmond. It is a very well-off constituency, one of the least likely for Labour to win. The constituency has been Lib Dem most of the time since it was created in 1997. Richmond council was Lib-Dem from 2006-10, and has been Tory since 2010. It has just one Labour councillor.
The Tories won the constituency narrowly in 2010, and then, with the Lib-Dems at the peak of their coalition discredit and Zac Goldsmith at the peak of his “greenie” credit, won a big majority in 2015. With Goldsmith discredited among Remain supporters by his backing for Brexit (he praises the work of his father James Goldsmith’s proto-Ukip Referendum Party of 1994-7) and among the socially-liberal by the rancid racism of his London mayor campaign, it is no surprise that the Lib-Dem electorate returned to base.
Labour has never done well in Richmond, and got only 5% in 2010. Labour should contest such “safe” Tory or Lib-Dem seats: it should give left-wing voters there a chance to express themselves, it should maximise the Labour vote across the country, and over time “safe” seats change.
That Labour’s vote was squeezed is not surprising, but the scale of it was: fewer votes in the by-election than there are Labour Party members in the constituency.
The Labour candidate, Christian Wolmar, is not left-wing, but he indicted Lib-Dem Sarah Olney’s statement that “many Liberal Democrats will be able to get behind” Tory prime minister Theresa May’s program, and proclaimed Labour as “the only anti-austerity party”.
He was sharper against Brexit than Olney, saying that “the only principled position” is to vote against “Article 50”. Some local Green activists backed Wolmar and opposed the national Green Party backing for Only: voters, they said, should “remember the Lib Dems’ regressive role with the Tories in government”.
Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott visited Richmond to back Wolmar. But top Labour Party officials, after reportedly squashing moves by some local Labour Party people not to stand a Labour candidate, did little of the publicity and appeals for mobilisation usual in a by-election. Probably anti-Corbyn Labour officials positively wanted Labour to have a candidate, and that candidate to do badly, to increase the pressure on Corbyn.
Labour cannot win over Lib-Dem voters who are right-wing on economic issues but pro-Remain and socially liberal, or Ukip voters who are pro-welfare-state on economic issues but anti-immigrant, by pretending to be some halfway house, “moderately” anti-immigrant, “moderately” pro-welfare.
Labour should surely advocate a convincing plan to enforce a decent minimum wage, to protect migrant workers from super-exploitation which undercuts wages, and to expand public services and housing in areas of high migration.
That is not all, though. Anti-immigrant feeling is strongest in economically-declining areas where there are few migrants, and so no strain on wages or services from migration. It is weakest in London, where heavy immigration (from other parts of Britain as well as from the EU) probably has (given meagre social house-building) pushed up house prices and rents.
On the evidence, much anti-immigrant feeling is a displacement onto an accessible target of anger against a capitalist regime of permanent high unemployment, unending welfare cuts, and stagnant opportunities. It is a displacement which gains strength when no practical means of combatting the real villains – the bosses and bankers – seems available.
Labour will win only by a strident program of battle against the bosses and bankers, for decent jobs and social provision for all.
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