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THE Labour right’s main pitch for activists’ and trade-union loyalty has always been that, unlike the left, it is electable.
For some commentators, being “electable” is a mysterious quality unrelated to the number of votes you attract. Anticipating Labour’s poor performance last week, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee declared that “voters have no excuse” for what they were about to do — since “Keir Starmer and his front bench [are] thoroughly electable.”
Unfortunately the electorate disagrees. Polling for Channel 4 revealed that the top reason given in Hartlepool for not voting Labour was Starmer’s leadership. Of the candidates who stood to succeed Jeremy Corbyn last year, picking the London-based architect of Labour’s second-referendum policy was always a dubious strategy for rebuilding support in the lost Leave-voting “red wall.”
Starmer’s response to the setback appears to be being dictated by Peter Mandelson. A “policy review” is trailed as an opportunity to formally ditch Corbyn-era commitments to public ownership, labour-law reform and the green new deal that Starmer has, in any case, not mentioned since pledging to uphold them in order to secure his election as leader. A shadow cabinet reshuffle looks like moving the whole show even further to the right.
The right always blame Labour defeats on its not being right wing enough. But they should not be allowed to get away with it this time: results across Britain tell the opposite story.
This is as true when we look to where Labour succeeded as to where it failed. The Welsh government of Mark Drakeford, an unapologetic socialist, who has called for Labour to maintain its commitment to the radical policy agenda of the Corbyn years, has been re-elected with increased vote share on an ambitious programme that includes legislation to give trade unions a greater say in shaping policy.
In Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, whose readiness to confront the government during the second wave of the Covid pandemic earned him the nickname “king of the north” and who has championed socialist policies such as bringing buses back into public ownership, was re-elected on 67.3 per cent of the vote to the Tories’ 19.6 per cent.
Salford Mayor Paul Dennett was also elected with an increased majority. He calls on the national party to revive the “radical spirit of the labour movement” and look to why it was able to reverse long-term decline with the socialist manifesto of 2017. His council has fought back against Tory cuts. It has built council houses. Similar good results came in from Preston.
Where Labour has moved right, it enjoys no such success.
Scottish politics are dominated by the constitutional question, and there is no evidence that Labour would have done better under the socialist leadership of Anas Sarwar’s predecessor Richard Leonard.
It is clear, however, that the long-running campaign to undermine and finally oust Leonard on the grounds that a more right-wing and aggressively unionist leader would reverse Labour’s decline was built on a false premise. Those who ran it are anti-socialists and, like Starmer himself, see defeating the left as an end in itself rather than a route to electoral victory.
But their claims to be more electable than the left are a busted flush. Scottish Labour got fewer seats and a smaller vote than it did five years ago. Its vote share was down on the 2019 general election.
Starmer’s defenders now say that the Covid crisis has prevented him setting out his vision. We should meet that with the advice of Tony Benn: the crisis we inherit should be the occasion for fundamental change and not the excuse for postponing it.
Covid has exposed terrible inequalities and injustices in the British economy. If a Labour opposition cannot make a case for change to the electorate under these circumstances, it is hard to imagine a situation in which it could.
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