Bob Williams-Findlay visits Stoke in the run-up to the by-election
My visit to Stoke was interesting, not just watching Ken Loach’s documentary and hearing him speak, but also listening to voices from the area.
The prospect of Labour losing to UKIP is a concern, but in all honesty I can’t help but think about how Labour were displaced in Scotland by the SNP. Speaking to people on the Left in Scotland a common refrain is that Scottish Labour isn’t just dying, but has disappeared altogether in some areas with the explanation that its traditional base were turned off by an array of reasons which include: arrogance, ineptitude, downright corruption. Crucial was the taking of their support for granted. They had such a hold on Scottish politics for decades they thought they were untouchable – wrong! Look at traditional Labour areas and you’ll see a majority of the electorate who voted YES for independence. Given the Scottish Labour Party’s position on the Union, it hard to see how they intend to win them voters if it persists with its current position.
So how does the experience in Scotland relate to the situation in Stoke and does it at least in part explain why Labour are losing ground in their former heartlands?
Taking the broader picture first, I believe there’s no one cause and a combination of factors come into play; Thatcherism, defeat of the NUM, de-industrialisation, capitalist crisis and the betrayal by the Labour Party from Kinnock onwards [maybe apart from a brief respite under John Smith].
Similar to the processes at play in Scotland, Labour in the old industrial areas showed utter contempt for ordinary people especially where longstanding Labour run councils were – for example Glasgow, areas of the North East Manchester and, of course Stoke, to name a but a few.
Labour voters have felt betrayed, abandoned and humiliated by both the national leadership and local Labour Parties which are run by anti-democratic machines and where in some areas such as Birmingham former Lefties are now considered as aiding the Party elite in a variety of ways including policing Momentum. This is the picture being painted in Stoke where among Ken Loach’s audience were expelled Party members who complained bitterly of Labour Councillors driving through cuts to local services and a former imposed MP who had no empathy with local communities. Only once was the Labour candidate’s name was even mentioned. Although a minority among the hundred attendees, split between students and older people, the disaffected Labour voters took issue with Loach’s view that Corbyn can begin the process of turning the Party around. The opposition wasn’t so much with Corbyn himself or what he represents at a national level, but the frustration of knowing that in Stoke at least, nothing has changed – Labour’s neoliberalism continued to support the Tories’ attack upon cities like Stoke, the NHS and Social Care.
It was has to be acknowledged that Corbyn did produce an influx of new blood and returnees, but the machine still runs the Party and together with the ruling classes and mass media, they want the status quo returned as soon as possible.
The failure of Labour to seriously stand up to the austerity programme and the internal fight in the Party has left Stoke vulnerable. Enter the opportunists who are feeding off the bitterness of betrayal, appearing to listen and offer solutions – it is inadequate to treat UKIP as a joke or feckless nationalists; Labour and the Left need to stand up to their popularist political programme.
From what I was hearing in Stoke and what I believe is reflected in other Labour heartlands, the turn towards Brexit and UKIP is an act of desperation. Corbyn appeals to certain strands among voters who either have an understanding of Labour’s historical roots; therefore can join the dots or those who buy into his freshness and can use this to shape their own visions. Unfortunately, there is a larger group who have been alienated, become cynical and disillusioned and who are now seeking alternatives. Traditional Labour electoral campaigning is impotent; new politics are required but the Labour Left appear incapable of providing serious leadership – don’t get me started on Momentum. I dislike saying the picture looks bleak and I’d be foolish to bury the largest social democratic party in Europe just yet, but the Corbyn factor is looking as if it could have a limited shelf life unless he and his supporters can connect once again with the old Labour heartlands – this requires more than words, it requires action and true engagement.
The people in Stoke currently aren’t convinced anything will change for the better.
Bob Williams-Findlay, National Council member and Vice-Chair of Birmingham Left Unity
Left Unity is active in movements and campaigns across the left, working to create an alternative to the main political parties.
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