The great dilemma for Labour


The night of three by-elections gave just enough of a split decision for all sides to claim victory,” wrote Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian on 21 July. “And by all sides, I do not mean the three main parties in England that each chalked up a win. No, I am referring to the factions currently slugging it out within Labour over the best route to power at the next general election. For them, these results offered something for everyone.” 

Sure enough, In the aftermath of the three by-elections, my Instagram feed has been flooded by very ideologically-driven left-wing videos and comments, which all revolved around the idea that Keir Starmer is a ‘Tory stooge’, or a ‘Conservative-lite version’, and that the solution to this would be a Corbynite-esque swing to the left. 

This has intensified after Starmer stated that “policy matters” and pledged to look at Ulez as a policy more closer, after the Uxbridge defeat by 495 votes reinforced – to some – the fact that when you give the Tories a single issue that you can paint the whole Labour party with, they will win. 

This was carried out to huge success in 2019 by Boris Johnson, and it would appear that the fact that Ulez could be portrayed as, as Cameron would say, “green crap” which the common man could ill afford, had cost Labour the constituency. In response, to steady the ship, Starmer murmured vaguely reassuring statements about ‘reflecting’ on the policy. 

This, of course, unleashed a flurry of furious comments by more radical Labour members, as I  said – that the party was becoming too similar to the Tories. They claim, in social media comments by the masses, that the solution is a swing to the left, and it is against this misapprehension that I write now. 

These sort of illogical, impractical, and ideologically-led demands infuriate me, not because I want to be infuriated by the Labour party, but because if they do make the sort of mistake which this would be, the Tories will stand to gain, and possibly win, in 2024. 

If Labour has learnt anything from the catastrophe that was 2019 it was that, as I said, on a single-issue campaign opportunity last time, and you already have Tory MP’s on media outings talking about the need to find a new issue that the Tories can use to paint Labour as ‘lefty lawyers’ or ‘Islington elite’, they win. 

Brexit was this issue to inflame and target – probably it will be cultural issues this time, such as ‘what is a woman’ or another everything-but-actually-nothing statement. This will be a tough job for the Tories – Starmer has already made it clear that he won’t be drawn on such issues; he knows their plan. 

if Labour starts making concerning-Corbynite statements on tax or massive public investment –

even desperately needed green investment – the Tories can strike with their well-targeted posters and pamphlets painting the Labour left as out-of-touch and ‘same-old lefties’. 

This was done with cold calculation at Uxbridge, despite the Labour candidate coming out against the Ulez policy, and despite the obvious fact to even a casual observer that an elected MP could have no power over a decision made by the Mayor of London, allowed the Tories to hold onto what was assumed to be a lost seat. 

The good news is that Starmer seems unlikely to budge on his centre-left policy of not being drawn into spending commitments, even going as far to state that, if his policies were on Tory pamphlets “we’re doing something wrong”. 

This statement is concerning because it is quite non-confrontational, but it does show that he knows the Tories’ game, and won’t be played into that trap of spending commitments. What’s more, the victory in Selby and Ainsty – the second-largest swing to Labour since 1945 – proves that, in a straight race, Labour can triumph. 

One by-election was a straight race between current Labour policy and current Tory policy and it was a total victory for Labour, and the other one, where seeming-radical policy allowed the Tories to colour Labour with the paint of “lefty lawyers”, resulted in an unexpected defeat.

It seems inane, therefore, to conclude that the lesson to learn from these polls is that the path forward is more radical policies. 

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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