UK’s Labour Party Conference, Back to the 1990s

Photograph Source: Jeremy Corbyn – CC BY 2.0

The UK’s annual Labour party conference was held last week. As a party member I could have attended, but the vagaries of Covid travel were just too daunting.

Two items dominated the pre-conference headlines: (1) how would Jeremy Corbyn, still a party member, but having to sit as an independent MP thanks to the whim of the Labour leader Keir Starmer, conduct himself? Corbyn is deeply popular with the party’s grassroots’ membership, and the party leadership was concerned about the protests against Starmer that were likely to take place; and (2) Starmer has been embarking on a Blairite restoration throughout his 18 months as party leader, and there was a strong chance that open hostility towards this could erupt at the conference.

The cornerstone of the Blairite restoration has been to wrest power from the ordinary membership and put it in the hands of the parliamentary party and its big donors, with key-decision-making confined to a small “kitchen” cabinet or coterie of trusties (as Blair himself did when he became party leader, which led to accusations that he was conducting himself like a US president).

Starmer signalled his intentions with regard to (2) before the conference began by setting-out plans to switch to an electoral college system to choose future party leaders. Starmer sought to replace the current one-vote for each member of the party and its affiliates for any candidate on the ballot paper.

Starmer wanted a return to Labour’s old system, under which MPs, party members, and trade unions each had a third of the votes for a new leader. in future, candidates will also need the support of 20% of Labour MPs – it had been 10% previously — to stand. Labour’s left said Starmer’s plan would give more power to MPs at the expense of ordinary members. Starmer responded by saying his plan will give greater influence to millions of trade union members. At present trade union members could only vote in leadership elections if they were registered as affiliate Labour supporters. Starmer’s proposal would grant the vote to all trade union members who paid the political levy on their union dues, in this way expanding the leadership electorate to an estimated more than 2 million individuals.

Starmer’s electoral college plan was adopted, albeit narrowly, at the conference with a few changes as a gesture towards its critics.

Starmer’s sign of accommodation towards the unions paid off in one respect— a proposal in support of an electoral system using proportional representation (PR), was supported by the ordinary membership (80% of members in the conference hall voted for PR) but not Starmer. The PR proposal was defeated with the support of the unions.

PR may be the only way to save the Labour party, which is moribund in Scotland, marginal in southern England, and strong only in the cities and larger towns, where its appeal tends to be among younger and better educated voters. Working class voters are abandoning the party, and as Starmer shifts it to the right, there are signs that younger and better educated voters are peeling off to the Greens. If Labour’s rightwing decides to gravitate to the centrist Lib Dems, Labour will be in serious trouble (if it is not already). PR will at least give Labour the hope of opposing the Tories in a coalition with the Greens, thereby obviating the prospect of the Tories being the party more or less permanently in power.

Starmer received 3 other setbacks at the conference.

Delegates backed overwhelmingly a motion declaring solidarity with Palestine and condemning Israel’s apartheid policies.

The passing of this historic motion marked the first time a major British political party endorsed the United Nations’ definition of Israel as an apartheid state. The motion also called for a ban on “any arms trade used to violate Palestinian human rights”, and demanded that Labour “stand on the right side of history” by condemning illegal settler violence and calling for an end to the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza.

A Green New Deal motion was passed at the conference, despite obstruction from Starmer and his allies.

A large majority of delegates also voted for motions calling for public ownership of key industries– a move rejected by Starmer on the first day of the conference, even though he backed it during the leadership election campaign.

This opportunistic about-turn confirms that Starmer has matched BoJo step for step when it comes to deceit and duplicity. His prospectus when running for the leadership had 2 hinges—a commitment to maintaining “party unity”, and retention of the main pledges in Corbyn’s 2019 election manifesto (the 10 Pledges).

When Starmer became leader both these pivots were tossed on the rubbish heap, despite the fact that as a member of the shadow cabinet he had signed-off on Corbyn’s 2019 election manifesto without expressing any reservations.

The 10 Pledges were replaced by a Blairite agenda premised on “centrism” (a euphemism for neoliberalism). Also on the heap was the promise to retain a “Corbynism without Corbyn”.

Starmer’s commitment to “party unity” turned out be a fraud. Corbyn, as we have seen, was soon suspended from the party. Rebecca Long-Bailey, a key Corbyn ally and Starmer’s rival in the leadership election, was sacked from the shadow cabinet, allegedly for endorsing an “antisemitic” tweet posted by a pro-Palestinian friend.

The purge of the Corbynite left continued at the conference.

Andy McDonald, the shadow employment rights secretary, was hoodwinked by the sneaky Starmer in a crafty manoeuvre, which left McDonald with no choice but to resign.

Workers at McDonald’s fast-food outlets are striking for a £15 per hour/$20.3 basic wage. They held a protest outside the conference venue, organized by the Baker’s Union (whose leader was suspended from the conference). The strikers unfurled banners calling for the wage increase. Starmer showed-up for a photo op, positioning himself behind one of the banners, which featured the £15 sum in large letters. Starmer later posted this picture on his own Twitter account.

