THE Conservatives’ stunning reversal in North Shropshire, where the Liberal Democrats have overturned an almost 23,000 majority to seize a seat held by the Tories for over 200 years, shows how deep the anger at Boris Johnson’s government runs.
It will not have helped that the by-election was prompted by the resignation of Owen Paterson — the MP whose breaches of lobbying rules put the issue of Tory sleaze front and centre.
But this is no mere blip. It combines with a Tory Party in freefall in the polls as evidence of its double standards mount by the day.
While the whole left will relish the Tories’ humiliation in Shropshire, we should also be clear that this is not a win for us.
Claims that the abysmal Labour result — 3,686 votes or 9.7 per cent, down from 22.1 per cent in 2019 and 31.1 per cent in 2017 — are down to tactical voting won’t wash.
Labour comfortably beat the Lib Dems here at the last two elections — even at the 2019 defeat bagging more than twice as many votes. The logical “tactical” anti-Tory vote in such a seat was a Labour vote.
Local factors may have played a part in the party’s collapsed appeal: the well-known Labour candidate of the last three general elections, Graeme Currie, was barred from standing for having shared social media posts supportive of Jeremy Corbyn and freedom for Palestine.
The anti-socialist stitch-up will have left a bad taste in the mouth, sapping Labour members’ will to campaign and reminding voters that Labour is a party that hates itself.
These local factors should not be of much comfort, however. For one thing, Labour’s anti-socialist purges and arbitrary disqualification of local members’ preferred candidates are Britain-wide: they are undermining the party everywhere.
For another, the stampede towards the Lib Dems is a sign of class politics in retreat.
The Lib Dems do not represent an alternative to the status quo. As we saw from 2010-15, on economic questions they are hard to distinguish from the Conservatives, though their recent opposition to vaccine passports may have appealed to those who are — rightly — concerned at the increasingly authoritarian instincts of both Britain’s main parties.
The Labour leadership are likely to read the Lib Dem vote as confirmation of Keir Starmer’s view that the Tories are vulnerable on sleaze but the big challenges to the status quo represented by Corbynism and Brexit are in the past. That people want things as they are, but without Johnson.
We should be wary of such a conclusion. As in 2010, the very marginality of the Liberal Democrats to national politics can make them a protest vote choice when people feel that politicians are “all the same.”
And the enormous swing away from the Conservatives shows that one feature of the turbulent politics of 2015-20 is still with us: extreme voter volatility.
Lib Dem boasts of demolishing a “blue wall” equivalent to the “red wall” toppled at the last election point to an important truth.
The stable social bases of support for the main parties are gone because the stable basis of support for the political system itself is evaporating — at least in England.
That presents opportunities for the left, but these will mean nothing without action.
The Lib Dems as the alternative of choice in North Shropshire parallels Starmer’s attempt to return Labour to tame acquiescence to British capitalism. Both show that the interests of working-class people are being squeezed out of Westminster representation.
We cannot accept a return to “there is no alternative” politics when every development from the pandemic to climate change screams the need for a radical alternative from the rooftops.
But stopping it will mean rebuilding the power of organised labour step by step, workplace by workplace and community by community.
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