The Labour right wing were fully expecting and hoping for the party to lose a key by-election in Peterborough last week. This constituency voted strongly to leave the European Union, and the press had hyped up Nigel Farage's right-wing Brexit Party, which everybody expected to win the seat. This would've given a boost to the Blairite plotters and Farage's hard-Brexiteer outfit. But on the day, Labour defied expectations and won with an increased majority. Originally published at Socialist Appeal on 7 June.
On 6 June, the Labour Party won a by-election it was supposed to lose. In so doing, it has silenced the cynics and spin-doctors who were rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of Labour ceding a seat to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
It has also surprised many pessimistic Labour lefts, who were convinced that racist, nationalist and Brexit-obsessed working-class voters would hand Farage his first seat in Westminster.
The results in Peterborough, however, show that Labour can cut across the Brexit divide with social demands. And it proves that the working class will reject nationalist demagogy when inspired by an anti-austerity programme.
Going off script
Following the jailing of Labour MP Fiona Onasanya, for lying about a speeding ticket, and her recall by trigger ballot, the marginal constituency of Peterborough in Cambridgeshire faced a by-election.
The Tories held the seat for 12 years before Labour seized it by a thin majority of 607 in 2017. This was the first time since 1929 that Labour had won the seat despite the Tories winning the largest national vote share.
Peterborough also voted by 61 percent to 39 to leave the European Union in 2016. As such, and given the collapse of support for the Conservatives, it was seen as ripe for the picking by the Brexit Party, which in just eight weeks has stormed into the lead of some Westminster election polls.
After their poor performance in the European elections (in which the Brexit Party came out on top), the Peterborough by-election was built up as an Alamo for Corbyn and the Labour Party.
The Blairites and the media fixers were unanimous in their belief (and hope) that the Brexit Party would win the day – a prediction reflected in all the polls and bookies’ odds.
They were sharpening their knives in anticipation of a Labour defeat that would decisively confirm their narrative from the Euro elections: that Corbyn’s unwillingness to fully back a second referendum was causing Remain voters to desert for the Lib Dems and Greens, while Brexiteers rallied around Farage.
Furthermore, the anti-semitism slander campaign was in full swing, with hysterical accusations hurled against Labour’s candidate, Lisa Forbes.
The former Unite official was dragged over the coals for ‘liking’ and commenting on a number of Facebook posts. These included a video expressing sympathy for the victims of the Christchurch Massacre, which was accompanied by text accusing Theresa May of following a “Zionist slave masters’ agenda”.
Forbes apologised, stating that she had not read the text accompanying the video. But Labour still faced calls to “disown” her. This was a continuation of the cynical, right-wing smear campaign, designed to undermine the left with false claims of anti-semitism.
After her victory, the Jewish Labour Movement (which has been consistently critical of Corbyn) issued a statement calling for Forbes to have the whip removed!
The plan was that Corbyn was to take the blame for allowing a hard-right, hard-Brexiteer MP to enter Westminster, having already overseen a tepid performance in the recent local elections and a poor one in the Euros.
These three, successive defeats were to be chalked up alongside Corbyn’s stubborn refusal to “do the right thing” and oppose Brexit, and to do something about Labour’s “institutional anti-semitism problem”.
Had the election gone as expected, the Blairites might even have found the confidence to field a stalking horse candidate in a leadership contest. They would be unlikely to win, but this would further undermine the leadership and harm Labour’s popularity.
Meanwhile, Farage would prove his point that frustrated Leave-voters from working-class constituencies are abandoning the Labour Party for not backing Brexit strongly enough.
The actors were all in place; the script was written. But on the night, things didn’t go as planned.
Against the odds
In the end, Labour won with 31 percent of the vote, and actually increased its overall majority to 683, with the Brexit Party second on 29 percent.
Labour’s victory was all the more impressive given the ceaseless media vitriol in the run up to the elections, and the fact that their last MP was removed by a public trigger ballot due to a criminal offence.
Party officials and members expected an uphill battle, but won anyway. Indeed, this was a similar story to the Oldham by-election in 2015, which was considered Corbyn’s first electoral test. This was also a strong Leave constituency, in which everybody wrote Labour off. Yet the party ended up winning in Oldham with an increased majority, taking the wind out of the Blairites’ sails.
