UK | The Labour Party’s Not So Super Thursday

by James Markin
Early May in Britain found prime minister Boris Johnson hopping from campaign event to campaign event in a private jet. Boris rode the jet, owned by the Conservative business magnate Lord Bamford, to the working-class town of Hartlepool where he ate fish and chips with the Tory candidate for Parliament, Jill Mortimer. This show of working class ‘blokeishness’ was undermined by both Johnson’s long history as a representative of Britain’s ultra-elite and the fancy jet that he rode in on. However, on election day, Thursday, May 6th, Mortimer won Hartlepool with 51.9% of the vote to her Labour opponent’s 28.7%, marking the first time Hartlepool had ever been won by a Tory since the district was created in 1974.
Hartlepool wasn’t Johnson’s only victory that Thursday. The election was dubbed “Super Thursday” by many and combined a whole series of regional and national contests that had been postponed during the pandemic. Up for grabs was not just Hartlepool’s seat in the British parliament, but the Scottish and Welsh devolved parliaments, local council seats across the country, the mayorships of cities including London and Birmingham and even police commissionerships. Across England, Johnson’s ruling Conservative party won victory after victory with the ultimate prize of Hartlepool falling to him as well. The symbolism of the win was probably more important than the victory itself. Not only is Hartlepool a working-class Labour Party stronghold, it is incredibly rare for British governing parties to win more seats in one-off by-elections. Such a victory shows that Johnson wields a unique level of support within England.
The fact that Johnson has such a grip on power was shocking to many given how much of a disaster his COVID-19 response has been. His catastrophic errors began just days into his premiership when he dissolved the country’s standing pandemic planning committee in the summer of 2019 so as to free up resources to work on Brexit. Early in the pandemic, Johnson also delayed implementing a lockdown, despite other European countries having already implemented lockdowns to curb infections.  As if that wasn’t enough, throughout the pandemic, Johnson awarded government contracts for life-saving Covid-related projects on the basis of “chumocracy,” handing them off to companies with connections to the Conservative Party. Among other things, this led to a shortage of PPE at care-homes for the elderly and disabled, causing untold numbers of deaths. On top of all this, news leaked into the tabloids shortly before the election that the Prime Minister had told his cabinet in October that he wanted, “no more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands,” a statement he obviously denies making.
So how did Boris beat the odds and win a major victory in Hartlepool, an erstwhile Labour stronghold? Well, many have argued that this result might have more to do with Labour’s troubles than Johnson’s strengths. The Labour Party has been out of power since 2010 and shows no sign of coming back soon. Following the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015, the right wing of the Party has complained that his leadership was the essential cause for Labour’s problems winning elections in Northern England and Scotland, traditional Party heartlands. However, following Labour’s replacement of Corbyn with the more centrist Keir Starmer last year, not much has changed.  Starmer appears to have assumed that working-class areas wanted a more patriotic and nationalist version of the Labour Party and has favored a strategy based on this approach. For example, a leaked Labour strategy report that was written after he took over concluded that: “The use of the flag, veterans, dressing smartly at the war memorial etc [will] give voters a sense of authentic values alignment.” Labour higher-ups even sent WhatsApp messages reminding party figures to “please prioritize the union jack header images, not the plain red ones” after one party briefing. However, the replacement of Corbyn with Starmer and his embrace of the flag and patriotism failed to hold Hartlepool, a seat that was held comfortably under Corbyn. This reveals clearly that the problem was never Corbyn in the first place. In fact, according to one poll conducted by J.L. Partners after the super-Thursday election, the number one reason for not voting for the Labour party was “Keir Starmer/leadership.” Facing these facts, some commentators have quipped that the Labour Party was founded by a man named Keir and it is about to be destroyed by a different man named Keir, referencing the Party’s founder Keir Hardy.
And yet, Labour’s problems in this election, while certainly exacerbated by Starmer’s poor leadership, have much deeper causes than a single leader. It is hard to imagine Labour taking power without a strong vote from both its Northern heartlands and Scotland. Indeed in 2005, the last time Labour won a national election, the party won 41 out of the 59 Parliamentary seats in Scotland. They managed to hold all 41 of these seats again in 2010 even though they lost the election overall. However, since 2010 Labour has been unable to win a majority in Scotland. Since that time, the Scottish people have swung massively towards the nationalist Scottish National Party (SNP). This transformation really started with the 2012 Scottish independence referendum, when 41% of the Scottish electorate, tired of the austerity politics of Westminster under both Labour and Conservative governments, voted to leave the Union. Following Brexit, which was opposed by a majority of Scots, disillusionment with the government from Westminster has only grown in Scotland. In the May 2021 election, the SNP came only one vote shy of a majority in the Scottish Parliament. When you include the Green Party, which also supports independence, the “super-Thursday” elections delivered a clear nationalist majority in Scottish Parliament of 79 nationalist members out of a total of 129 up for election. Labour on the other hand had its worst result in the history of Scotland’s devolved Parliament, only winning 22 seats. As is clear from this result, neither the Corbyn-led nor the Starmer-led Labour have managed to turn the tide in Scotland against the SNP and Scottish nationalism. Scottish Labour appears to be a spent political force and has little hope of regaining the support it once had in Scotland, support it likely needs to win a majority in Westminster.
If the loss of Scotland is a disastrous development for Labour, the loss of Northern heartlands like Hartlepool could prove to be a catastrophic one. Since its foundation, the Labour Party has counted on the support of working-class majority areas in Britain’s historic industrial core of Northern England to remain relevant in British politics. If they are being successfully out-maneuvered there by loathsome Tory elitists like Boris Johnson, the future truly is bleak for the party. Labour’s behavior in the lead up to this recent election is particularly revealing when it comes to the causes of Labour’s woes in the North. The whole sorry election campaign started inauspiciously  when the Labour Party’s national leadership forced a candidate on the local party organization against their will, asking them to choose from a shortlist that only included one candidate: Dr. Paul Williams. This caused controversy, especially after Labour expelled a local councilor from the party for criticizing the move. To add insult to injury, it subsequently revealed that Dr. Williams had made derogatory comments about women online. Worst of all, he was then exposed as the author of a report that recommended moving medical services out of Hartlepool during the 2013 austerity period. This placed the Labour Party’s duplicity on issues of austerity front and center for prospective voters. Paul Williams, a man who campaigned for election by saying he would end cuts to the NHS, had played an active role in austerity policies which stripped the community of medical services! Labour defended Williams by pointing out that the report he issued was merely a response to the budget cuts the Tories themselves had initiated. However, this whole story was representative of Labour’s approach to “fighting” austerity in the first place. The party is more than happy to raise the issue to get elected, but when the Tories order cuts they just hang their heads and carry those cuts out as opposed to taking to the streets to fight back. Indeed, Labour showed its true face in this election by behaving bureaucratically, taking Northern votes for granted, and reiterating that they are not truly committed to fighting austerity. Is it any wonder that voters in Hartlepool showed Labour and Dr. Paul Williams the door in response?
This all raises the question: how did it get this way? Why is a political party that is supposed to be committed to the cause of the working class so two-faced when it comes to questions of austerity? This is due to the real problem with the Labour Party, which goes all the way back to its founding. It is not truly a labour party at all, but a bourgeois-labour party, as Lenin described in a speech given in 1920:

