“While Starmer’s leader’s speech failed to give the answers to the crisis, these could be found in the motions adopted by conference delegates and in the discussions that took place in the huge left-wing fringe events.”
By Lee Brown
Keir Starmer began his leadership speech to Labour Party conference saying he’d “waited 17 months, 23 days and two hours for this moment”. Sadly it became clear throughout the 90-minute speech that he hasn’t used that time to develop serious policies that can solve the huge crisis hitting millions of people. In contrast, Labour members passed policy after policy at the conference that offer a way forward for millions of people in Britain and that can help turn around Labours’ poll ratings, which see the party lagging way behind the Tories.
Starmer’s first speech to a conference hall of Labour members needed to meet two objectives: to use this national media platform to attack the Tories and lodge in the minds of the public that the government is responsible for the deep crisis hitting working class living standards; and to begin to offer clear policies that could show Labour was on the side of the majority. It failed on both accounts.
Of course, while these speeches attract huge attention from journalists and the political class, they are largely forgotten by the public the following morning. This one certainly will have been. Nonetheless, such speeches are important in setting out a leader’s strategy. From what we heard at conference, it is clear that Labour is not going to aggressively attack the Tory leadership or offer solutions that match the scale of the crises.
Throughout his 18 months as Leader, Keir Starmer hasn’t landed a glove on Boris Johnson – and it’s clear he doesn’t intend to. This is a basic requirement of the Leader of the Opposition and something, for example, that a mid-1990s Tony Blair did very well (regardless of the policies he then advocated).
Instead, Starmer’s strategy seems to be to do no more than to wait for the Tories to implode with a Labour government then seemingly being inevitable. This is a mistake: the Tories can easily reinvent themselves, say under Rishi Sunak, and, whatever people think of the Tories, unless Labour demonstrates that it has the answers then there is no guarantee that the public will back us at the next election. Some will vote for other parties and many simply abstain.
When Starmer’s speech did touch on policy it was mainly an attempt at a reset back to the early 2000s when Tony Blair led the Party. It not only rejected the socialist-based policies of Jeremy Corbyn in which the state would play a significant role in advancing living standards, it also mainly ignored the limited state interventions and market controls pushed by Ed Miliband as leader and even the “tax and spend” policies of Gordon Brown.
Whatever one thinks of turn-of-the-Century Blairism, a reheated version won’t work now in an economy hit by numerous shocks, including the banking and public health crisis. The failures of the neo-liberal model can’t simply be solved by better management of the system which was a key theme of Starmer’s speech. The current crises are systemic. The solutions must be too.
While Starmer’s leader’s speech failed to give the answers to the crisis, these could be found in the motions adopted by conference delegates and in the discussions that took place in the huge left-wing fringe events at conference.
The Left had a huge presence and was able to build wider alliances to secure a whole host of progressive policy victories. This included a £15 per hour minimum wage, sick pay at Real Living Wage levels, a socialist Green New Deal including public ownership of mail, water, rail and energy, the building of 100,000 council houses per year, a National Care Service, a right to food, as well as showing solidarity with Palestine and against the dangerous new US-UK-Australia military alliance that is part of a new huge military build-up against China and will see vast sums of public money wasted on additional military spending.
The strong Left presence was also obvious in very big fringes with hundreds attending meetings on socialist economic alternatives (held by the Labour Assembly against Austerity), at the huge Socialist Campaign Group rally, at the Tribune rally and large meetings on Palestine and by the Stop the War. These were no smaller than when Corbyn led the party and many were bigger. Likewise the parallel World Transformed festival was very well attended with hundreds of people engaging in serious debates on how we tackle the numerous crises our communities face.
Perhaps the high point though was the Young Labour Rally. This was one of the best events I’ve ever attended at a party conference. Serious young socialist activists, including climate striker’s joined with Left MPs including John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn, Richard Burgon, Nadia Whittome and Zara Sultana and international justice campaigns including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and Cuba Solidarity Campaign. There were hundreds there and it was an incredibly upbeat mood after the Party had sought to prevent Young Labour even holding an event. Everyone on the left needs to be offering their solidarity to Young Labour against party bureaucracy attempts to undermine it.
An important conclusion to draw from all this is that those quick to declare the death of the Labour Left are wide of the mark. It remains the dominant socialist force in British politics and a major force in our own party. Yes many members have left the party since Jeremy stopped being leader. But there are still many many tens of thousands of self-identified socialists in the party determined to fight for a better world.
None of the above is meant to belittle the challenges we face on the Labour Left – including a refusal from the leadership to implement the policies passed at conference and especially its ongoing anti-democratic clampdown. This has seen the recent targeting of the Chair of Young Labour and of left-wing Kate Osborne MP as well as the ongoing suspension of Jeremy Corbyn from the PLP.
And of course there were setbacks at the conference. The doubling of the number of MPs needed to stand to be leader is meant to be a dagger at the heart of having another left-winger on the ballot, though whether that is the case remains to be seen. But even this was opposed by most constituency delegates and only got through because of support from the GMB and Unison unions – the latter in contravention of its own policies. It would not have passed had there been a small number of additional left constituency delegates. Hopefully the successful fights for socialist policies at the conference will encourage left-wing former Labour members to re-join.
The Labour left remains incredibly relevant not just in our own party but in the wider country as our ideas are much more in tune with what the voters want to see, than the message coming from the leadership. As the crisis over living standards, unemployment, inequality and the climate continue to bite, the ideas of the left will garner even greater support. It is up to us to ensure that we are organised and focused so that they become the policies of our own party.