The Peterborough by-election and “Constructive Ambiguity”

 Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and the party's prospective parliamentary candidate Lisa Forbes

Kicking the can down the road

By Johnny Lewis

Post the EU elections we have witnessed a concerted attack on Labour’s policy of Constructive Ambiguity (CA) from such luminaries as Paul Mason and the house journal for the `liberal elite’, the Observer. What was notable about these polemics was an unwillingness to directly attack Corbyn – it’s not the czar but his ministers, Milne and Murry, who are at fault. This is disingenuous towards Corbyn as he is not a dupe of these Stalinists: he is in fundamental agreement with them. With Murphy and McCluskey in tow they make a formidable machine, and unless tactical necessity dictates a change, they will form the Labour Party’s leadership at least up until the next general election.

Whether the party continues with CA is a different matter: put simply this will depend on how well the Remainers organise within the Party. However the idea that Team Corbyn will not do all in their power to stop any change of policy is as naive as to think JC does not share the politics of his Stalinist bedfellows. Seen in this context the Peterborough by-election was a minor skirmish in this internal battle for the soul of the Labour Party.

Labour won Peterborough by less than 700 votes: the most immediate effect of this (welcome) victory has been to provide some life-support for CA. The day after the victory Corbyn pointedly stated that whether you voted to remain or leave, we all want better services.

Unlike all other parties Labour’s campaign purposefully attempted to steer away from the single issue of Brexit and talk about other matters – it pushed Labour’s anti-austerity line (hence the importance for CA of Corbyn’s post-election comment) and up to a point this worked. On the doorstep people were willing to talk about other matters and this was, for example, reflected in the BBC hustings and the vox pops series found on their news web-site. However when Brexit was raised it was largely linked to ‘too many foreigners’.

This approach meant Labour’s campaign took on a traditional character of having weekly themes, some national like the NHS, others local such as fly tipping – an important issue in the city.  A second string to Labour’s bow was to pose a proposition to Remainers: if you vote anything other than Labour you let in Farage. While this argument clearly had some impact, the tripling of the Liberal vote (who also picked up votes from remain Tories)  showed its limitations. Of course if Farage had won then Labour’s CA advocates would have said to Remainers “we told you so” (as the openly pro-Leave elements within the party are saying anyway).

Finally, and this was only possible in a by-election, the Party poured in massive resources, clearly winning the ground war, and although Momentum wished to claim it was ‘us wot won it’, the local Party was unified and had been working intensively on winning the by-election since Labour expelled the disgraced incumbent MP. In contrast the demoralised Tories, outflanked to the right,  were in disarray and seemingly very badly underfunded, saw them loose a ¼ of their vote. Although the Brexit party claimed to have started from nothing in reality they inherited much of the UKIP local structures and base (they increased UKIP’s 2015 showing by 10% from 19% to 29%) however they were nowhere near as proficient on the ground as Labour. All said and done with the backdrop of the disgraced MP, the drubbing of the European elections, and the formation of the Brexit Party – who clearly expected to take the seat, this was a very good win.

Yet underlying this victory was not Labour’s alternative narrative to Brexit – austerity but how the votes stacked up between Leave and Remain and how these votes fractured, between the different parties. Even in this victory, where the fracture was primarily among Leave we can observe a weaker fracture with the Labour vote.

We know that rather than (social) class, age and education are now the defining factors in who votes for whom. Rather than Brexit creating  this change it reflects the shift in how class is constituted: however Brexit plays a major role in the way the fragmentation of different strata of workers is taking place. I have three observations of how this played out in Peterborough. Firstly some 8% of the Peterborough working class is comprised of Europeans, which goes some of the way to explain the slightly lower pro-Brexit vote in the EU elections than in the rest of the Region. If they were able to vote in national elections surely much of their vote would have not gone to ambiguity but to the Liberals, as the unambiguous party of Remain. There were also a number of reports from trade unionists that white manual workers who would never consider voting Tory switched to the Brexit Party, and why wouldn’t this happen given the social composition of the Leave voter. It is also highly likely that the Muslim community (Corbyn visited the constituency 2-3 times making a point, quite rightly, of speaking to them) voted solidly Labour. So it is highly probable Labour lost white working class vote to the Brexit party while the BAEM vote was reinforced as a communal vote for Labour –something it has been for many years. Such consolidations and shifts in voting patterns are all par for the cause of disaggregating class.

What happened to Labour’s vote forms part of the bigger picture of how the votes fractured. In 2017 Labour and the Tories took 94% of the vote between them (UKIP didn’t stand as the Tory was a hard line Brxiteer), 48 %, and 46% respectfully with the Liberals on 3%. The by-election saw this vote fragment with 60%, going to the two main parties 31% for Labour and 29% for the Brexit party, the remaining 37% split between the Tories (25%,) and liberals (12%). In this particular dance the Leave vote fractured to a far greater extent  that Labour’s.

This cleavage in the Leave vote parallels 2014 when UKIP won the EU elections and set the Tories on a course to tact to the right to win back their base. The failure to get Brexit reignited that right wing giving life to the Brexit Party, a party far more defined than UKIP ever was. The fascistic wing of Leave has remained with UKIP, freeing Farage to peruse his goal of a `true’ free market party, with Five Star as the new party’s road map to power. No one knows if it is too late for the Tories to repeat the success they had with UKIP and break the back of the Brexit party, but it is likely a Johnson victory will reinvigorate them enabling them to win back their base. As the Johnson camp ramps up their no deal rhetoric and parliament attempts to rule it out, we are likely to see an autumn election perhaps posed as who rules: parliament or the people? Whatever the pretext any election will be a not so thinly vailed proxy for a second referendum and for sure it will not be the Leave vote which is fractured but Remain if Labour continues looking both ways – CA will have reached the end of the road.

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