As Labour moves right its left-wing is orientating to the resistance

Keir Starmer making his Leader's speech to Labour Conference 2022

By Terry Williams

The central goal of the British ruling class is to Americanise Britain – that is to slash welfare protection, move working conditions even more in favour of the employers, restrict workers and trade union rights, deregulate the economy, eliminate consumer and environmental protections, step up privatisation and subordinate British foreign and military policy even more to the US. Yet at the recent Labour Party conference there was no sign that the Labour leadership is ready to oppose the scale of this ruling class offensive, or even to offer significant reforms that would alleviate it.

Liz Truss’ particular project, set out in her Tory leadership contest, is to speed up the process of reaching this goal. This requires a sharp intensification of the offensive against the overwhelming majority of the population.

The Truss government’s project therefore similarly requires an all out assault on the population with an escalation in austerity. This new attack has been launched with Kwasi Kwarteng’s ‘mini-Budget’, which will shift huge resources from workers to businesses, the latter being the largest beneficiary of the cuts in taxation – a factor that is not mentioned by the mainstream media nor the Labour Party leadership.

Taking into account Kwarteng’s withdrawal of the proposed cut to the 45p higher rate of tax, the ‘mini-Budget’ will reduce government income by approx £150bn over the next five years. Added to which, Truss is committed to raising military spending to 3% of GDP by 2030 – a target that represents a real terms increase in military spending of approximately 60%, the largest increase since the Korean War in the early 1950s. This increase in military spending will further reduce the funds for allocation elsewhere.

The government intends to balance its finances by making huge cuts, in some combination, in the following areas: public sector jobs, public sector pay, pensions and welfare benefits.

The new Truss/Kwarteng offensive, which is increasing inflation and interest rates and cutting public services and benefits, attacks the living standards of the majority of the population. An increasing awareness of this has contributed to the recent rapid decrease in Tory support.

Labour’s response to the increased offensive

The Labour leadership is completely tied to the fundamentals of ruling class’ agenda. So it fully accepts the Tories’ policy framework. Given the scale of the Tory offensive, Starmer is banking on it only being necessary to very marginally differentiate Labour from the Tories in order to gain electoral support.

So at the recent Labour Party Conference, the leadership only put forward some very small reforms, albeit cleverly judged from the point of view of public relations. Taken together, these reforms could not compensate for the scale of Tories’ attacks. Their potential positive impact in the current situation was wildly exaggerated – a framing that has been sympathetically echoed in the mainstream press. The party leadership’s proposed reforms centrally included: the launch of a publicly owned energy company; providing free school breakfasts; and the re-nationalisation of rail.

The proposed energy company, ‘Great British Energy’, much lauded in some circles, is not the re-nationalisation of the energy sector. It would simply create another, small, energy producer, leaving the overall system intact. It could not lower energy prices for consumers – that requires changes to the energy market, which is structured in favour of gas producers. The party’s latest energy policy is a significant retreat from the Corbyn-led party’s manifesto commitments.

Labour’s recent conference was its most right-wing conference for decades. The stage back drop was the Union Jack, delegates sang the National anthem and stood for the Ukrainian National Anthem. The single delegate who spoke out in opposition to the US proxy war on Russia was almost immediately suspended from the party. There was no proposal to restore the Tories’ most recent cuts to business taxes and support for a rise in military spending was reaffirmed.

Labour’s internal balance of forces

The overall political balance within Labour’s membership is still shifting to the right. This summer, in a ballot across the entire membership for seats on the party’s National Executive Committee, the left’s vote has declined from 56% in 2018, to 42% in 2020 and 39% in 2022 – a fall of 17% since 2018.

There has been accompanying rightward shift in the control of local parties, which has been much greater than the shift within the membership. With the assistance of the party bureaucracy, Labour’s right-wing is continuing to take control of local constituency Labour parties. This is reflected in the votes at the national conference, where the constituency party left’s vote share has declined from 70% in 2019, to 49% in 2021 and 28% in 2022 – a fall of 42% since 2019.

Radicalisation on the left

But the rightward shift of the leadership, and within the membership, is not the full picture. Whilst the Labour right-wing effectively endorses the offensive being waged against the population, within the party support for the resistance to this offensive is growing.

Many of Labour’s affiliated trade unions are at the forefront of the current strike wave opposing the attacks on living standards. The impact of these struggles is having a radicalising effect within the party.

There was a significant leftward shift in the unions’ attitude to Jeremy Corbyn at September’s national conference. Both this and last year, left-wing local parties put proposals to the conference to allow Corbyn to stand as a Labour candidate at the next general election. In both years the proposals has been defeated, but trade union support significantly increased this year. The pro-Corbyn vote share amongst Labour’s affiliates (mostly votes of trade unions) rose from 30% in 2021 to 43% in 2022 – an increase of 13%.

There was another limited but significant leftward shift in the unions’ votes on the issue of Ukraine. Starmer, this year, has aligned the parliamentary Labour Party firmly behind the US’s proxy war in Ukraine. In May he said action would be taken against Labour MPs who challenge the party’s ‘unshakeable support for NATO’ of drew a ‘false equivalence’ between NATO and Russian actions. At September’s national conference Starmer’s central foreign policy focus was Labour’s support for the proxy war. Two guest international speakers – from Ukraine and from the pro-US Belarus opposition – addressed the conference. The GMB and Starmer’s local constituency Labour Party moved and seconded the key motion backing this war and increased military spending. Despite the motion putting forward the party leadership’s key international policy, both Unite and the CWU did not endorse the position and instead abstained in the vote.

The strike wave is also radicalising a significant number of party members. The left in local parties is pushing for MPs to show support for the strikes in direct opposition to Starmer’s efforts to distance Labour the struggle against the attacks. Many Labour activists are visiting picket lines and Momentum is organising a ‘Labour for Labour’ campaign to build up this solidarity.

Within the left of Labour’s membership there has also been a small but significant leftward shift. The election of Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, overcoming Momentum’s right-wing campaign against her, indicates that anti-imperialist forces have strengthened within Labour’s left-wing membership. For Labour’s leadership any challenge to its pro-imperialist agenda is most unacceptable, so it suspended Wimborne-Idrissi’s membership of the Labour Party just prior to her taking up NEC seat.

The resistance to the Tories offensive being led by the unions and the increasing orientation of Labour’s left-wing members to this strike wave is encouraging a radicalisation within Labour against the leadership’s tacit support for the offensive and also, on a smaller scale, against its pro-imperialist agenda. These developments are not well publicised, particularly the latter. They are strengthening the politics of the left – a process that is currently unfolding.