The Tories came third, with 21 percent. Although this is a better result than many commentators expected (with some anticipating a fourth or fifth-place drubbing), it is still a humiliating outcome for a party that has held Peterborough for most of the last century. This goes to show the depth of the crisis the Tories are facing.
It is clear that the Brexit Party, which cannibalised a huge chunk of their vote, is a far greater threat to them than to Labour.
The Lib Dems got 12 percent (a 9-point swing), and the Greens came fifth on 3 percent. Given that these pro-Remain parties were previously polling a combined 26 percent, this is a disappointing result, especially considering their strong performance in the European elections.
Despite brimming with confidence throughout the Brexit Party’s campaign, Farage refused to face the music when the results came through. He apparently ducked into the gents when the final count was read out, and sneaked out of the Peterborough town hall without speaking to the press.
The Brexit Party immediately revealed their disgustingly racist character by attributing Labour’s victory to the “Asian vote”, claiming that Labour only won because it targeted Muslim households with large families. As one Brexit Party supporter commented on Twitter: “Mohammed, Faisal and Habiba etc. have been doing their loyal duty in droves.”
The Blairites, for their part, were more bitterly disappointed than anyone. Labour’s temerity to win in Peterborough represented a major setback for all their hard work to sabotage the party and finally get rid of Corbyn.
This didn’t stop them from having a passing pop at the party, however. Jess Phillips tweeted that she was “glad that Brexit Party didn’t win…[but] the reality is I cannot be gleeful or proud as I'd want to be because of how it shows that antisemitism is becoming normal in the party.”
Meanwhile, Wes Streeting shared a statement (which had clearly been pre-prepared with the expectation of a defeat) downplaying Labour’s performance, claiming instead the election was the “Tories’ to lose”. He also noted Labour’s decreased vote share, stating “we cannot afford to lose Remain voters to the Lib Dems and the Greens.”
The indignance of these MPs was only topped by their fellow Blairites in Change UK. Mike Gapes, for instance, tweeted:
“Apparently in Corbyn Labour the only thing that matters is winning. You can be an antisemite but it’s ok as long as you sign up for the Corbyn cult. I’m so glad I am not associated with this garbage any more...”
It’s hardly surprising that Gapes is unconcerned with winning, given he represents a party polling on one percent, which has just lost over half its MPs after just four months of existence.
The spleen vented by the likes of Gapes and Phillips reflects their impotence and frustration at the death of their political project. The voting public has once again shown it has far more appetite for Corbyn’s programme than reheated Blairism.
Come a general election, Gapes and his colleagues will be swept away, and we can only hope Streeting and Phillips have also been vomited out by then.
The following morning, Corbyn gave a passionate speech, in which he said the victory in Peterborough vindicated Labour’s ambition to unite voters on both sides of the Brexit divide against Tory austerity.
"All the experts wrote Lisa Forbes off. All the experts wrote Labour off,” the Labour leader said. “Write Labour off at your peril."
Corbyn’s combative tone recalled his address to the anti-Trump demonstration outside Westminster during the US president’s state visit earlier this week.
This is a marked improvement from the past several months, where the Labour leader has been forced into constant rearguard action against right-wing acusations of anti-semitism and demands to endorse a second referendum.
How did Labour turn things around?
Recognising the significance of the by-election, Labour and Momentum activists pulled out all the stops in Peterborough.
The local party mustered support from hundreds of supporters – including many carpooled in from other constituencies using Momentum’s phone app – who went on to run an energetic and well-organised election campaign. There were over 500 activists on the ground on election day and thousands of phone calls were made to key households.
Many of Labour’s critics begrudgingly acknowledged the party’s strong “ground game”, attributing the result mainly to this factor.
While it is true that Labour’s huge membership (the largest of any political party in Europe) was a considerable advantage, it is not the end of the story. Firstly, this army of supporters would not exist were it not for the Corbyn movement revitalising the party’s ranks.
But more importantly, in this case, the message on the door cut across the issue of Brexit with social and economic policies, focusing on the impact of Tory austerity cuts on crime and education. This made for a stark contrast with the European elections, where the emphasis was firmly on Brexit.
This was a repeat of the story from the 2017 general election, where Labour did far better than expected by sidelining Brexit, which divides the country in a reactionary manner, and leaves no room for class issues.
Instead, Corbyn’s popular manifesto focused on social demands: promising to end austerity, introduce free education, and renationalise the railways and key utilities.