Behind the scenes, however, the craven Starmer told his shadow employment rights secretary to inform the Bakers Union that Labour wound not be supporting their demand for a £15 per hour basic wage. Andy McDonald now realized he had been put in an impossible position— he backed the Bakers Union throughout their strike, but now Starmer was insisting that McDonald do his dirty work for him by selling the union down the river. McDonald promptly submitted his letter of resignation, and as a result there are now no Corbynites in the shadow cabinet.

Starmer– who can’t open his mouth without mentioning the words “decency” and “integrity” — realized his treachery would not endear him to rank-and-file party members, so his trusties came up with a couple of quickly concocted responses to show how the “firm and resolute” Starmer was prepared to take-on, in the name of “electability”, the section of the party he and his Blairite backers believe mainstream voters find abhorrent.

However, the “electability” Starmer and his groupies are pursuing is defined in Ukanian politics overwhelmingly by the right—i.e., the rightwing media and the backwoods men and women who are drawn to the troglodyte-wing of the Tory party.

Labour’s historical base on the left will be shown the door. At all costs Starmer must demonstrate that he represents no threat to the Tories and the lootocracy the Conservatives have put in place since Thatcher. The calculation is that eventually the electorate will get fed up with BoJo’s sleaze and incompetence and vote for a clean(er) slate epitomized by a Labour party without a leftwing bone in its collective body.

The unions, who bankroll the Labour party, are not happy with this Blairite repristination, and have indicated that their continuing support for Labour will be contingent on Starmer’s willingness to tackle skyrocketing inequality; tax-dodging corporations such as Amazon or Google, as well as the Tory-loving plutocrats; and deal with the UK’s homelessness crisis by funding more social housing. The Bakers Union, betrayed by Starmer, has already disaffiliated itself from the Labour party.

In his anodyne leader’s speech, met with isolated heckling from the audience, Starmer made vague references to these union-friendly initiatives, but put no meat or detail on them—his heart is clearly not in this area of policy-making.

The gist of Starmer’s long but otherwise threadbare conference speech is easy to specify:

+ I’m a centrist and a pragmatist;

+ I’m not Jeremy Corbyn, definitely not a socialist, and most definitely not Boris Johnson;

+ We love Tony Blair, but won’t say a word about the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan;

+ the party must not rock the (already sinking?) boat;

+ I am about winning elections, yes, I am.

Saying I’m not Corbyn or BoJo does not seem on the face of it to be a winning strategy, especially for someone whose public appearances are usually described as “wooden”, “leaden”, “lacking in personality”, “zombie-like”, “uninspiring”, “robotic”, “staid”, “insipid”, “terminally dull”, “lawyerly” (definitely not used as a compliment), and so forth.

Parties usually receive a boost in the opinion polls when their conference concludes.

Ominously, Starmer lost ground to the Tories in these post-conference polls, and just as unpromisingly for him, the rivals jostling to succeed him were making the rounds of the conference halls with barely concealed glints in their eyes.

The commentariat reminded Starmer that Blair’s heyday (the 1990s) was a very different time.

Voters at that time had tired of Thatcher with her hectoring ways and hand-bagging of those she disagreed with, and all Blair had to do was stick to the outlines of her agenda, but do so with a smile while adding a few humane touches here and there.

By contrast our times are very much more dangerous and complicated.

Blair was after all as eager as a little puppy to serve as George W Bush’s satrap when it came to hopelessly naïve and self-defeating “nation building”, and a Trump presidency was unimaginable in the early 2000s— the egregious Dubya Bush was thought then to plumb the rock bottom of visibly unqualified US presidents. Add to that Covid and Brexit, both mismanaged by the Tories, as further, once in a lifetime, challenges for Brits.

Starmer, with his out-of-date Blair tribute act, does not seem to have anything like the measure of our times.

He’s ditched Corbynism, but has so far not put any significant commitments in its place—at any rate, those which were upheld at the conference were precisely the ones opposed by Starmer and his supporters.

Little about Starmer is convincing, especially his vapid Boy Scout slogan of a “contribution society” (whatever that is), and it will be no surprise if Labour ditches him by 2023 (when BoJo is expected to call a snap election).

The Tories appeal to the depoliticized notion of supposed aspirationals, Starmer wants to balance that out by appealing to the equally depoliticized idea of “contributors”.

If Richard Branson, say, is put in the same “contributor” boat as nurses working 12-hour shifts on a Covid ward, then that boat deserves to be run aground as soon as it is launched.

Polls say 60% of voters do not trust BoJo. Starmer, in his quest for power without substance, is doing his best to provide competition for BoJo on this front.

Not that much of this will be heard in the mainstream media, which heaped praise on Starmer’s speech, saying it showed Labour to be a “serious party” again, that Starmer is “a leader of integrity and substance” and “trustworthiness and seriousness”. Maybe these columnists should be told of a bridge somewhere….

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.