Labour policy, a “senior Labour source” told the Guardian during Labour Party conference, on 27 September, is “what Keir says it is”.
On 26 September the conference voted overwhelmingly for a left-wing “Socialist Green New Deal” motion on climate change, including nationalisation of the energy companies. The same day Starmer told the BBC he would not nationalise energy.
Starmer’s “ten pledges” in last year’s Labour leadership election specifically called for “common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water”.
Tax the rich
Both Starmer’s pre-conference pamphlet, and his conference speech, stressed a “pro-business” turn, praise for the “private sector”, talk of what employers had told Starmer they wanted from workers more than of what workers might tell him we want from bosses.
Yet the Pandora Papers remind us of the need to attack the vast accumulated wealth of the rich in order to restore working-class living standards and pursue working-class interests.
As a motion to the conference from Newark and Newcastle East CLPs, ruled out of order, put it:
“We need to take back wealth, including through a wealth tax, increased corporation tax, capital gains tax and taxing very high incomes; and taking banking and finance into democratic public ownership.”
Blairism mark 2?
Starmer is pushing towards a weak Blairite-style agenda for Labour — small welfare and climate tweaks only as market priorities and low taxes for the rich allow. This at a time when climate action, and unwinding inequality sharpened by the pandemic and the Tories’ post-lockdown clawbacks, are urgent.
But the Blair Return Project is as yet very far from full victory.
In the heyday of Blairism, until long after Blair’s election in 1997, the leadership machine had Labour conference sewn up. Most members supported the leadership or were willing to fall in behind it to “unite against the Tories”. Blair looked sure to win the general election, or had won. Starmer still has wretched poll figures (and, instructively, no boost to them from his conference “showcase”).
The 2021 conference suggested there is still a left-wing majority among the Labour membership, though with a shift to the right since 2019. Constituency delegates voted repeatedly for left-wing policies, in many cases as left-wing as the policy passed in 2019.
Numerous speeches, and wider discussions around the conference, made the left-wing bent of many delegates clear. And unlike during high Blairism, the leadership did not feel confident to declare to the conference itself that motions would be ignored.
In the 90s most trade unions were dominated by soft-Blairite “new realism”. Unions now are on the back foot. But they mostly have left policy and left or leftish leaderships, and recent union elections have reinforced that trend.
Starmer dropped plans to return to an electoral college with a special vote for MPs to elect the party leader. He got through his other anti-democratic rule changes. Those are designed to insulate the leadership from policies supported by the membership which are or might be passed by conference.
However, the bulk of the rule changes only passed because the leadership and machine of Unison voted with Starmer, in many cases violating their own union rules and policies. Anger about that may help Unison’s left, which recently won a majority on the union’s national executive for the first time, to win a majority also in the current elections for its separate Labour Link structure. If the left wins and consolidates control of Unison’s intervention in Labour, things could shift rapidly and significantly.
The decision of the Bakers’ Union to disaffiliate, while understandable given the Labour leadership’s provocations, is a mistake.
As yet, even “left-wing” unions mostly put up little fight in the party. If they begin to use their weight in party structures well, they can reverse Labour’s rightward drift.
Labour’s three biggest affiliates are three of the four big health workers’ unions — Unison, GMB and Unite. Even the more leftish Unite did nothing to raise its 15% / £3,000 pay claim at the conference. The unions should push Labour to get on the streets in support of the NHS and NHS workers — at least as much as Blair Labour was pushed onto the streets in 1994 to (successfully, then) block Royal Mail privatisation.
Policy is key
In the run up to and at the conference, the biggest Labour left group, Momentum, took little interest in the policy debates, focusing on leadership election rules. Its “The World Transformed” festival once again had minimal connection to what was happening at the conference.
The left certainly needs plans to reverse Starmer’s anti-democratic rule changes and democratise the party. But, also, to give life to the left policies passed at conference by action on the streets, by preparation to sharpen them at next year’s conference, and by calling MPs to account on them.