Keir Starmer Might Win Power—but Can He Do Anything With It?

Keir Starmer Might Win Power—but Can He Do Anything With It?

Keir Starmer Might Win Power—but Can He Do Anything With It?

The British Labour Party leader is sounding more like a prime minister, but will he be up for the hard fights ahead?

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Liverpool— It’s been four years since the last Labour Party conference here, but it might as well have been decades. In 2018, the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, stood behind a podium with an all-red placard emblazoned with his iconic slogan “For the many, not the few.” This year, his successor Keir Starmer’s podium featured a more tepid message, “A fairer, greener future,” right next to a giant Union Jack.

Corbyn, of course, was not in the room. The former leader was relegated to speaking at left-wing fringe events and remains suspended from Labour’s parliamentary group over his response to allegations of anti-Semitism.

And yet, though the conference didn’t have the insurgent feel of the Corbyn years, it didn’t feel as fratricidal as last year’s. In Brighton last fall, Starmer was busy waging war on the party’s left, trying to distance himself from Corbyn’s radical internationalism and sweeping socialist economic program. It wasn’t just about washing himself of electoral failure—Starmer wanted a freer hand to move to the center and saw Labour left organizers and trade unions as obstacles.

The leader hasn’t suddenly become comfortable with his party’s activist wing; the conference was cut short by a day to limit time for delegate debate and involvement. But there were far fewer provocative procedural changes than last year.

Starmer was rewarded with fewer headaches. Outside of international issues, the leadership’s agenda proved uncontroversial. And, in stark contrast to last year, he faced no heckling or boos during his speech, which was generally well-received, particularly after his declaration that Labour would create a publicly owned energy company.

Starmer’s “country first, party second” rhetoric was broad, mixing in stories about his humble family background with social-democratic promises to “use government to help people succeed” with claims that the opposition leader was “not just pro-business” but someone who wanted to “partner with business.” Amid a Tory-fueled cost-of-living crisis and voter anger at an unelected new prime minister, the leader successfully presented a unified party ready for government. It’s just hard to see how he’ll turn any of his promises into reality.

Battles on the Conference Floor

The actual policy-making at the conference was a mixed bag. Trade unions were keen to assert their role in Labour’s policy formulation by successfully passing motions that backed the renationalization of Royal Mail, the reunification of the company with the state post office, as well as postal banking. An emergency motion on the National Education Union’s No Child Left Behind Campaign, which calls for free universal school breakfast and lunch, was passed, as were motions relating to a £15-per-hour minimum wage, pay raises at least in line with inflation, a policy to limit CEO compensation, plans to address the impact of automation, and a host of other measures aimed at addressing the cost-of-living crisis and disinvestment in public services.

These motions gained through the unions were the most important progressive victories secured. Starmer had a firm control of the proceedings, with one trade union representative telling me that he thought the leader had the steady support of both the party machinery and 60 percent of the delegates.

Indeed, the non-union Labour left failed to make a single inroad. Despite heavy whipping by the progressive pressure group Momentum to vote for “Workers Rights” as a category—with the intention of then mandating Labour MPs to support strikes and attend picket lines—the proposal failed. Momentum was also unable to push through left-initiated motions on immigration and housing.

The left also lost out on the procedural front for the second year in a row. The rule changes put to conference floor, though far less dramatic than in 2021, represented a blow to hopes of a socialist resurgence in the party. Constituency Labour Party (CLP) rule changes to ban property developers and lobbyists from standing for office and to return long-standing powers to the CLP, and a bid to allow Jeremy Corbyn to be reselected as a Labour candidate in his home district of Islington North, all failed.

What did pass on the conference floor was a motion calling for Labour to back proportional representation, which enjoyed support across the political spectrum (though not uniformly backed by left-wingers), as well as motions on issues including electoral reform, violence against women and girls, early years and child care, health, social care, and the climate crisis.

On the international front, tensions arose around the debate on the Ukraine war. Members of the party’s left supported the right of Ukraine to resist Russian aggression but opposed increased UK military funding to do it. In response, John Healy, shadow secretary of state for defense, claimed in his speech that those who shouted “Stop the War” (also pointedly the name of Britain’s largest anti-war group) more loudly than “Win the War” were in the wrong. Despite left-wing objections, a resolution that called for an increase in the weapons supplied to Ukraine from Britain, along with an increase in defense spending, passed overwhelmingly.

The Suits Are Back

Yet the omissions were perhaps even more telling than what did carry.  Despite a summer of strikes, the plight of workers taking industrial action barely came up. In an exception, senior frontbencher Lisa Nandy, who made waves for breaking Starmer’s rules forbidding MPs from attending BT (formerly British Telecom) workers’ picket lines, referenced the extortionate pay imbalance between the CEO of BT and the company’s call center workers in her speech and made a clear defense of housing as a fundamental human right.

However, Nandy was followed by Shadow Health Minister Wes Streeting, who spoke of making no apology for being a “Labour modernizer” and the need to “modernize” the NHS while maintaining it as a free, universal public institution. Streeting has been criticized for his connection to private health care lobbyists, and other parts of the business lobby were well represented at conference.

Indeed, Scottish broadcaster Ayesha Hazarika approvingly noted that “the suits are back at Labour.” The Parliamentary Labour Party’s lounge was sponsored by Lloyds Bank, while the Daily Mirror party—where MPs sang karaoke and danced into the night—was sponsored by the Betting and Gambling Commission.

Labour has historically been far from an anti-capitalist organization, but the party’s current close embrace of the business lobby should worry those committed to even the most tepid of reforms.

In his closing speech, Starmer did make a passing reference to the greed of the rich and the 1 percent; however, the object of his anger was not big business and the other powerful forces standing in the way of a more equal Britain but bad Conservative governance. When Starmer described the hardships facing working-class people, he omitted any analysis of why things are the way they are, and any mention of what powerful interests will need to be taken on. Meanwhile, under his leadership Labour has demoralized a rapidly declining party membership and ignored growing grassroots and trade union action against the cost-of-living crisis.

“Things are bad, the Tories did it, we’ll make it better,” might win an election, but without a sense of the conflict it will take to right the many wrongs of British society, Starmer’s fine words will remain just that.

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