Labour had a bad night at the Sleaford and North Hykeham by-election last Thursday.
Sleaford was always a Tory seat—but Labour plummeted from second to fourth place and its share of the vote fell by 7.1 percent.
Ukip took second place, but its share also fell—by 2.2 percent. So Ukip didn’t gain by taking Labour’s voters, it just lost them at a lesser rate.
The Tories’ share also fell by 2.7 percent. The only mainstream party that actually gained anything was the Liberal Democrats, whose share rose by more than 5 percent.
It comes after the Lib Dems won the Richmond Park by-election the week before, taking the seat from the Tories. Labour’s vote plummeted there too.
Both elections have been described as “Brexit by-elections”.
The dividing line is supposed to be between people who voted to Leave and Remain in the European Union (EU) referendum in June.
The argument is that the Tories have won because of their support for Brexit in an area that voted strongly to Leave.
Meanwhile the Lib Dems have picked up on Remain voters because of their promise to try and block Brexit.
So speaking on the morning after the Sleaford election, Labour MP Vernon Coaker said the party had been “squeezed by Brexit.”
The problem with this is that it sees the difference between wanting to Remain in the EU and wanting to Leave as a divide between left and right.
So speaking after the Sleaford result, MP Jess Phillips said, “Labour needs to have a very clear position and for everybody to be saying the same thing.
“At the moment that is not the case.”
What Phillips meant was that Labour should become a bit more racist—a bit harder on migrants.
She said that Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-racism was a “London-centric view”.
This meant it was harder for him to “have a conversation that says we need to stop for a time so we as a nation can catch up for some of our poorest communities which have seen spikes in immigration.”
Yet one of the more telling points about the Sleaford election was its low turnout, just over 37 percent.
That’s much lower than the 70 percent turnout in 2015.
In an area that voted strongly to Leave the EU, more than 60 percent of voters weren’t inspired to support any candidate in the “Brexit by-election”.
Labour doesn’t have to be squeezed, nor does it have to choose between a right wing, racist Brexit programme or a neoliberal defence of the EU.
Taking a clear position can mean fighting for a left wing of Brexit based on a vision of a different society.
Labour’s vision for leaving the EU must include defending and extending free movement of people.
But it should also mean leaving the bosses’ single market.
That can’t just be words. It has to be backed up with action on the streets and in the workplaces.
As it happens, it is Labour MPs who stand in the way of this.
They want to fight in parliament for a “soft Brexit”—in other words keeping things as close to the status quo as possible.
Carrying on like that will almost certainly mean more setbacks such as in Sleaford and North Hykeham.