How the left fared in the UK election and where they go from here

Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s surprisingly comfortable victory in Islington North, Thursday’s general election did not look, at first sight, like a good result for that sector of the Labour party – the hard left – to whom he remains a hero.

So large was Keir Starmer’s parliamentary majority that any hope of a caucus of leftwing MPs leveraging power was crushed underfoot by the stampede of new Starmer-friendly MPs.

As former Momentum activist Michael Chessum wryly puts it: “It’s not like the Socialist Campaign Group is going to hold the balance of power.”

Chessum, author of This Is Only The Beginning: the Making of the New Left, From Anti-Austerity to the Fall of Corbyn, believes the yawning divide between Labour’s mainstream and its left wing necessitates a split in the party – but only if there is a change to proportional representation. As Labour has just secured a 172-seat majority with just 34% of the vote, he knows that is highly unlikely to happen, “despite being established Labour policy”. For that reason he says there is “a danger of political stasis for the left”.

But the war in Gaza – and a twist of religious identity politics – provided the non-Labour left with its standout triumphs on Thursday as four pro-Gaza independents took Labour seats with notable Muslim populations.

As Shockat Adam said in Leicester South, having overturned the shadow paymaster general Jon Ashworth’s 22,000 majority: “This is for Gaza.”

Starmer faced criticism on the left for his words and actions in the first few months of the war. A clip from an interview on LBC went viral after he appeared to say Israel had the right to withhold water and power from Gaza. It took several days for him to clarify that was not his position.

Then in November, he ordered his MPs to abstain on a parliamentary motion calling for a ceasefire, leading to 56 MPs rebelling.

By the time Starmer called for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in February, he was accused of doing too little too late.

Gaza had an impact in Starmer’s Holborn and St Pancras constituency, where independent Andrew Feinstein made it a central plank in his platform. The new prime minister’s vote share subsequently went down by 17% from the 2019 election, while the new health secretary Wes Streeting came within 528 votes of losing his Ilford North seat to Leanne Mohamad.

In the bordering constituency of Chingford and Woodford Green, the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith held on to his seat after the Labour vote was split between its official candidate and its previous candidate at the 2019 election, Faiza Shaheen. Shaheen was controversially deselected in May over a series of tweets, some of which were alleged to be in denial of antisemitism in the party under Corbyn.

On Station Road in Chingford, Helen Jonns says she feels “screwed over” by Labour for its treatment of Shaheen, for whom she voted. Shaheen herself blamed Duncan Smith’s win on Labour for replacing her as its candidate, although party officials stated that if she hadn’t stood as an independent their candidate would have won.

Jonns acknowledges that, but says she voted for Shaheen “because it was the right thing to do to stand with her”.

Nasser Aziz was less ethically motivated. He usually votes Conservative but thought the party had “lost the plot” under Rishi Sunak. He originally intended to vote Labour and then opted for Shaheen due to “family pressure”. All his friends and family, he explained, had decided en bloc to support Shaheen.

It’s always a mistake, however, to view people’s voting decisions as overly determined by events or campaigns. At the Empire Food & Wine store, Ulas Genc says he voted for Labour but had strong reservations about its stance on Gaza. Did he consider voting for Shaheen?

“Who’s that?” he asked.

Of course Corbyn made his pro-Gaza stance clear, even if his victory owed more to his longevity and record as the local MP. He and his army of canvassers called on the goodwill of voters, including Ciara Collins, an Islington North resident who would in other circumstances have put her X in the Labour candidate’s box.

“Overall, I’m really happy that Labour are now the government,” says Collins, “but I just felt that Jeremy has much more connection to the place and I really like his policies.”

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While she had always previously voted Labour, she said that if there was PR she would vote Green.

Howard Harrison, also a Corbyn sympathiser, did vote Green because he didn’t think his vote meant anything nationally, where he had expected a Labour victory. “So,” he says, “I voted with my heart.”

The idea that a Green vote is a purer, more virtuous vote is not uncommon on the left. The Greens quadrupled their number of MPs to four last week. Even that veteran of the left, Diane Abbott, who survived an extended period on Starmer’s naughty step, saw her majority in Hackney North and Stoke Newington cut back by the Green candidate. And another reason cited for Shaheen’s ousting was a tweet in support of a Green candidate.

For Chessum, these independent and Green wins, while electorally small, are politically significant.

“It’s almost unprecedented that you see left-of-Labour electoral alternatives flourishing this much while Labour is still in opposition. They’re not even letting people down yet! So the high-water mark of those alternatives may well be some way down the line.”

Jon Lansman, former chair of the Momentum movement that drove Corbyn’s leadership and seizure of the Labour party, thinks that many former Corbyn activists may continue to move over to the Greens.

“It all depends on what the government actually does, and I think the jury’s out on that,” he says. “I still think there will be plenty of new, incoming MPs who will find themselves disappointed if Starmer doesn’t deliver a lot more than he’s promising.”

Lansman is no longer Momentum chair, but a current insider maintains that the overwhelming majority of the new parliamentary intake are “Starmer-loyalists from the right”. He is pessimistic about the chances of a left resurgence within the party in the short to medium term but sees hope for the left in the government quickly running into difficulties with “arms sales to Israel or the two-child benefit cap”.

In the longer term, he says: “Labour’s policy solutions are not adequate to the crisis facing the country.”

Yet no one is willing or able to identify any obvious leadership figures of the future. And while few, before 2015, would ever have picked out Corbyn, lightning doesn’t strike twice, especially with party electoral rule changes that mean it will be more difficult for a leftist MP to run for leader.

Whatever encouragement progressives may take from the independent and Green victories, it’s a sign of the scale of Starmer’s success that the left’s only parliamentary hope for the foreseeable future lies in expectation of his failure.

The Guardian