Labour conference confirms – a Starmer government will need to be resisted

Keir Starmer addressing Labour's Annual Conference

By Terry Williams

Labour’s Annual Conference last week was almost entirely controlled by the party’s right wing. Almost every decision taken by the conference ratified the Labour leadership’s framework. Discussion of alternative policies was largely kept off the agenda. The leadership’s framework for government will intensify the offensive against people. So, the left needs to prepare to resist this.

Labour’s conference shifts further to the right

Two different sections of the party vote at Labour’s conference. Each controls 50 per cent of the overall vote. The Affiliates section is dominated by trade unions and the CLP section is made up of delegates from Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs).

The overall political balance at Labour’s Annual Conferences has been shifting rightwards since 2019. It continued to that shift this year. The left has largely made its losses in the CLP section. The left in the Affiliate section has largely remained unchanged, aside from the loss of the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) which disaffiliated from Labour in 2021. The approximate strength of the left in the Affiliates section was 45% in 2022 and a similar strength this year (estimated from votes cast on changes to the party’s rule book). The votes of Unite the Union, CWU, ASLEF, FBU and TSSA are the main left votes in that section.

The approximate strength of the left in the CLP Section (estimated from votes cast in elections at conferences) has fallen from: 2019 -70% (2021 – 50%; 2022 – 28%) to 2023 – 25%. The vote for the right wing in the CLP Section has increased from 30% in 2019 to 75% this year.

Only trade union left motions could secure debate

At the conference both sections separately voted to prioritise six ‘Subjects’ of motions to discuss. Amongst the six Subjects the Affiliates selected, two advanced progressive alternatives to the leadership’s policy – one on energy and rail and the other on workers’ rights. In the CLP Section the six Subjects prioritised all echoed the leadership’s agenda. The CLP left had insufficient votes for any alternatives.

On energy and rail, the conference agreed commitments: to return the energy sector to public ownership, starting with the National Grid’s electricity and gas networks; to build fully the originally planned HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail; and to keep open (or reopen) all rail ticket offices. Unite, ASLEF and TSSA had submitted the motions on these issues to the conference.

On workers’ rights, the conference agreed that there should be no regression from the commitments made in Labour’s ‘Green Paper’ ‘A New Deal for Working People’. This is a necessary commitment to make because the party’s National Policy Forum in July junked some of the Green Paper’s commitments. The CWU and FBU had submitted the motions on these issues.

These progressive decisions, based on the proposals of these five left unions, will be ignored by the party’s leadership.

Progressive motions may not be permitted in future years

Labour’s leadership plans to stop alternative policy proposals from being discussed at future conferences. The right wing majority at this year’s conference voted to alter the party’s rule book. In future only so called ‘Contemporary Motions’ will be eligible for submission. The right wing will define what is eligible. So, unions wishing to put similarly progressive proposals as this year will find it difficult, if not impossible, from next year.

Also, from next year, the committee that arranges the conference will further clamp down on discussion. Following elections at this year’s conference, the political control of the committee has switched from the left to the right wing. In the election of the two CLP representatives who sit on the ‘Conference Arrangements Committee’ (CAC), the right secured 77 per cent of the vote and the left 23 per cent. Under right wing control, the committee may block all discussion of progressive policies.

The political context of the conference

A general election in Britain is required, by legislation, before the end of January 2025. Opinion polls consistently indicate the likelihood that Labour will win that election and be in government. Labour will probably be either the majority party or the largest party backed by another or other parties.

The main drives of international and domestic capitalism are for the continuation of austerity, an intensification of racism and increasing preparations for war. Starmer endorses that framework. So, the current Tory policies will overwhelmingly continue and form the agenda of the most right wing Labour administration since 1945.

Conference rhetoric versus actual policy

Labour’s frontbench delivered some promising rhetoric at the conference, but set out no serious policies that can achieve these ambitions.

Starmer’s programme for economic regeneration starts with a ‘national wealth fund’ for investment, but there is no indication a Labour administration will allocate more than £8 billion – far too small a sum to deliver significant growth. The reliance on the corporate sector to build a sufficient fund is misplaced as capital is entirely focussed on making profits for its self, not on economic growth.

