100 Years Ago (2)

As we saw in the previous post, the Oldham West and Royton result may have looked positive, even triumphant, for Labour – a solid vote of confidence in the party under its new leadership – but clear-eyed, responsible commentators have warned us that this is not necessarily so. We should always look at the full picture, however unpalatable it might seem, and take our warning signs wherever we find them. For example, if we weren’t careful we might run away with the idea that Corbyn won the by-election:

Since the late Michael Meacher was a long-term ally of Jeremy Corbyn, the answer is presumably Yes. But it’s a fair question and raises genuine issues which cast serious doubts over the… oh, I don’t want to do this any more, I’m bored.

Guys, come on. It’s not what you were saying before the result, was it? I read quite a bit of comment in the run-up to the election – and in one case during the election – and I don’t remember any of this teeth-sucking perils-of-overconfidence don’t-count-your-chickens stuff. What we were reading wasn’t “when Labour win, remember to give the candidate his due”; it wasn’t “don’t get carried away by a large victory on a small turnout”, or “Labour’s majority may go up, but by how much?”, or “by-elections shouldn’t distract us from the long haul”. That’s not what everyone was saying, was it?

Take Rafael Behr (please…)

If defeat is averted

Hold on a second. Seven months ago, in the same seat, Labour took over 50% of the vote. If defeat is averted.

No, carry on. I just needed a moment.

If defeat is averted, it will be down to McMahon’s local record and support in the constituency’s south Asian population. Around a fifth of the electorate is of Bangladeshi or Pakistani heritage, and Labour canvassers say their vote is holding up best in areas where that community is concentrated. … the incipient segregation of party voting habits along ethnic lines is cause for longer-term concern. But the immediate worry is Ukip gobbling up Labour’s white working-class support in seats with no such demographic cushion.

That’s “the incipient segregation of party voting habits along ethnic lines” which isn’t actually happening – except in the sense that if you’re not White you’re probably not going to be voting for UKIP (or, increasingly, the Tories), and that realistically only leaves Labour. But right-wing parties turning ethnic minority voters away doesn’t seem to worry Behr as much as left-wing parties welcoming them.

the malaise in Labour heartlands is … a function of votes long taken for granted, combined with a sense of Labour’s capture in the 90s by arrogant southern elites: that it was “poncified”.

There are a number of direct quotes in Behr’s article, but none of them includes the word ‘poncified’ – which does, however, make it into the title of the piece.

That expresses deeper alienation, connected to the decline of secure manufacturing jobs and to mass migration. … Hopes that Corbynism might be the adhesive reconnecting a dislocated core to the party seem misplaced. It feels more like a catalyst for decline, another iteration of tin-eared disregard for local sensibilities – distinct from Blairism only in the sense that they are opposite sides of one Islington coin.

A catalyst for decline, by jingo. Talk about doubling down – Behr is now arguing, not only that Labour’s working class vote is falling unstoppably, but that Corbyn’s election will make it fall even faster. An interesting theory and a bold prediction – if only there was some way of putting it to the test!

Well, last Thursday was supposed to be the test; last Thursday was supposed to be the ‘naked lunch’ moment, when the fog cleared away and we could all see who wanted what – and, in the case of the Labour Party and its supporters, who didn’t want what. Last Thursday, not to put too fine a point on it, was supposed to be when the wheels came off the Labour Party, and Corbyn’s leadership in particular. Labour’s traditional supporters were poised to jump ship, and who was going to replace them? Non-voters? Can’t see it.

No wonder that some despaired of the whole mess and said that we need something completely different:

Not sure what Jason means by ‘liberal’ here – or ‘ultra-left’ for that matter – but that’s by the way; we get the gist. “What’s needed”, of course, was “needed” on the basis of the cataclysm that was about to engulf the party; that‘s how bad the political landscape was going to look when the dust settled. Or, as it turns out, not. The good people of Oldham seem not to object to the ultra-left liberals and their unpatriotic schemes – not as much as Jason Cowley does, anyway. (If you are interested in patriotic social democracy, check out the Patriotic Socialist Party (h/t Jamie). Their policies include redistribution of wealth, opposition to all forms of discrimination, withdrawal from the EU, “a system of immigration based on economic sustainability” and “the unification of the British Isles … under a single central government with devolved government bodies for each constituent nation”. That’s right, they want to annex Ireland. Forward to 1801!)

The best exposition of the world-view underlying Cowley’s despair and Behr’s prophecies of doom came from Stephen Bush. On Thursday he published this piece online, ahead of print publication and also ahead of the polls closing – although that didn’t actually matter, as you’ll see.

Like most European social-democratic groupings, Labour is an uneasy coalition between its industrial or ex-industrial core and what Michael Frayn called “the Herbivores” … Under Ed Miliband, as the academic Tim Bale put it, Labour was divided between “people who drink wine, and people who drink lager”. Wine drinkers drifted away to the Green Party. Lager drinkers trickled away to Ukip. The result: thumping defeats across England and Wales.

Under Corbyn, that Greenward drift has gone into reverse. Labour’s new leader is catnip to the Herbivores. The Ukip trickle, however, is turning into a flood in some places. In Oldham West and Royton, Labour sought salvation in the seat’s Asian vote – but white working-class constituents defected in large numbers, to Nigel Farage’s party, or simply by staying at home. It is a journey that Labour MPs have seen voters make before. “In 2005 it was: ‘I’ll vote Labour one more time,’” recalls one grandee. “In 2010 it was: ‘I’ll stay home.’ In 2015 it was: ‘I think I’m voting Ukip.’”

Jeremy Corbyn’s challenge is to find a way to bring together his sympathetic Herbivores and Labour voters, in towns such as Oldham, who are tempted by Ukip, and – if that wasn’t hard enough – win some Tory voters in the process. … It may be that, whether the choice is losing votes to Ukip and the Tories, or to the SNP and groups to Labour’s left, the party must simply decide which direction it wants to turn to face the sunset.

(West, I’d say, but that’s just me.)

When I first read this piece I looked at the second paragraph quoted here – Under Corbyn, that Greenward drift … The Ukip trickle … In Oldham West and Royton – and assumed that the article was writing about an election taking place in Oldham West and Royton under Corbyn’s leadership, i.e. Thursday’s by-election. While the by-election would be safely in the past by the time the New Statesman came out, it was actually happening when the piece was published online. Morever, if calling the election ahead of time was bad form, it seemed particularly regrettable to call the election against Labour (that phrase ‘sought salvation’ suggests rather strongly that they didn’t find it).

I put this to Stephen on Twitter, and he confirmed promptly that this was not a reference to the by-election then taking place; the reference was to shifts in the Labour and UKIP vote between the 2010 and 2015 general elections, in Oldham West and Royton. The narrative is the same in any case: the white working class defecting from Labour in large numbers and the gap being plugged either by latte-drinking liberals or by appeals to local ethnic minorities – both of which, in a savage irony, repel the white working class even more, sending the Labour vote into an inexorable downward spiral out of which it could only hope to escape by…oh, hang on, we won. Never mind. 62%? Good one.

Snark aside, there is a serious question here. Is this the kind of thing that’s been happening? Or rather – since we can’t know for certain whether this has been happening or not – is it a believable interpretation of the figures?

In part 3: no, it’s notlet’s find out!

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