The left revolt against Labour is significant – and the party ignores that at its peril | Owen Jones

If the Starmer project has a guiding philosophy, it goes like this: Labour must define itself against the left. If a speech or policy offends the left, then good. If a candidate on the party’s left makes it through, they should be marginalised or purged. Within the electorate, leftwing voters are seen as irrelevant, because they’ll vote Labour no matter what to keep the Tories out, with those votes stacking up in safe urban seats.

Starmer’s cheerleaders may well conclude that this strategy still holds. After all, Labour has secured a landslide victory, and the Tories have suffered their most shattering defeat since they were founded in their modern form 190 years ago. Indeed, in our democratic history, no electoral rout has been more deserved. The evidence was everywhere, from an unparalleled squeeze in living standards to Liz Truss’s deranged attempt to turn Britain into a laboratory for hard-right economics; from a collapsing NHS to the repeated clobbering of the young.

But look beneath the party’s majority, and the limits of the Labour right’s hostility to the left – inside and outside the party – start to become strikingly apparent. Before the election, YouGov reported that nearly half of Labour’s voters gave “get the Tories out” as the main reason for their choice, with “agree with their policies” chalking up just 5% and Starmer’s leadership securing 1%. Enthusiasm for Starmerism this was not. And where there were credible alternative candidates to the left, many natural Labour voters flocked to them.

That the Green party won all four seats it was targeting is itself remarkable, including two – Waveney Valley and North Herefordshire – from the Tories. It is Bristol Central, though – where the party’s co-leader Carla Denyer won a more than 10,000 majority over Labour’s shadow cabinet minister Thangam Debbonnaire – that should most worry the governing party. As one local journalist reported, Labour threw “the absolute kitchen sink” at Bristol Central because it feared that if the Greens won there, it would set an example that other voters would follow at the next general election.

Look to the dozens of seats in which the Greens came second behind Labour. These are largely urban areas with often diverse and young voters. Many of them are private renters, with a high proportion saddled with student debt, many in insecure work. The Greens came a solid second in Bristol’s other four seats, with more than 14,000 votes in Bristol East. They were runners-up, too, in seats in London, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Merseyside and Cardiff.

All this suggests a widespread disillusionment with Labour before it even came to power – and governments do not tend to become more popular with age. At best, many Labour MPs will now be forced to compete for votes with a more progressive party. That means pressure on them over, say, taxing the well-to-do, public investment, public ownership, tuition fees, child poverty and the climate emergency. No longer can Labour claim they are only competing with the Tories and Farageism, making politics a dutch auction over migrant bashing and slash-and-burn cuts. In the worst case scenario, from Labour’s point of view, voters’ defections towards the Greens only accelerate in the years to come.

Jeremy Corbyn’s overwhelming victory, standing as an independent in Islington North, was also a much bigger success than has been understood. Since the second world war, vanishingly few independent candidates have won in a competitive contest at a general election. (When the independent Martin Bell beat the Tory Neil Hamilton in 1997, for instance, it was because Labour and the Lib Dems had stood down.) The odds were stacked against him: there is a high turnover of voters in his constituency; many locals believed he was still the Labour candidate; and he launched his campaign at the last minute. His victory speaks to disaffection with Starmerism in urban areas as much as it does to constituency loyalty.

But Labour lost four other seats to independent candidates – including that held by the shadow cabinet minister Jonathan Ashworth, one of the party’s main spokespeople – and came close elsewhere. Objecting to Israel’s genocidal rampage in Gaza formed an important plank of these independents’ campaigns: our political elite has simply failed to understand that, in the eyes of a significant number of voters, they are morally disgraced over this depraved episode.

Here’s the key point: Labour simply did not see such losses coming, and neither did almost the entire media. I visited Ilford North, the constituency represented by the new health secretary, Wes Streeting: here, a 23-year-old British Palestinian ran an astonishingly energetic grassroots campaign. Motorists spontaneously honked at the sight of her; local constituents chased after her asking for selfies. It was clear to me that she had vast organic support. But Streeting did not take her campaign seriously: in the end, she came within a few hundred votes of unseating him. This tells us that many Labour MPs simply do not understand their own constituencies.

And what of Chingford and Woodford Green, where just as the election was called, Labour purged Faiza Shaheen, a charismatic, talented economist, humiliating her in the process? She came a near joint second with the imposed Labour candidate, allowing the Tory Iain Duncan Smith to prevail: without this factional spite, she would have almost certainly won.

Despite the excessive media focus on the Farageist insurgency, the left revolt is just as significant. If the Labour leadership was rational, it would acknowledge this disaffection and seek to reverse the rot. The party, after all, has secured the same share of the vote as in 2019, winning its landslide thanks to Nigel Farage dividing the right and the vagaries of our electoral system. The juxtaposition between its dominance of the House of Commons and the lack of enthusiasm it enjoys in the country will be increasingly felt.

But here’s a prediction. Those surrounding Starmer are too politically defined by their hostility to the left to learn from this. There will be precious little conciliation: quite the reverse. In the coming years, growing numbers of voters will be driven to the Greens and other leftwing formations. As long as leftwing forces in Britain build on this moment and find common cause – yes, a big but – then this could be a new beginning indeed.

Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist

The Guardian

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