A tale of three by-elections

Kevin Bean looks at the state of bourgeois politics and the controversy over so-called green policies

Last week’s by-elections show that sometimes in politics events do not always follow the widely predicted course.

On the basis of the opinion polls, the expectations were that the Tories would lose all three seats up for grabs on July 20, with Labour gaining Boris Johnson’s old seat in Uxbridge and Ruislip, as well as overturning a large Tory majority in Selby and Ainsty, while the Liberal Democrats would regain their previously-held Somerton and Frome constituency. In the end it did not turn out like that: the Tories held Uxbridge (albeit with a tiny majority), allowing Rishi Sunak to claim that the long-foretold Tory defeat at the coming general election was not “a done deal” and reassuring his supporters that it was still ‘all to play for’. The weekend press headlines and the lines coming from the political shows followed up on the surprising Uxbridge result and focused on why Labour had not made the expected breakthrough.

What quickly emerged as the widely-held explanation for the Tories holding on to Uxbridge was Ulez (Ultra Low Emissions Zone) – a scheme to reduce air pollution from older vehicles by imposing a charge, which is planned to be extended from central London to outlying suburbs. The Tories had made the charge the single issue in their Uxbridge campaign and essentially turned the by-election into a referendum on the policy. The Tories claimed to be standing up for the poorest sections of society, who own the oldest vehicles, along with those like taxi drivers, small businesses and others who need to drive for work in an area with poor public transport. On polling day, the anti-Ulez campaign and the focus on the London mayor, Labour’s Sadiq Khan, paid dividends for the Tories and ensured that since the by-election Ulez and ‘green policies’ in general have been the centre of political interest.

For Sir Keir the focus on Uxbridge and Ulez seemed, at first sight, something of a setback, if not a PR disaster. While he was up in rural Yorkshire doing a photo-call with the successful candidate (a young, aspiring hack and Labour careerist, conveniently also named Keir) to celebrate overturning a huge Tory majority, all everyone back at Westminster wanted to talk about was Uxbridge. If the Tories and the media were more than keen to big up the success at Uxbridge, sections of the Labour bureaucracy and the Parliamentary Labour Party also tried to turn the situation to their advantage, shifting the blame for the reverse onto Sadiq Khan or the local conduct of the campaign. Starmer and his immediate circle also let it be known that that they were unhappy with Ulez and, in light of the Tory attacks, were considering scaling back even further on Labour’s green policy commitments.

So far, all very Westminster bubble gossip and kite-flying in the op-ed sections of the sympathetic media, which is quite easy to dismiss as mere froth. However, both the by-election results (remember, there were two other seats apart from Uxbridge!) and the reactions of the Tory and Labour leaderships to the outcome do tell us a lot about how the general election campaign might develop and the sort of result that it could throw up.

The general trend in all three by-elections was a swing against the Conservatives, which reflected the widespread anti-Tory mood that has been shown up in the opinion polls and local council elections in May this year. Following the conventional wisdom that governments lose elections rather than the opposition winning them, these results continue to point to a Labour government with probably a working majority.

With the Liberal Democrats posing a challenge in both the West Country and the formerly safe Tory seats in the so-called ‘Blue Wall’, and Labour regaining its ‘traditional’ seats in the north and the Midlands – along with possible gains in Scotland, combined with victories in marginal seats throughout Britain – the chances of the Tories staying in power appear slim. However, this anti-Tory feeling does not correspond to any great enthusiasm for Sir Keir and his Labour Party. By-election turnout remains low and the evidence suggests that the mathematical ‘swing’ was a largely notional one, with previous Tory voters staying at home rather than being sufficiently enthused by Starmer to go to the polls and actually vote Labour. On this showing the next election will be an unpopularity contest between parties and programmes for which the electorate shows no real passion or deep support.

Facing both ways

Is Sir Keir concerned by this lack of electoral momentum? Will the failure to gain Uxbridge dictate a change of course? Not at all! It is all factored into his strategy and will actually confirm an important part of his approach towards the election, which has been to dampen down expectations and warn of the dangers of complacency. Far from Starmer’s spinmeisters trying to hype up the opinion poll leads in recent months, they have been extremely cautious in their news management and, in this regard, Uxbridge suits them just fine. It keeps the troops in order and helps to silence even the mildest of criticism, on the grounds that electoral victory is not guaranteed and we all need to rally behind the leader.

Some critics from the official left – yes, a few still exist and can still be heard muttering off-stage, if you listen hard enough – say that Starmer’s lack of radical policies on energy and transport renationalisation or his mean-spirited support for Tory benefit caps will cost Labour a few leftwing votes. That may be so – Starmer’s aides, like his ‘fixer’, Morgan McSweeney, or polling and focus group guru Deborah Mattinson, would doubtless agree, but these are not the voters Starmer’s Labour Party are after nowadays. In a world of focus groups and triangulation, team Sir Keir calculates exactly what will appeal to the ‘target voters’ in the ‘centre ground’ and he duly sticks to the script at all times.

