The backdrop to Labour’s first in-person conference since the start of the pandemic was a deep, country-wide crisis. The era of the shortage has left Johnson and his cronies flailing around, lurching from one u-turn to the next. Queues at petrol stations, energy companies going bust, empty supermarket shelves: these are the realities of Tory Britain. And with the lifelines of furlough and the Universal Credit uplift about to be cut abruptly, a long, cold, hungry winter threatens for millions of working-class people.
You might assume in these circumstances that the leader of Britain’s largest ‘opposition’ party would be resolutely focused on attacking those responsible for these unfolding disasters. Better still, you might hope such a leader would be enthusiastically setting out an alternative – demanding a society run in the interests of the majority, calling out the vested interests of the rich and powerful. You’d be wrong.
Starmer, friend of capital
Starmer, like Johnson, is over and above all else a friend of capital. In fact, he’s such a friendly friend that he hopes to convince his capitalist friends that he’s an even better friend than friendly Boris. This explains his pathetic Blair tribute act. It’s why his shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves felt the need to channel George Osborne circa 2010 – committing to a fiscal straitjacket so rigid that even Johnson and Sunak have been forced to throw it off. And it’s for this reason – Starmer’s unshakeable loyalty to the needs of the rich – that the figure preoccupying him as he walked the Brighton seafront was not Boris Johnson, but Jeremy Corbyn.
Starmer’s aim at this conference was singular. The plan was to smash the left and close the door to a second Corbynism. In this, despite all the undignified wranglings and righteous conference floor heckles, he ultimately succeeded. He was initially pushed back on his attempt to bring back the old ‘electoral college’ system. But, helped by Angela Rayner and the Unison right (whose actions went against the democratic wishes of the union’s NEC), he passed a new requirement for prospective candidates in Labour leadership elections to first win the support of 20% of the Parliamentary Labour Party. This makes it virtually impossible for a left winger to reach a ballot.
For those unlucky enough to watch all this unfold in person, it was a testing experience. When asked how they felt about the conference, one Unite delegate summed it up succinctly: “Abysmal. A fair bit of left talk on the conference floor, but by the time you’d gone for your tea, a front bencher had appeared on television to confirm they were going to ignore all of it”.
The disaffiliation of one of Labour’s founding organisations – the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU) – is a fitting symbol of the party’s deep alienation from its historic roots. This moment, in many ways a watershed, was simply shrugged off as having ‘minimal financial impact’ on Labour by a nameless party source. It drew no comment from the front bench, who reportedly failed to meet with any leading member of BFAWU before its decision. The expulsion of the union’s president Ian Hodson, who along with BFAWU members has played an important role in building the campaign to end zero-hour-contracts and poverty pay, fits neatly with the front bench’s opposition to the demand for a £15-an-hour minimum wage.
It was this which triggered the resignation of the only remaining Corbyn supporter in Starmer’s shadow cabinet, Andy MacDonald. He had been asked by Starmer to argue against the £15 demand in discussions with the GMB union. Yet polls show this figure is supported by 65% of people in Britain. If implemented, it would make a dramatic difference to the lives of millions of the key-workers politicians are keen to praise but loath to pay. Clearly it is a policy’s popularity with big business – not ordinary people – that forms the litmus test for Starmer. It’s perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that Labour’s polling remains poor.
Rivals on the right
Indeed, despite his rule change victory, the conference was a fraught one for the Labour leader. Starmer is weak and many now agree his leadership’s days are numbered. Rivals on the right, like the ultra-Blairite Wes Streeting, as well as careerists who pose more to his left, such as deputy leader Angela Rayner, are biding their time and preparing their challenges. Partly for this reason, the question of the rule changes was of vital strategic importance for all wings of the Labour right. It allows them the opportunity to replace Starmer should they choose, without fear of opening the door to a left resurgence.
Despite the Blairites’ claim that they hold the key to making Labour ‘electable’, there is zero confidence among almost anyone that Labour under its current leadership is heading to victory. Starmer’s speech, like his 14,000-word essay, was long in form but short on content. He attacked the Tories. But he could scarcely outline how his approach would differ from theirs other than in the fine details.
Incredibly, amid a catastrophic fuel and energy crisis, Starmer thought it important to use this moment to clarify that it is ‘not the time’ to be nationalising things. Instead, the giant monopolies that have allowed this disaster to unfold, and which will continue to rake in huge profits as ice caps melt and pensioners shiver in their homes, must be either left alone or bailed out. When young Labour activists tried asking Starmer if he would commit to the minimum of £69 billion a year in spending researchers have suggested is necessary to achieve the target of ‘net zero’ emissions, Starmer literally ran away.
Meanwhile, his pitch to win back the lost ‘red wall’ amounts to patronising flag-waving. The reality is that it was the strategy pushed by Starmer of demanding a second Brexit referendum (which Corbyn ultimately capitulated to) that cost Labour the support of millions of working-class Leave voters in 2019.
Predictably, the loud renunciation of Corbyn’s popular, pro-working-class policies combined with a ruthless purge of Labour members is not actually a winner with voters. A week on from the conference, the Tories’ four-point poll lead remains intact. Starmer’s abysmal approval ratings are unchanged. While it is still possible that Labour begins to pick up support over the next period simply by dint of being ‘not the Tories’, it seems less and less likely. This conference was held in the middle of a severe national crisis that 69% of the public correctly blame on the government. The failure to pick up even one or two points in the polls makes a general election victory seem a tall order.
In the light of all this, the question of how opposition to this government will be built, and especially of how the crucial question of working-class political representation can be solved, is posed sharply. First and foremost, this conference should decisively quash the notion that waiting for a Labour government is a viable strategy on any issue of importance to working-class people. Instead, the trade union movement must act now and act decisively. To begin with, that means building to win strike ballots in the NHS and local government – boldly demanding a decent pay rise.
But a fighting strategy must go beyond this. The victories of left general secretary Sharon Graham in Unite and of the broad left on the Unison national executive should provide a foundation for mass, coordinated action which marries up the struggles of workers in both the public and private sectors. These include the fight against the pay freeze, to stop fire and rehire, to end closures and job losses, and so on. Linked with the huge mobilisations of young people on issues like climate change, this could be the basis of a mass movement to drive the Tories out.
For any such movement as it emerges, the issue of a political alternative will be posed inherently. The question of whether the left’s task is to ‘stay in and fight on’ in Labour or to fight to build something new has now been decisively settled. Therefore a discussion must immediately begin within the workers’ movement about how to build a new party that can give voice to the struggles taking place in our workplaces and communities.
Build an alternative
As a first step, a conference on working-class political representation – organised by the new left leadership of Unite, along with BFAWU and others, for example – could provide a forum for discussing what is needed.
Within this, a crucial aspect of any discussion must be that of what programme is necessary to meet the aspirations of working-class people. To address the myriad crises currently facing humanity, from Covid to climate change, socialist ideas – especially those of public ownership, democratic planning, and internationalism – are utterly vital. That’s why the most important task facing all those who see the need for an end to the rotten system of capitalism is that of building a powerful force which can fight for these ideas. This is the task we in Socialist Alternative have set ourselves, and if you agree it’s necessary, we encourage you to get involved.