What Can Democrats Learn From Labour's Catastrophic Losses Yesterday?

When the left turns right: Manchin and Starmer

This morning, The Hill's Alexander Bolton predicted that Manchin is on a collision course with Bernie and Elizabeth Warren over expanding Medicare eligibility. Progressives want to lower the eligibility age to 55 and include dental, eye and ear coverage and conservatives oppose it. Manchin is doing the dirty work for the GOP and other conservative Democrats on this, withholding-- as he loves to do-- the 50th vote to make it possible through budget reconciliation laws that can circumvent McConnell-led Republican filibusters.

The sickening response by conservatives inside the Democratic Party to any and all bold progressive solutions to the real problems that plague Americans' lives is making the party less and less attractive, especially to younger people. Democrats have only to look at what happened in the U.K. elections yesterday to glimpse their own future if they plan to continue joining the Republican Party in screwing over working people on behalf of their big donors and absurd and meaningless abstracts like "bipartisanship."

The parliamentary by-election in a Labour Party stronghold, Hartlepool, flipped to the Conservatives-- and by a landslide-- after the "moderate" New Labour party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, stuck a right-of-center New Labour candidate into the contest:

  • Jill Mortimer (Conservative)- 15,529 (51.9%)

  • Paul Williams (Labour)- 8,589 (28.7%)

  • Sam Lee (independent)- 2,904 (9.7%)

It was the first time Labour lost the district since it was created 62 years ago. Meanwhile Labour is losing local council seats everywhere. By last count they had shed 164 seats, while the Conservatives had picked up 173. Conservatives had already flipped control of councils in Dudley, Maidstone, Basildon, Harlow (long an indicator of the national mood), Cornwall, Pendle, Nuneaton & Bedworth, Northumberland and Nottinghamshire, while Labour didn't expand control anywhere and lost control of Sheffield because of wins for the Greens and Lib-Dems. Starmer's response to his humiliating defeats everywhere is to claim he has to move Labour even further right. The Greens, by the way, have picked up 50 more council seats so far. Union leader Len McCluskey said that people don't know what Labour stands for any longer and he hopes Starmer learns lessons.

This morning, Callum Bell, concluding that "the only path to recovery runs through a bold, transformative agenda which can inspire members, win voters and take the fight to the Tories," put New Labour's pitiful performance into the kind of context Democrats need to look at if they're going to avoid an even worse and more dismal fate in next year's midterm elections.

"Labor has lost Hartlepool," Bell began, "a seat it has held since its creation in 1974. This is terrible news for the working-class people there and across the country who have borne the brunt of the Tories’ fanatical commitment to using Covid-19 to transfer wealth and power to the very richest. Combined with what is shaping up to be an equally poor set of local election results, likely losses in at least two mayoral races, and consistently poor polling, this points to a political party in serious trouble."

Starmer must own this defeat, especially after intervening to impose an unsuccessful candidate. Nor is the solution more of the same timid centrist politics that has defined his first 12 months as leader. It has not worked, and it has been the death of a number of social democratic parties in Europe.
Labour’s anti-sleaze rhetoric may have registered but the lack of anything substantial to say about economic transformation has been costly. When Labour was advised by the CWU that policies such as universal broadband and public ownership were popular in Hartlepool, and that Labour needed to embrace economic transformation, senior figures in the party either ignored the message or attacked the messengers. The consequences of this are now being felt.
Yet the result should come as no surprise. Hartlepool has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and has suffered decades of infrastructure underinvestment. Promising to be better managers of the same system won’t work when so many people have been failed by this system. A change of direction is desperately needed, but the window of opportunity is quickly closing, and it will slam shut if a snap election is called.
We believe there is a way forward to rebuild our party and win elections, by embracing mass democracy and community organising, and bold socialist solutions to the challenges thrown up by Covid-19.
This should begin with uniting the party around a set of policy demands that tackle the problems before us: unemployment, poverty wages, household debt, an NHS at breaking point, the climate crisis.
The motions recently voted on by thousands of Momentum members in our Policy Primary, such as a higher minimum wage and a Green Jobs Revolution, offer a way forward here.
We don’t need a fully fleshed-out manifesto, but we do need concrete policies that convince people that Labour will deliver change and that motivate members to get out to campaign for that change. Embracing community organising must go hand in hand with this, and every CLP should be supported to become an organising hub, as we’ve seen in places like Broxtowe.
But becoming an effective campaigning force will require an end to the attacks on members and the creation of a culture that values their participation. This would mean Starmer accepting that the Left belongs in the Labour Party and will be an integral part of any successful coalition. Yet unlike Biden, Starmer has so far spent most of his leadership throwing grenades at a Left committed to a Labour Government, and in doing so, he has empowered a small minority in the party whose main ambition is to crush the Left, even if it means losing another general election.
If Starmer does want to rebuild trust, he can start by immediately setting out how he intends to honour the ten pledges he made when running for the leadership, which have so far been set aside or contradicted. He can also bring Socialist Campaign Group members into the Shadow Cabinet and end the selection stitch-ups and needless suspensions of members.
If he has no interest in this, then his days as leader are surely numbered.

"Labour," Bell concludes, "may not be the party we want it to be, but it is a vital terrain of struggle that socialists cannot abandon. With its links to the trade union movement and its rich history of socialist struggle, Labour is the best chance we have of delivering meaningful socialist change in government." Are the Democrats going to ever deliver meaningful socialist change in this country? Well... "ever" is a very long time, but I don't see it happening in our lifetimes.