It’s not that Boris Johnson’s Tory government is having a particularly easy time—energy bills are rising, and a restrictive post-Brexit immigration strategy has made a worker shortage worse, triggering fuel shortages and raising concerns about the food supply. But this year’s Labour Party conference in Brighton showed a party still in the midst of a civil war, with Starmer unable to knock out left-wing Corbynites, but unwilling to make peace with them and unite his party either.
The Brighton Stalemate
Elected following Labour’s December 2019 electoral defeat, Starmer was dealt an initial humiliation here after failing to overturn the party’s “one-member-one-vote” (OMOV) leadership elections in favor of a return to an electoral college system where members, unions, and Labour MPs each comprise a third of the vote. OMOV had been instituted by former leader Ed Miliband in a bid to modernize the party, but the changes opened the door to the membership surge that produced the resounding 2015 election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader. This, of course, had never been popular with Labour MPs.
Starmer’s meeting last week with the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation (TULO)—the body th at connects Labour’s affiliated trade unions with its political leadership—was described by The Independent as a “car crash.”
A union source described how Dave Ward, the left-wing general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, asked Starmer if TULO’s chair, Mick Whelan—a fellow socialist who leads the train drivers’ union—had been consulted on the leadership’s proposed rule changes. Starmer told the room Whelan had been involved in negotiations, prompting Whelan to turn down the Labour leader’s microphone and inform the meeting he, Whelan, hadn’t been consulted at all. This set the tone for a fractious and ultimately very damaging meeting that saw the electoral college proposal scrapped.
However, the conference as a whole did pass reforms that would make it harder to trigger democratic primaries against incumbent Labour MPs, as well as raising the number of nominations MPs must secure before getting on a leadership contest ballot from 10 percent (the figure under Corbyn) to 20 percent. It’s hard to imagine another Jeremy Corbyn hurdling that barrier given the current composition of the parliamentary party—a victory, no doubt for Starmer, but one that once again leaves the Labour left little reason to support his project.
Last year’s appointment of a Blairite party general secretary, David Evans, was also ratified by the conference, with left-led unions and around 47 percent of Constituency Labour Party delegates being beaten by larger, right-led unions and affiliated societies, who pushed Evans through. The fact that the vote was competitive, however, was unprecedented in the party’s history—past leaders have always had their choice for general secretary nodded through. On the national constitutional committee, which oversees and scrutinizes the party’s internal disciplinary affairs, Arooj Shah and Judi Billing of the right-wing faction Labour to Win were elected alongside the Momentum-backed Rheian Davies and Emine Ibrahim. The right-backed candidates won around 51 percent to Momentum’s 49 percent—representing a 25 percent swing to right-wingers since the last Labour conference.
But it’s striking how close these votes were, especially considering the wider context: Selective expulsions of socialist activists and the right-wing policy trends in the party have demoralized scores of long-standing members, causing as many as 150,000 to resign from the party or let their membership lapse in the past 18 months.
Indeed, given that history the left showed unexpected signs of strength during the conference. Activists won a rule change motion that would guarantee local party representatives a seat at the table when selecting local parliamentary candidates in the event of a snap election; the current rules give the party’s National Executive Committee the power to interview, debate, and impose candidates.
The conference was also rocked by the shock resignation of Andy McDonald, the shadow secretary for employment rights and protections. McDonald, who served as shadow transport secretary under Corbyn, walked away from his position after Starmer’s team asked him to oppose a £15-an-hour national minimum wage and a raise in guaranteed sick pay—which currently stands at a paltry £96 (about $130) a week. Speaking at Monday’s Tribune Rally, McDonald said these measures were too hard to stomach after a pandemic that had repeatedly seen the party praise the efforts of low-paid workers.
The Labour Conference did manage to pass a few broadly left-wing motions. Successful resolutions included a call for the party’s next manifesto to include McDonald’s demands for a £15 national minimum wage and living wage sick pay, a return to public ownership of utilities—a Starmer pledge during his leadership election on which he has recently reneged—and a call for the next Labour manifesto to include a Green New Deal, the Right to Food, the creation of a National Care Service, and to more confidently assert a pro–trans rights position.
The motion that gained the most press attention was Young Labour’s, which condemned the “ongoing Nakba in Palestine,” labeled Israel an apartheid state, resolved to support “effective measures”—including sanctions—and included the right to return for Palestinian refugees. The motion was immediately condemned by Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy, who made clear that the Labour leadership “cannot support” its contents.
Is There Even a Road to Power?
Starmer had his strongest moment in his leadership speech, where he responded to a heckler by saying that the party had a choice between “shouting slogans or changing lives.” It’s a realpolitik line echoed by Starmer’s recent attempts to rehabilitate Blair and the domestic legacy of New Labour, saying in his first radio interview after conference, “Tony Blair was a three-times winner in the Labour Party and we need to get back to winners in the Labour Party.”
But this isn’t the 1990s. Labour still appears disorderly and not ready to govern, both in its internal dynamics and its program. There is huge scope for government action; even the Tories have shed much of their Thatcher-era austerity economics in favor of state intervention. Yet Starmer seems to be shying away from ambitious policy, preferring to talk vaguely about Labour’s values and patriotism rather than offer concrete promises.
Labour continues to lag far behind in Scotland, and its narrow path to potential victory is made even narrower by continued struggles in the party’s former heartlands of northern England and Wales. It is hard to see how avoiding populist policies amid widespread economic malaise will set the party on the road to recovery in places where disillusionment runs deep. The day after the conference ended, a new poll showed 65 percent support for the £15 minimum wage Starmer’s team had opposed. British politics more generally seems to be going down a reactionary path; in the absence of left-wing alternatives, that descent seems to be increasingly facilitated by Starmer’s leadership.
According to The Times, senior shadow cabinet members think that Corbyn—still suspended from Labour for his response to a report finding that the party as a whole had been guilty of anti-Semitism—will not sit as a Labour MP again. Which means that Starmer isn’t done with the left yet. It seems likely that if Corbyn is prevented from running as the Labour candidate in Islington, he’ll be forced to run as an independent. Such an action by the party leadership would sap activist morale and energy, and set up the huge number of activists who will endorse Corbyn for expulsion from the party. It’s hard to imagine Starmer winning a general election in that context—and perhaps that means he’s content to be a Neil Kinnock, scorching the earth for the Tony Blair to come.
The cost of another general election defeat would be catastrophic, however—and not just for the Labour Party. Britain will continue to fracture; the Tories will deflect economic worries into a cultural war against the left, immigrants, and marginalized people; and what’s left of the Corbyn movement may well remain stuck in the political wilderness.
The late British socialist Tony Benn used to say, “There is no final victory, just as there is no final defeat. Just the same battle to be fought over and over again. So toughen up, bloody toughen up.” But if there is one lesson from the last quarter-century of politics, it’s that social-democratic parties can be permanently alienated from their social base and kept out of power for generations.
Keir Starmer was elected to reverse that process. Over the past 18 months, he seems to have hastened it.