It is very welcome that Labour defeated Ukip in last night's Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election. The vote was a bitter defeat for Ukip's new leader, the racist and serial liar Paul Nuttall.
But the result for Labour in the by-election in Copeland, Cumbria, is disastrous. Labour lost an area it has held for some 80 years—to the Tories.
It is also the first by-election in 35 years that that a party in government has taken a seat from an opposition party.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has since said he is not resigning after the defeat—but there will be increased pressure on him to go.
Ukip hoped Nuttall could grab Labour voters in areas that voted strongly to Leave the European Union (EU) such as Stoke.
Nuttall claimed Ukip could replace Labour as “the patriotic voice of working people”. He failed his first real test.
It was a sign that support for leaving the EU does not automatically translate into support for Ukip’s racism. About four times as many people voted Leave in the constituency as voted for Ukip yesterday.
Yet Labour’s percentage share of the vote in Stoke fell while Ukip’s rose. Ukip would have almost certainly done better if Nuttall hadn’t been exposed as a chronic fantasist and become a laughing stock over the last few weeks.
The right wing in Labour have two explanations for the party’s weak showing—and both of them are wrong.
Some claim that the problem is that Corbyn is too left wing, and that his opposition to racism and nuclear power make the party unelectable.
Others say that the problem is Brexit and Labour’s refusal to block leaving the EU in parliament. They say people who voted remain are leaving Labour for the Liberal Democrats, while people who voted to leave are voting for the Tories.
But neither of these get to the heart of Labour’s problem.
Labour’s share of the vote has dropped steadily in both Stoke and Copeland for at least the past fifteen years—long before Corbyn was leader. The picture is the same in numbers of Labour seats across Britain.
There is a long-term process of disillusionment with a Labour Party that has not acted in working class people's interests.
Workers have suffered for years with attacks on wages, jobs and living standards—a process Labour wedded itself to.
Defending the NHS was supposed to save Labour in Copeland. The only feature of Labour candidate Gillian Troughton’s campaign was that she was against the Tory attempt to close Copeland’s maternity service.
It’s a big issue in Copeland, but it didn’t save Labour. Perhaps people just didn’t think that voting Labour would make a real difference.
Corbyn has not been able to turn round Labour's decline. He has been undermined and weakened by constant attacks from right-wingers. This intensifies the sense that Labour is divided and ineffectual.
But sniping from the MPs is always going to be a problem for a left Labour leader. In an effort to overcome such pressures, Corbyn promised to break Labour from the mainstream political consensus in two leadership elections and a “populist relaunch” earlier this year.
Instead he has made crucial concessions to the right in a bid to keep them onside.
Corbyn dropped his opposition to nuclear power and Trident nuclear weapons.
He gave in to right wing arguments, particularly from the Unite and GMB union leaders, that being against nuclear power and Trident weapons would mean attacks on jobs. But Corbyn does not seem credible when he turns his back on his anti-nuclear principles. Labour lost anyway and missed the chance to win over at least some people.
You can’t ignore the polls that show Corbyn is unpopular. He is seen by many people as a timid leader at the head of a party whose top hierarchy hates him.
But people who say Corbyn should step down want to replace him with someone further to his right—and closer to the politics that meant so many people became fed up with Labour in the first place.
Corbyn has to break from the right. But crucially there has to be more of the type of struggle that gives a sense that society can change.
Big demonstrations against Trump and racism, and in defence of the NHS are a start. Corbyn can turn Labour’s fortunes around if he’s prepared to break from the right and put Labour at the heart of that struggle.
It is good that he's joining the demonstration for the NHS on 4 March, but there needs to be far more focus on active battles against racism and austerity.