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Learning the (right) lessons from Uxbridge

This piece is from Labour Hub.

Learning (the right) lessons from Uxbridge

By Michael Calderbank

There’s no doubt that Labour achieved a big byelection win in Selby and Ainsty, although given the dire straits in which the Sunak’s Tories find themselves it’s perhaps not entirely surprising.  The surprising and disappointing failure to win Boris Johnson’s former seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip stands in need of greater explanation. We can all agree that Labour needs to learn lessons from this failure.  But what are the right lessons to be learnt?

Figures supportive of the Starmer leadership and on the Party’s ‘moderate’ wing more broadly have already started to make their excuses, and most of them focus around the local unpopularity of London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) scheme to improve air quality by raising charges on polluting vehicles. It appears that the Tories successfully motivated their own core vote in opposition to ULEZ, and avoided a collapse in turnout.  Fatally, Labour’s candidate appeared to concede ground on the issue rather than make the positive case for the policy.

This monocausal explanation doesn’t quite work, so additional factors are thrown in the mix.  ULEZ allegedly allowed the Tories to spin a whole ‘anti-woke’ culture war narrative around the contest, and fostered a wider series of resentments against Labour as too liberal and out-of-touch with the concerns of older voters, car drivers, and non-graduates more generally.

Or, apologists for the leadership point to the specific operation of ‘very local’ factors as somehow responsible – not just ULEZ, playing up to the antagonism of outer London boroughs towards the inner London Labour strongholds (“We are Middlesex, not London”), but also other specific issues such as HS2, or Labour’s attitude to the Modi regime in India.

If we’re looking at local factors, we might also want to ask whether Labour suffered from replacing Ali Milani, who was building a local base, in favour of a candidate favoured by the Party leadership who was parachuted in from outside, without having significant connections to the area. The apparent blocking of a Muslim candidate is unlikely to have gone unnoticed by the local Asian community.

To understand what happened in Uxbridge, we need to look at  differential turnout; why the Tory vote held up to a greater extent than anticipated, while more potential Labour voters stayed at home or else voted for other opposition parties.  The Tories won with a 495 vote majority, but 893 people chose to vote for the Green Party. So the hard question Labour should be asking itself is why it failed to motivate enough of its own support to counteract the Tory vote holding up?

It’s almost as if the announcement that Labour would retain the two child limit on benefit payments – once described as “obscene” by Angela Rayner and “heinous” by Jonathan Ashworth – wasn’t too popular, meaning, as it would, keeping an additional 250,000 children in poverty?   Or maybe those who chose to vote Green didn’t appreciate Labour’s apparent new-found hostility to ‘tree huggers’ and the decision to delay urgent new investment in the green economy?  Or weren’t inspired by the decision to rule out extending universal free school meals?

The list could go on and on. Labour isn’t inspiring its own supporters, it is attempting to win by default as the Tories get demoralised.

The Uxbridge result suggests that this is a very dangerous strategy.  Nothing can be taken for granted, and Starmer may yet clutch defeat from the jaws of victory. The landslide victory of 1997 saw Labour appeal to both the young urban graduates/liberal middle classes and the working class from the former industrial heartlands.  Unless Labour changes course, there’s a danger that it will appeal to neither in sufficient numbers, allowing the Tories to stage an unlikely recovery.

So as the great and good of the Party get ready to meet in Nottingham for the National Policy Forum, minds need to concentrate on motivating potential Labour voters with positive reasons to turn out at the General Election. The idea that success is already in the bag and therefore the party needs to be disciplined into accepting the rigours of puritanical fiscal prudence is a dangerous and presumptuous one.

But Labour risks learning entirely the wrong lessons from the Uxbridge defeat, not inspiring young voters with a radical and ambitious social, economic and environmental agenda, but trying to appease Tory-leaning voters by watering down existing green commitments.  This would not only be wrong in principle, it might also be disastrous electorally.

Michael Calderbank is Political Education Officer of Tottenham CLP.

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