“It feels like the Conference was in part a contest between the Movement’s founding principles – as valid today as they ever were – & revisionism. We can ignore all the noises off from cheerleaders in the media & elsewhere. The drive to social justice still animates our members as strongly as ever it did.”Jon Trickett MP.
Every Leader’s speech does well in the party Conference Hall. So the scale of applause in Brighton is not the test of how it goes down in the country.
Outside the Hall, millions were queuing for hours to get petrol so they could do their job. Others were receiving letters about their gas company failing and being put on a new tariff. Others were having to gear up to the loss of Universal Credit.
Among the more prosperous groups, there are deep concerns as AI threatens the professions. Meanwhile, their children bear huge debts from university, and find it increasingly difficult to acquire satisfactory accommodation.
And looming over everything is the planetary crisis.
Did Keir’s speech not speak to them? We need to see the opinion polls – not those immediately after the Labour Conference, but after the Conference season as a whole is over. Early auguries are not inspiring given this morning’s YouGov poll which puts us at 8 points behind the Tories. The poll also shows Keir himself at only 8% amongst working class voters.
It may be argued that the continuous fluctuations of polls is not an accurate guide to the prospects for a politician or a political party. This is undoubtedly true, though in the end we are judged by our polling.
More important perhaps is a much more searching test. This is whether or not we have an analysis of what is happening in our country, a framing narrative and a set of policies which strike a chord with the millions of people who will eventually vote in the coming general election. By this standard, Keir’s school report would read ‘must try harder’.
I have already set out my concerns that Starmer’s pre-conference essay – The Road Ahead – was a restoration of a form of Labour revisionism. By which I mean, a shift rightwards from traditional social democracy to a classic liberalism, and a turning away from our historic mission for the improvement of the lives of our people and for the provision of better public services provided on a universal basis.
Of course, for most people, moving right or moving left has no intrinsic meaning. They watch to see if a politician’s words and actions correspond with their own situation. By this standard, the leader’s office approach to Conference was not a huge success.
Their briefings showed them determined to pursue an internal faction war in amending party rules to elect a future leader. They were defeated in their primary objective by a conference which refused to be bounced backwards in history on this matter.
It is very difficult to guess at the motivations of the Labour Right in pursuing this failed rule change. But it is distinctly odd that a newly elected leader should expend political capital trying to rig the way their successor might be chosen. The only possible explanation for the actions of at least some, is that they want to remove Starmer with a hard right leader but they daren’t do so if the existing rules would allow someone from the left to get onto the ballot paper. For such a person would surely win.
The great enduring success of Jeremy Corbyn’s period of office was to revitalise Labour as a mass party. And it is still one of the largest in Europe despite membership being around 100,000 smaller than when he left office. This week demonstrated that those members are still active and engaged, and setting the agenda on policy, and setting the party policy for Labour’s frontbench.
We are approaching a cost-of-living crunch this winter, with the end of furlough risking unemployment, the universal credit cut and national insurance rise hitting incomes, and gas prices hiking people’s monthly bills, it is the members of the Labour Party who showed that they are in tune with everyday people’s lives.
On the issue of incomes, the leadership presented the watching nation with an odd conundrum. Shadow Cabinet members, including my friend Andy McDonald, were instructed to browbeat delegates into withdrawing a commitment to £15 an hour national minimum wage, and statutory sick pay at a living wage. This is not as radical a policy as the leadership were suggesting. After all, the average wage is already around £15 an hour.
Having privately opposed the £15 proposal, and having ignored demands from one of our great Unions (GMB) on this matter, they then effectively triggered the shadow ministerial resignation. But then when the vote came, the Leader’s office simply allowed the resolution to pass without opposition.
On public ownership, despite Keir dramatically u-turning on his party leadership pledge to back ‘common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water’ on the Marr show on Sunday, delegates overwhelmingly backed it for all sectors, as well as care.
For the care sector, delegates backed an extension of insourcing, so that ‘provision of social care must never again treat the demands of shareholders as more important than the needs of care users’; and the establishment of a National Care Service, with ‘the necessary public funding, delivers a world class system of care and support so that as with the NHS, receiving high-quality care does not come down to the financial means of the recipients of the service’, with additional demands
In communications, members backed bringing Royal Mail back into public ownership, reuniting it with the Post Office creation of a publicly owned Post Bank run through the post office network; and to bring the broadband-relevant parts of BT into public ownership.
In the energy sector, members called for a socialist green new deal, including ‘public ownership of energy including energy companies’ and ‘publicly owned national and regional green investment banks’.
Altogether, these present just some of the transformative policies the country needs. Public interventions, public ownership, better public services. Some of these can be delivered with private business. But crucially, they have to act in the public interest. And the fact is, advocating public ownership cannot be waved away as ideological. As activists are increasingly saying, to continue the pretence that private utilities – natural monopolies – can work, is too ideological.
These are now the policies of our party. I will promote them. And so should the Labour frontbench , because they are some of the answers to the multiple crises Britain faces.
Let’s be clear that at its very core, the Labour Movement’s purpose was to advance the cause of working people (in all their diversity). Whether you were in the socialist, or the social democratic tradition, or whether you were a trades unionist first and foremost this was our central purpose.
In recent years the revisionists have sought to reorient the Movement to one which is adaptive to late stage British Capitalism. You cannot do this and simultaneously promote the interests of working people and their friends and families.
It feels like the Conference was in part a contest between the Movement’s founding principles – as valid today as they ever were – and revisionism. We can ignore all the noises off from cheerleaders in the media and elsewhere. The drive to social justice still animates our members as strongly as ever it did.