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Editorial Labour’s election test could expose the cost of Starmer’s war on the left

VOTING tomorrow in Scotland and Wales and the largest number of local English contests since 1973 is a serious test for Labour.

Significant Tory leads in polls across England have led Keir Starmer to get his excuses in early: “I don’t think anybody thought it was possible to turn Labour around from the worst general election results since 1935 to a position to win the next general election within one year.”

Starmer’s emphasis on Labour providing “strong voices for our towns and cities, our regions and nations” is his best hope: the value of having Labour rather than Tory administrations has been demonstrated in moves like Wales’s rail renationalisation or Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham’s move to bring buses under public control.

There are thousands of Labour candidates who will make a positive difference if elected, whatever one’s view of their party leader.

The strength of the projected Tory vote can seem bizarre: the Conservatives have mismanaged Britain to near the top of the global Covid death rate statistics, steered it into the deepest recession in Europe and flaunted corruption on truly staggering scale.

Against all this Labour sympathisers point out that the government is riding on a feel-good factor based on lifting lockdown and the highly successful vaccine rollout, even if this is the achievement of an NHS whose workforce the Tories are insulting with a 1 per cent pay rise.

The left should avoid the trap of projecting our assumptions onto the majority. When Jeremy Corbyn led Labour, liberals regularly declared that “any other leader” would be making mincemeat of the Tories given the dysfunctional nature of the 2017-19 governments. They were blinded by an inability to recognise popular support for Brexit.

Likewise today, though it is tempting for the left to say that any other leader would be ahead given the Tories’ appalling record, doing so underestimates the consistency with which the Conservatives have outmanoeuvred Labour since Boris Johnson became prime minister.

The cliche that we have a “mountain to climb” doesn’t help since it assumes the direction of travel. Nor does it reflect the volatility of recent British politics: if the 2019 election was a disaster for Labour, the 2017 one saw it record its biggest vote share increase in 70 years. Things can change fast.

That collapse was the result of political mistakes the left has chewed over in depth. But surveys show that the core parts of the 2017 and 2019 manifestos — public ownership, wealth redistribution — remained popular. Socialism was not the problem.

A strong showing today for the Communist Party, which is fielding its greatest number of candidates since the 1980s, is important in signalling that the left revival of the last few years is not going to disappear.

And Labour is hamstrung by that very revival. It cannot compete with the Tories in big-money media support or paid propaganda. It depends on activists.

One little-mentioned reason it is struggling is that it has spent the last year at war with those activists. Many have been suspended or expelled. CLPs have been banned from discussing motions important to their members.

The high-profile excommunication of Corbyn himself stands as a daily insult to hundreds of thousands he inspired to join the party. Now they are called on to knock doors for it.

It seems unlikely that Starmer — who has consistently prioritised smashing the left over taking on the Tories — will rethink his approach.

But trade unions and those Labour MPs who have backed his project in the hope that it might lead to government need to consider how far the determination to expunge Corbynism has weakened the party and consequently empowered the Tories.

Socialists need to win over the waverers to a serious defence of the left and a challenge to the party’s direction since March 2020. Staying quiet from a misplaced sense of loyalty weakens the entire movement.

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