by Trevor Fisher
The by-elections in Stoke Central and Copeland showed that Brexit remains the dominant fact in British Politics – and while Corbyn’s shift to a pro- Brexit stance while helpful in retaining Stoke did nothing to provide a national UK wide strategy. Paul Mason believes the strategy was purely by election driven. In fact it is not even by election driven, it would not work in strong Remain seats. These two had Leave majorities, which seems to have dictated the shift. In the event, in both seats the majority of those voting on a low turnout voted for real pro-Brexit parties, discounting Labour as its conversion was insubstantial – as UKIP pointed out. And a further conclusion has to be that while the Compass strategy of a progressive alliance could theoretically work in by elections where there is a Remain majority, in Leave seats it does not work.
The share of the vote for the strong Leave parties, Tories and UKIP, discounting Labour’s shift to a Leave position, was virtually identical and greater than the other three parties in both seats. In Copeland, UKIP fell to 7.2% of the vote and Tories rose to 44.2% presumably in consequence, giving the strong Leave parties 51.4%. As Labour got 37.3%, Libs 7.2% and Greens 1.7%, had the Compass strategy operated and all the Lib Dem and Green votes transferred – a very big assumption – the Labour share plus the others would have been 46.2%. This would have outvoted the Tories on the day had it happened, but would still be less than the strong Leave parties combined.
In Stoke Central the Labour share totalled 37.1%, confirming this was no longer a safe Labour seat. If the Tories, with 24.4%, can do what they did in Copeland and gain UKIP votes, UKIP gaining 24.7% in Stoke Central, Tories could do well in the successor seat – Stoke central is about to vanish. As for Progressive Alliance, while it was not needed, its worth noting that with Lib Dems getting 9.8% of the vote and the Greens 1.4%, the total of 48.3% would have been less than the 49.1% the two strong Brexit parties totalled. All academic of course, but no great advert for the progressive alliance which in Leave voting seats is unlikely to deliver the anti- Tory Vote compass thinks is needed.
The only leader who can take real comfort for the by-elections is May, who stopped UKIP in Stoke and damaged them in Copeland. Lib Dem increases were modest, but the real problem is for Corbyn, since the shift to pro-Brexit made no real difference to performance in Stoke, where Labour has not had 50% of the vote or more at any time since 2001, though it helped hold the share (actual votes were well down).
In the longer term, a pro-Brexit Labour stance is going to damage Labour prospects in Leave Seats, writing off the slim hopes of a Labour revival in Scotland, while handing the Remain banner to the Lib Dems south of the border. While Labour contemplates that disastrous scenario, more immediate problems are happening as the attempt to graft a Brexit strategy on a pro-EU party – all major sections of Labour including the Corbynista Momentum group are in favour of the EU – is not playing well.
The Times report of 3rd March confirmed rumours that the membership figures are now in decline, removing Corbyn’s one real achievement in recruting members for Labour. The Times said 26,000 had left, but this is only the figure of those cancelling direct debits or notifying the party they had resigned. Those who have not renewed their subs are given six months grace. When the six months are up, the membership figures must fall further.
What role Brexit plays here as opposed to Corbyn’s poor electoral performance, general incompetence and lack of any wide appeal is yet to be established. But it is clear that as with the SDP surge in the 80s and the Blair surge in the 90s, large numbers of joiners are not an asset. Most don’t stay, and they don’t do any work. Only Momentum has displayed any real ability to mobilise new members, and most new members seem to be simply passing through.
The future for Corbyn is grim and while it is inconceivable Labour can lose Gorton – if it does he goes the day afterward – the medium future is very poor, particularly as May is dominating the political agenda. The damage he is doing to the Party’s remaining core voters is considerable, while apathy is affecting all parties but Labour more that the others. In both Copeland and Stoke, fewer actual voters turned out for the major parties, with the exception of the Lib Dems. The Libs increases were not on the scale of previous by elections, but were useful given these were Remain seats and the Liberals are on something of a roll. Labour is not. There is clearly no positive Corbyn effect.
Against this background, the first Open Labour conference in London on March 11th is significant. While the attempt to organise an event around Ed Miliband is not ideal, the emergence of a soft left organisation after nearly twenty years is certainly welcome. The organisation is unlikely to resolve the Labour Party’s dilemmas over Brexit, but as the need for an anti-Brexit initiative in line with Party policy becomes clearer, if Open Labour can fill the gap left by the disappearance of the LCC and Compass from the Labour scene then there is much to play for.
Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007. He was a member of the Compass Executive 2007-2009