Up until the 2019 general election, the West Yorkshire town of Wakefield was part of the Labour Party’s so-called ‘red wall’. This was a term coined during that election to retroactively refer to a stretch of counties across the North that traditionally voted Labour. This was a trend broken in that general election, and in by-elections in Batley and Hartlepool last year as Conservative MPs claimed those seats.
Following this string of Tory victories, it may have surprised some to see the latest polls from YouGov which showed Labour candidate Simon Lightwood to have 56% of constituents saying they’d vote for him on 23 June. That proved all too true with Labour coming out with 13,166 votes to the Tories’ 8,241 – the first Labour gain in a by-election since 2012 (albeit not on the levels of Labour’s vote under Corbyn in 2017).
Lightwood has run a campaign based on anti-Tory sentiment in the face of the cost-of-living crisis, promising to halt the closure of an NHS walk in-centre and to push back against the rise of National Insurance, although this is all explained in terms of simply waiting for the next Labour government to be elected, as opposed to bold campaigns for community and workers’ action to save those services.
Lightwood has sold himself in interviews as a man who understands the struggles of the people of Wakefield, having come from a family that relied on benefits and lost their house, leading to a two-year stint where he had to share a two-bedroom house with six other relatives. Despite this however, there is no clear sign that he would be prepared to in any way defy Starmer’s New Blairite leadership.
At the same time, Lightwood’s own record is not quite what he wants to present it as. While presenting himself in the media as an ordinary “NHS worker”, in reality he was actually a senior NHS Trust manager. The Trust he helped head, Calderdale and Huddersfield, relies extensively on for-profit ‘Private Finance Initiative’ schemes, and has been responsible for efforts to close essential health services.
When Calderdale and Huddersfield Trust attempted to close down Huddersfield A&E in 2016, it was Socialist Alternative supporters who led the campaign to save those local services.
Labour in name only
Much like Starmer, who paid Lightwood a very public visit last Thursday, Lightwood seems to be largely relying on the current playbook of Starmer’s Blairism: provide general criticisms of the Tories, without anything at all in the way of alternative policies that can address the most urgent needs of working class people. Experience so far has shown that he is prepared to do little else than toe the party line, claiming that “Labour has got the solutions”, and that the Tories are “out of ideas and out of touch”.
It is true currently that Labour currently enjoys a narrow but consistent lead in the polls. However, the idea from Starmer’s head office is clearly that, if Labour says nothing beyond general platitudes to the cameras, or offers policies even just slightly ahead of what the Tories are set to propose anyway, this will be enough to garner lasting mass support.
Despite couching this in the language of needing to ‘win back support from 2019’ (designed to attack Corbyn’s previous leadership), what this actually misses is that the mood in society is far removed from Starmer’s weak pro-capitalist approach.
Far from desiring something “sensible” and “pro-business”, the recent 50,000 strong Trades Union Congress demonstration in London, along with the gigantic national rail workers strike reveals a mass desire among working class people for a leadership that brings the fight to the Tories not just at the ballot box, but in the workplaces and on the streets as part of a struggle for above-inflation pay rises and public ownership of the energy companies. Starmer’s empty pro-capitalist approach provides nothing of the sort.
Besides the trite rhetoric, Labour’s chances of winning a seat in Wakefield seemed all too likely due to both its recent history and its roots. It had been a Labour seat from 1932 to 2019, and the entire reason the by-election had been called was due to Wakefield having been without an MP for a full year, following the jailing of former MP Imran Ahmed Khan for sexual assault.
When asked for comment on the conviction of his predecessor, Tory candidate Nadeem Ahmed made the remark that “we still trust GPs after Harold Shipman”, referring to the mass murdering doctor. Whilst the media and local outrage made Ahmed quickly regret that crass comment, we as socialists would take more issue with his comparison of the lifesaving work of doctors to the so called ‘work’ of a Tory MP, which is much more likely to cost lives.
Speaking loud and clear
Given this cacophony of scandals facing the Tories, and the fact that in recent polls not one of the other thirteen candidates had managed to attain 10% prospective votes, it seems like this was always an open net for a Labour victory. But what does this result mean for the people of Wakefield?
Much of Starmer’s comments on the election were about “giving a voice to the voiceless”, as if having a Blairite Labour MP to represent them in parliament truly gives working class people any tangible control over their lives.
Events have made extremely clear that Starmer’s Labour is no avenue through which working class people can organise themselves. We need instead a new party, unapologetically on the left, with a socialist programme, and based in workplace, anti-oppression and climate struggle.
Wakefield has a proud working class history, being home to the National Coal Mining Museum with exhibits from the 1984-85 strike, (not just from Wakefield itself but from surrounding pit towns from Sheffield to Barnsley) and census data taken in 2001 and 2015 tell us that Wakefield remains a predominantly working class city.
Tory losses in these by-elections are a promising sign. They reflect, at root, a mass rejection within working class communities of the idea that Johnson’s government would ever do anything fundamentally different to what the Tories have always done.
At the same time, Starmer clearly provides no alternative. This summer is set to potentially be a ‘Summer of Discontent’ for the bosses, with strike ballots planned among postal workers, education workers, further RMT ballots and much more. This provides an opportunity for a reckoning after twelve years of austerity and attacks on workers’ conditions.
In the words of Karl Marx, “It will be the workers, with their courage, resolution and self-sacrifice, who will be chiefly responsible for achieving victory.”