“Labour needs an election platform that is capable both of winning and instigating necessary economic transformations like public ownership of energy.”
By Chris Saltmarsh, Labour for a Green New Deal
Labour Conference 2023 is very probably the last before the next general election. While previous conferences have been sites of fierce factional battles over policy and party democracy, this year’s is a highly curated and stage-managed affair. Labour is projecting itself as a government-in-waiting and as such is keen to avoid the embarrassments of either public criticism or internal dissent.
From the leadership, there have been few set-piece policy announcements to provoke controversy and no earth-shaking party reforms (major assaults on party democracy was executed in previous years). Instead, shadow cabinet members have given impassioned speeches without saying much new, only reiterating or tweaking policies that have already been announced.
Constituency delegates themselves are composed overwhelmingly from the right-wing of the party. The motions they have prioritised for debate have avoided contentious topics and affirmed the leadership’s pre-existing policy positions. This approach has been enabled by the party bureaucracy with the National Executive Committee (NEC)’s officers group separating out pro- and anti-NHS privatisation motions so the former can be debated and the latter ignored, overruling the elected Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) in the process.
Motion ‘debates’ themselves have been more akin to pro-leadership rallies. Local councillors and prospective Parliamentary candidates (PPCs) have disproportionately been selected to speak at the podium, taking the opportunity to boost their profile within the party. Speeches celebrate shadow cabinet members and share a common theme of confidence that Labour will form the next government.
Disruption to this rightist harmony has come from affiliated trade unions who submitted and successfully forced a debate on motions calling for public ownership, including rail and energy, despite leadership opposition. The motion – a composite of submissions from Unite the Union, ASLEF and TSSA – called for the full roll-out of HS2, asserted that “privatisation of our energy has failed”, and demanded that “UK energy be brought back into public ownership, starting with the Nation Grid’s electricity and gas networks”.
Unite the Union’s General Secretary, Sharon Graham, gave a rousing speech damning the Tory government’s neglect of workers before demanding that Labour put this right by ending the profiteering in the sector by nationalising energy companies. Graham made a statement by skipping her first Labour Conference as General Secretary in 2021. This year, her presence was welcome as she joined other trade union delegates in bringing workers’ political demands to the heart of this pageant.
Given the opportunity, Conference delegates are therefore prepared to defy a party leadership that has repeatedly refused to embrace public ownership of energy while signalling an intention to roll back the moderate climate plans it had. Rachel Reeves has watered down the previous commitment of £28bn of green investment per year ; Keir Starmer says that he is not in favour of nationalisation; Ed Miliband has pledged to create a new public energy company – Great British Energy – which is itself undermined by his commitment to exploiting oil and gas fields for decades to come.
However stage-managed Labour Conference may be under the Starmer regime, it is in these moments that the gap between members and affiliated trade unions, on the one hand, and the Labour leadership, on the other, comes to light. The former are desperate for Labour to form the next government, but also believe that it must take this historic opportunity to tackle the climate crisis with transformations in key sectors. The latter is naïve in its belief that simply occupying No. 10 will be enough to fix a broken Britain.
The shadow business secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, has already ruled out adopting this motion as policy. Members and unions reflect the popular desire in the country for transformative change in the face of systemic climate and economic crisis. Labour’s leadership is narrow and unrepresentative in its aversion to public investment and confrontations with profit-seeking corporate interests.
Labour may be on course to win decisively at the upcoming general election, but they are also primed to waste the opportunity of forming a government in the crunch years for decarbonisation. Labour needs an election platform that is capable both of winning and instigating necessary economic transformations like public ownership of energy. Without this, it is likely that the public will quickly lose faith in a Labour government that sits on its hands while extreme weather intensifies and people continue to get poorer as real wages fall. In this case, Labour’s euphoria may soon be dashed as it faces up to the possibility of going down in history as an ineffective one-term government.
- Chris Saltmarsh is the Co-Founder of Labour for a Green New Deal.
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