Copeland and Stoke by-elections: another nail in Labour’s coffin

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The results of the Copeland and Stoke by-elections which took place on 23 February mark a further step in the steady break-up of the Labour Party as a significant electoral force, with opposing wings of the Party trading excuses for the poor results. Although Labour retained Stoke by 7,853 votes to UKIP’s 5,233, it was a result that should never have been in doubt: UKIP leader Paul Nuttall was exposed time and again as a liar. To lose Copeland on a 6.7% swing to the Tories after seven years of austerity and with NHS services under threat from the local Sustainability and Transformation Plan is even worse: the result shows how little the working class believes Labour is committed to representing its interests.

Asked if he felt in any way responsible for the results, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said ‘no’. This has a superficial level of plausibility: both Labour candidates made sure that they kept their political distance from Corbyn. Gareth Snell did so because he is on the right wing of the Party, adorning his campaign literature with the St George’s Cross to emphasise his patriotism and Copeland’s Gillian Troughton did so because she was selected to fight the constituency against Corbyn’s preferred candidate. Corbyn’s opposition to nuclear power was a further political embarrassment for Troughton: the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant with 10,000 workers is a major employer in the constituency. However, Corbyn is responsible for the fact that the Labour Party still fails to defend the working class, despite Corbyn’s two leadership election victories and a great deal of rhetoric about a new political agenda. Corbyn knows that challenging his reactionary opponents within the Labour Party would inevitably split the Party and result in its disintegration. Determined above all to preserve Labour’s unity, Corbyn’s leadership has ensured that the Party remains what it always has been: a reactionary, anti-working class force, loyal to British imperialism.

Labour’s right wing is in no doubt about the implications of the Copeland defeat: rent-a-quote John Woodcock, MP for the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness where Trident replacement submarines will be built, says that Labour is on course for a ‘historic and catastrophic defeat’ at the 2020 general election. Guardian columnist Owen Jones, who has played a central role in supporting recent moves against Corbyn, states ‘Unless something drastic happens, Labour are on course for their worst defeat since the 1930s with terrible consequences for this country ... this is not sustainable.’ The problem for such critics is that no change in Labour’s leadership will restore the electoral credibility that has been seeping away over the last 20 years: in Copeland, Labour’s majority had fallen from just under 12,000 in 1997 to just over 2,500 in 2015 before Corbyn became leader. After years of Labour support for austerity, councillors are now bound by Party rules to continue implementing savage cuts locally. No one believes Corbyn’s apparently radical anti-austerity posture; all they see is a completely ineffectual figure. A replacement leader would fare no better even if one could be found: he or she would still be caught between anti-austerity rhetoric and pro-austerity practice.

Corbyn’s supporters inside and outside the Labour Party maintain their delusions as to what he represents, blaming the by-election results on the right wing. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell says criticisms of Corbyn aired by Tony Blair and Lord Mandelson just before the by-elections contributed to the results by undermining Party unity – as if there is anybody who takes any notice of these wretched traitors any more. More abject were those outside the Labour Party who have tied themselves to Corbyn and the Labour Party. The Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) welcomed the defeat of UKIP at Stoke, choosing to ignore the xenophobia in Labour’s campaign or its racist record, and went on to argue that:

‘Corbyn has to break from the right. But crucially there has to be more of the type of struggle that gives a sense that society can change. Big demonstrations against Trump and racism and in defence of the NHS are a start. Corbyn can turn Labour’s fortunes around if he’s prepared to break from the right and put Labour at the heart of that struggle.’

The idea that we should want to put this anti-working class party at the heart of any struggle is completely reactionary: it would doom any progressive movement to disaster. The SWP’s craven support for Corbyn has led it to argue that socialists should not stand against the Labour Party in May’s council elections since this would drive Corbyn supporters towards the right; instead we should have ‘patience’. The Socialist Party (SP) echoed McDonnell by claiming that the ‘relentless anti-Corbyn campaign by the Labour right was a big factor in the by-election results themselves. Tony Blair's personal intervention, attacking Corbyn and setting out a case to reverse the EU referendum result, was a deliberate act of sabotage.’ The SP claims that the anti-Corbyn campaign is not just about his electability:

‘The reality is that this is about the far more fundamental question of what the Labour Party is for – in whose class interests it should stand. The New Labour project was designed to break any influence which working class people were able to have over the party - to make it a “safe pair of hands” for the capitalist class. Corbyn's leadership, and the huge support that it generated, threatens to fatally undermine this project.’

This is wishful thinking. The working class has never had any influence over the Labour Party – from the outset it has always been a ‘safe pair of hands’ for the ruling class: 100 years ago there was no doubting Labour’s absolute hostility to the Russian Revolution and the threat it posed to the British Empire. The SP presents a picture of Labour as ‘two parties in one’ where, according to representative Hannah Sell, thousands of new joiners ‘would respond to a clear call to transform the Labour Party from Blair's “New Labour” into a real socialist anti-austerity workers’ party.’ This nonsense is used to justify an unconditional alliance through Corbyn with the Labour Party: whatever criticisms the SP may have of Corbyn’s concessions to the right, it spreads the illusion that Labour is a fundamentally progressive party.

Both the SWP and SP championed withdrawal from the European Union, lining up with the little Englander Tories and UKIP. They both tried to give their stance a progressive content by arguing that Brexit would weaken the ruling class. The RCG has forcefully argued against this position: it amounts to taking sides in what is essentially a dispute between sections of the ruling class over what would be for Britain necessarily totally reactionary outcomes – part of a European imperialist bloc or becoming an offshore centre for usury capital under the umbrella of US imperialism (see FRFI 251).  Neither Brexit nor Corbyn’s election as Labour leader has changed the balance of class forces in favour of the working class at all: there is still no struggle against austerity or mass opposition to war and racism. There is no short cut: we have to build an independent, socialist, anti-imperialist working class movement and bury the Labour Party whoever leads it.