Right now everybody on the internet is understandably freaking out about Donald Trump, but I believe that all social democratic or left wing people in UK should worry more about the Copeland and Stoke Central by-elections on 23 February.
It is distinctly possible that in the early hours of Friday 24 February the returning officers for the two constituencies will effectively be announcing the death of the Labour party. If this happens it will be because Labour has walked straight into the trap set up by the plutocrats and press barons to destroy Labour in the North and Midlands of England in 2017.
But it’s not over yet. What happens on 23 February remains up for grabs. Labour can still come out fighting and win both seats, and in doing so utterly confound UKIP, Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre, Richard ‘Dirty’ Desmond, and all the ugly rest of them.
It can be done, but it requires urgent engagement, effort and discipline from the Parliamentary Labour Party and the 300,000 who have been attracted to join Labour in the past 18 months.
The London media and political bubble wants these by-elections to be about Brexit. But Labour must make them about the issue that actually matters to the people, which is hope - and concrete investment in local economies and the public services people rely on. Labour must use its advantage in membership numbers to fight a ground campaign and connect with voters face to face.
The central election issue should be about whether the voters should choose endless, utterly pointless, self-defeating austerity or decisively reject it, and bring forward a modern day Marshall Plan to rebuild the economy of the North and Midlands of England.
There must of course be a focus on the disgraceful crisis in the NHS, which is entirely the fault of the Conservative party – caused by both its austerity and its needless reorganisation. And now Theresa May has kneeled before Donald Trump and offered up our NHS for looting by US health corporations in her needy desperation for a trade deal. If the voters can find out about these facts they will be sickened and could give Labour two triumphant victories.
The super-rich and their media will continue to traduce Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, because they genuinely fear what might happen if people are permitted to hear their actual message. They want to destroy them as quickly as possible in 2017 – and they want to do it in the North with the Brexit issue. Their chosen weapon is the comedy puppet Paul Nuttall, and the new incarnation of UKIP as a party that exists solely to challenge Labour in those northern towns where the Tory brand cannot reach.
The analysis of the estimated Brexit vote in each parliamentary constituency by Chris Hanretty of the University of East Anglia makes for fascinating reading. The Brexit referendum vote split UK as a whole 52%-48%. But in Copeland and Stoke Central the estimated Brexit share of the vote was 60% and 65% respectively. By contrast, in Hampstead & Kilburn, where MP Tulip Siddiq has quit the Labour front bench over the Commons vote on triggering Article 50, the Brexit share of the vote was 23.5%.
Obviously Brexit is a vital matter, but it is lunatic for Labour of all parties to destroy itself over it right now. Labour needs to win seats in both the pro-Brexit North, Midlands and East of England and in anti-Brexit London and the university towns. It would be crazy to fight these by-elections on the Brexit issue.
Stoke-on-Trent is one of the most depressed cities in the English Midlands. Traditionally heavily focussed on ceramics, the city’s industry has been blown away by globalisation. Steelite and Emma Bridgewater keep the potteries’ flag flying, and successfully export, but they will never be the mass employer of whole communities the potters once were. Economically Stoke is on a different planet to London, yet it has a successful university and is a mere 84 minutes away from Euston and 33 minutes from Manchester, with two fast Virgin Pendolino trains every hour. A new future for Stoke is possible – but it needs big investment. Meanwhile £ billions of private savings sit idle waiting for investment opportunities, which can only be unlocked by ditching austerity.
Copeland is an unusual constituency. Whilst it includes some of the most beautiful parts of the Lake District national park, including the tourist mecca of Keswick, it also includes the Sellafield nuclear site, on which it is highly dependent for well paid jobs. But in terms of population it is dominated by the former coal, steel and chemicals industrial area around the port of Whitehaven, 5 hours from London by train, and 3½ hours from Manchester. With a depressed economy for many decades, the people of the Whitehaven area feel completely abandoned by Westminster. With its fabulous coastline and its proximity to the Lakes, it could build a new future, but it will also require huge investment.
So here’s the deal: whether you are usually a Labour party person or not, love Corbyn or hate him, if you don’t want to see the main centre of opposition to endless Tory kleptocratic rule suddenly dealt a death blow in the next few weeks, then it’s time to hit the road or the rails and get up to Stoke or Whitehaven. Momentum is rallying volunteers here. There’s a car pooling site and, if you can’t travel, there’s phonebanking every day.
Aux armes citoyens! Once more unto the breach! This is the big one. 24 days to save the alternative to May, Trump, Murdoch, Dacre, and all the bloody rest. Get involved, and good luck.