The same was true in Peterborough. It is to Corbyn’s credit that he has maintained this course, rather than bowing to the pressure to come out strongly for a second referendum, as have other lefts.
Class politics trump Brexit
In recent months, there has been much talk of the so-called ‘Culture War’, in which, rather than social classes, society is supposedly divided into socially liberal, metropolitan elites on one side; and socially conservative, racist nationalists in the towns and industrial north on the other.
Brexit was supposed to be the ultimate expression of this cultural divide, with people culturally identifying with their stance on the EU to a far greater degree than any social class. The Euro elections were seen to confirm this, with the Brexit Party and strongly-remain Lib Dems gaining at the Tories’ and Labour’s expense.
Many on the left of the Labour Party (including so-called socialists like Owen Jones and Paul Mason) bought into this propaganda.
Despairing at the rise of the Brexit Party, which had apparently lulled the working class under the spell of racism and nationalism, these pessimists and sceptics concluded that Leave constituencies like Peterborough were a lost cause, and that Corbyn had to embrace a second referendum to at least hold onto his middle-class Remainer base.
However, the 2017 general election and the Peterborough by-election both show that class-based demands can bridge the Brexit gulf. The by-election also proves that the European election results are not a good measure of Labour’s potential for success in a general election. The party’s vote share in the by-election was up 14 percent compared to the EU elections last month.
This demonstrates that plenty of people who voted for other parties over Europe would return to Labour in a general election – as long as it runs on a bold, anti-austerity programme. As Forbes said when her victory was announced:
“Despite the differing opinions across our city, the fact that the Brexit Party have been rejected here in Peterborough shows that the politics of division will not win... the politics of hope can win regardless of the odds.”
The Trump effect
Trump’s state visit likely had some effect in galvanising working-class voters against Farage’s outfit. In an accidental moment of candour, Trump openly admitted that the NHS would be “on the table” for any US-UK trade deal. That is, on the surgeon’s table, ready for US private insurance companies to carve it up.
Farage enthusiastically agreed with the president, confirming to reporters that he believed the NHS should be included in future US trade negotiations. Later, Trump actually rowed back on his comments, leading the Daily Express to run a headline saying that the NHS would be “safe in his hands”. But by then, Farage had already made his position known.
It is hard to measure the precise impact of Trump and Farage’s comments on the Peterborough result. But it is certain that thousands of working-class, Brexit-supporting voters are appalled at the idea of Farage rolling out the red carpet for Trump and his corporate vultures to tear up the NHS.
For all his talk of “sovereignty” and “taking back control”, Farage’s intentions are clear: he wants to sell Britain’s assets off to the Americans, confirming our position as the lapdog of US imperialism.
No matter how many disaffected, frustrated working-class voters in the constituency voted Brexit to shake up the political elite, they have no intention of letting this come to pass. It is probable that many of these voters backed Labour to prevent Farage from winning his first foothold in parliament. This is evidenced by the fact that most of the Brexit Party’s support came from former Conservative voters.
Energy shifts back to the left
Peterborough was only one battle. But key battles can turn the tide of wars. In the past period, there has been an ebb in the Corbyn movement. The local and EU elections – and the eternal wrangling over anti-semitism and Brexit before that – have sapped Corbyn’s base of some of its vital energy. There was a mood of disorientation and some demoralisation in local party groups.
But now we could be witnessing a turning point. This unexpected victory will give a boost to the left. It has demonstrated concretely that Labour is still on course for a general election victory as long as it puts social demands at centre-stage.
It has also vindicated Corbyn’s refusal to back a second referendum. It is very possible the result might have been different had the party gone down this route. Between this victory, Corbyn’s address at the Trump demo, and the newly launched tour of public rallies (‘Labour Roots’), there is the potential to take the initiative back to the grassroots.
After the Peterborough result, Corbyn challenged the Tories to “bring on” a general election. “We’re ready”, he said.
It is imperative this is accomplished as soon as possible, taking full advantage of the Tories’ internal crisis, and in order to avoid being bogged in the Brexit myre.
The only way to bring about a general election is to mobilise the full force of the Corbyn movement: the hundreds-of-thousands of Labour Party members in local parties and affiliated trade unions. These must be galvanised with a socialist programme, and organised to go onto the streets with full confidence.
The Corbyn movement has always been forced to play against the odds. It has defied those odds once more. A general election and a Labour government is within our grasp.