Anyway, channelling their inner Peter Mandelson of the 1990s, his supporters argue, where else do these voters critical of the benefit policy or the other underwhelming positions have to go? Starmer is determined to win the election – but on his terms. That means adopting the most openly pro-capitalist programme in Labour’s history and convincing his two audiences – the centre-ground electorate in Britain and the capitalist class in London and Washington – that he really is a safe pair of hands, who can be relied upon to steady the ship and not be diverted into ‘dangerously radical’ experiments.

Even by the historically low standards of Labour leaders, it is a pretty timid and uninspiring prospectus. Although Labour has been a bourgeois workers’ party from its very beginning and its leaders have faithfully followed the dictates of capitalism at home and imperialism abroad, for the quite mundane purposes of electoral politics the party leadership had to inspire and mobilise its supporters and voters with some kind of radical vision – think of ‘the New Jerusalem’ of Clement Attlee in 1945 or the ‘white heat of technology’ summoned up by Harold Wilson in 1964. Playing the game of bourgeois politics required more than mere competence: Labour leaders had to at least pretend to offer some form of challenge or alternative to the status quo, however token this proved to be in reality.

Not so Sir Keir! His electoral strategy is one of responding to perceived shifts in ‘public opinion’ or the clamour of the media. Instead of trying to shape politics and alter how people see the world, even within the limited options offered by the framework of capitalism, Starmer simply fits in and presents himself as a diligent and conscientious custodian of bourgeois society and the constitutional order. His whole career in the law and the service of the state at the highest level makes him perfect for the role, and it is one that he will play to perfection, when he does finally enter No10. So this will shape his electoral strategy and allow him to take minor upsets like Uxbridge in his stride; indeed, he will even turn them to his advantage to consolidate his position – as we saw at Labour’s National Policy Forum last weekend, where he saw off the rather puny criticisms of left trade union leaders. For Starmer the course is set fair for the next election and so he is determinedly continuing on his way, ignoring what remains of the disorganised and bankrupt official left in the PLP and their faint echoes in the Constituency Labour Parties.

Pause for thought

However, before we wave off Sir Keir on the road to Downing Street, we should also consider the Tories’ reaction to the by-elections and how this might shape politics in the 18 months or so before an election must be called. Rishi Sunak has tried to keep up the flagging morale of his party by suggesting that the retention of the Uxbridge seat was a sign that the tide might turn in the Tories’ favour, while some Conservative MPs argue that the success of the anti-Ulez campaign might be repeated more generally at a general election.

This approach has been broadened by some on the Tory right into a wider attack on green policies and zero targets – claiming that ‘greenery’ is mere virtue signalling, which voters might approve, but are unwilling to pay for through Ulez charges and higher taxation. This all neatly fits into a well-established culture war, based on the claim that metropolitan elites and middle-class greens are waging a war on the motorist and hard-working families. Other elements in this strategy to win back both ‘traditional’ Tory voters and the supposedly socially conservative former Red Wall voters who came over to them in 2019 are a focus on stopping illegal migration, waging a ‘war on woke’ and standing up for traditional values, whatever they are.

Sunak himself has played with some of these themes and they will probably appear in some form in the Conservative election manifesto. But will they be enough to win back disillusioned voters in a period of falling real wages, rising prices and increasing interest rates for homeowners? Uxbridge showed that in a by-election it is possible to mobilise a protest vote around a single, polarising and locally important issue. But will voters feel the same, when it comes to choosing a government in a general election? Will issues like Ulez and cutting back on green policies cut through to an electorate who have more immediate cost-of-living issues on their minds?

While at this stage it seems unlikely that such an amalgam of Tory prejudices and scare stories could offer an effective and plausible manifesto and erode the very deep anti-Tory mood that has been building up steadily since 2021, the Uxbridge result should give the party leaders and all those analysing British politics and the public mood some pause for thought. While the by-election results confirmed what the polls have been saying quite consistently for a few years now, they also show the lack of real enthusiasm for either the Tories or Labour, and certainly no firm preference for Sir Keir as an alternative prime minister.

Understanding and discussing the possibilities for the short term are important: the working class movement should obviously take a sharp interest in the high politics of bourgeois society and adopt its own distinct and independent position towards the parties and the policies of the capitalist class. However, Marxists need to go beyond these immediate issues and point the way to the real politics of transforming society. Above all in the current hiatus for the left, that means not only considering how electoral politics might develop, but also seriously thinking about and actively working to build the type of revolutionary party and programme we need to fight for.