What Next For The Labour Party?

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In a move that raised many an eyebrow, former Hartlepool MP Peter Mandelson publicly endorsed Paul Williams, Labour’s candidate for the recent Hartlepool by–election. In his interview with the Hartlepool Mail, Mandelson wrapped up his endorsement by stating that “Labour is coming back to its roots and true values”. While the exact qualification of this statement remains unclear, the question as to why Peter Mandelson was deemed the right man to appeal to Labour’s coveted red wall voters is arguably more pressing. The former secretary of state for Northern Ireland was forced to resign from cabinet positions on two separate occasions due to corruption scandals. At a time when Sir Keir Starmer’s main line of attack on the Conservatives focuses on their own corruption, bringing Mandelson back into the spotlight is an unusual move.

It is perhaps unsurprising then, that the Hartlepool by–election ended in a resounding defeat for Labour. To add insult to injury, the local elections—which took place on the same day—resulted in the loss of 267 council seats for the party as the Conservatives increased their share by 297. Overall, it was a rather humiliating day for Labour.

There were, however, some success stories for the party. Preston’s council, noted for their commitment to local spending and innovations such as funding worker–owned co-operatives, remained comfortably in Labour’s control. Similarly, Salford’s left wing Labour council made gains, with the city’s self-professed socialist mayor Paul Dennett easily winning the mayoral election. Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham won nearly 70 percent of the vote share following his plans to bring the city region’s public transport into public ownership. Clearly, if there is a lesson to be learned from last week’s results, it is that, while Corbyn’s Labour failed, the ideas of the party’s left remain popular amongst their voter base.

For a party leader who has dedicated much of his first year in charge to eradicating any lingering influence of his predecessor, results such as this could well have proved to be a turning point for Starmer. His response, however, was in line with the prevailing sentiment of the party’s right: more of the same. Within 24 hours it was announced that Angela Rayner, a former Corbyn loyalist, would be sacked from her shadow cabinet position. While the backlash from this decision led to Rayner eventually receiving a promotion instead, Starmer has nonetheless continued to drag the party to the right in his recent shadow cabinet reshuffle.

Shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds, who is regarded as belonging to the party’s ‘soft left’, was demoted from her role as shadow chancellor. In her place, former banking official Rachel Reeves was appointed—a politician famed for her hard line stance on benefit frauds. Chief whip Nick Brown was also removed from the shadow cabinet. Brown came into conflict with Peter Mandelson in 2008 in a dispute surrounding property rate relief. This has prompted speculation from the likes of John McDonnell that Lord Mandelson was involved in Brown’s demotion. 

Overall though, the much-discussed shadow cabinet reshuffle was a rather muted affair. Rumoured changes such as the sacking of Lisa Nandy never materialised. Much like the rather humiliatingly botched attempt to sack Rayner, the reshuffle demonstrates Starmer’s inability, or unwillingness, to take decisive action. 

While this trait is hardly the mark of an astute politician, it may well be the one thing that could provide him with a route towards rebuilding the red wall. It is this indecisiveness that has, to some extent, deprived most Labour voters of any real idea as to what the party stand for under Starmer. The lack of solid policy positions and a vision for a country under Labour rule, while far from a positive, have left the door open for a return to some of the progressive policies introduced by Corbyn, without it being dubbed a U-turn by the media. Furthermore, the Conservative’s recent commitments to increasing public spending in certain areas and raising taxes have shifted the Overton window slightly to the left, making left leaning positions more acceptable.

As viable as this change of course appears to be, the reality of Labour right’s reaction to their recent defeats is starkly different. Peter Mandelson, continuing his return to prominence within the party, wasted no time in blaming Jeremy Corbyn for the losses. Perhaps more concerningly for many Labour supporters, he has also advocated breaking ties with trade unions and many of the left-wing groups affiliated with the party. Tony Blair, making his 212th ‘rare’ media appearance of the past year, also chimed in to insist that Labour must continue to move away from Corbynism

Given the extent to which Starmer has aligned himself with the party’s right by ostracising the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Rebecca Long Bailey, along with seeking the aid of arch–Blairite Peter Mandelson, it is difficult to imagine him changing course lightly. The fact remains, however, there is a road to redemption available to Labour: policies which will benefit regular people.

Words by Cian Carrick

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