“Of course, most of the Labour Party’s members are workingmen. However, whether or not a party is really a political party of the workers does not depend solely upon a membership of workers but also upon the men that lead it, and the content of its actions and its political tactics. Only this latter determines whether we really have before us a political party of the proletariat. Regarded from this, the only correct, point of view, the Labour Party is a thoroughly bourgeois party, because, although made up of workers, it is led by reactionaries, and the worst kind of reactionaries at that, who act quite in the spirit of the bourgeoisie. It is an organization of the bourgeoisie, which exists to systematically dupe the worker…”

After decades and decades of turning to the Labour Party to improve conditions that they are facing, workers in Scotland and the North have had enough. They are trying other alternatives, whether it be the SNP in Scotland or the Tories in Hartlepool. The reality is that neither the SNP  nor Boris Johnson will do much better. Indeed, Boris Johnson still has the blood of hundreds of thousands of working people on his hands after his botched COVID-19 response. The answer is not to merely bring back Corbyn or to kick out Starmer, as many have argued. It is to forge a true worker’s party in Britain that actually seeks to fight for the worker’s interests, not merely take their votes and carry out a program that in reality serves the interests of business. We really might be witnessing the death throes of the Labour Party, or it might manage to survive its current crisis intact. However, whatever the future holds, only a worker’s party committed to fighting to establish a worker’s government can show an actual way out for workers in the British Isles.

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