There was talk about ‘building’ and ‘leading the way’, but there are no plans to achieve these wild claims. The plan is to maintain the Tory government’s economic priorities, including the large cuts to public expenditure scheduled in the budget for coming years. The processes, redistributing income and wealth to capital and the rich, will continue.

Starmner’s talk of a ‘decade of national renewal’, suggesting the need for two parliamentary terms to achieve things, helps him lower people’s expectations. However, Labour is unlikely to secure re-election after a term of austerity, racism and war. Any positive effects of some small reforms, that may happen, will be drowned out by the hugely negative impact of the dominant policies.

Capital’s confidence in the Labour leadership’s agenda was flaunted by showing the conference a video of the former Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, endorsing Rachel Reeves as chancellor.

Increasing resort to racism

As living standards further tumble under a Starmer administration, racism will be stirred up to divert attention from the government’s responsibility. The party leadership are already going down this road and has developed its own version of the Tories’ small boats campaign – demonising migrants and alluding to terrorism. The party’s framework is switching from opposing racism to promoting it. Its internal regime increasingly reflects this shift. Racism against Black Labour Party members is being allowed to increase – an issue exposed in the 2022 report by Martin Forde KC. Diane Abbott MP, the party’s foremost anti-racist campaigner, has been suspended from the parliamentary party, to ensure Starmer will not have to face up to her in the next parliament.

The symbolism of right wing nationalism is being made central to the party’s branding. Union flags are appearing everywhere and the slogan ‘Putting the country first’ has been added to the new party membership card.

The ground is already being laid to promote further reaction.

A party of war

The international agenda is now firmly tied to the US’ war policies and the front bench is tightly coordinating with Washington. NATO’s proxy war with Russia will be resourced as much as possible and assistance will be given to the US’s military build up against China.

Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians is fully supported, as is evident from Starmer’s current endorsement of the illegal collective punishment of Gaza – Israel’s indiscriminate killing machine and its cutting off of water, food and power from 2 million plus people. This latter policy is not one that Labour Party members support, so local parties have effectively been banned from discussing Israel’s atrocities. Additionally Labour MPs and Councillors have been told not to attend demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians.

Climate change – not a priority

Tackling climate change is talked up by the leadership, but is not remotely a central issue determining policy.

Labour’s claim that it will ensure clean electricity by 2030 is not matched by its plans. Having pledged huge financial commitments to NATO, the domestic economy and public services will struggle to receive even their current low levels of public investment. The plan to push ahead with nuclear power will impose huge costs on consumers and it is neither clean nor green. This industry is afforded precedence over cheap and clean renewable energy, because in it produces both energy and vital materials required for nuclear weapons.

Previous plans to make new green investments from the start of a Labour administration have already been pushed into the future.

Women – pushed to the fringe

Women have taken the brunt of the austerity offensive. Part of this is the huge additional burdens of caring, for both children and adults, that have been imposed on women due to public service cuts, the Covid epidemic and related increased health problems. The two-child cap on benefits, which Labour intends to retain, imposes further pressures on women.

Violence and abuse against women is on the increase and misogyny is openly promoted in the right wing media. The position of women overall in society is moving backwards.

These ought to be issues Labour addresses, but the party leadership is marginalising its women members. There should have been a two-day Labour Women’s Conference in the spring of 2023. However, because the concerns of women are being downgraded, a mere three hour conference was allowed, on the day before the start of the Annual Conference. The Women’s Conference is treated by the leadership almost as if it is a fringe event.

A proposal that Labour should commit to the decriminalisation of abortion was manoeuvred off the agenda of this much shortened Women’s Conference.

The decisions that Labour’s Women’s Conferences make are generally to the left of the Annual Conference, so in addition to the reactionary attitudes to women at top of the party there is factional motivation driving this downgrading of women.

The party of the unions

Having reduced the left’s influence within local constituency parties, by removing free speech, intimidation and purges; the right wing will inevitably turn its attention to the party’s 11 trade union affiliates. These still control almost half the vote at the Annual Conference.

The unions are expected to be a source of opposition to a reactionary Labour administration. So the right wing will try to advance the project, that Blair started to pursue, of marginalising union influence within national politics.

Blair had the goal of uniting Labour with the Liberal Democrats. He tried to get a cross party agreement to change the laws on the funding of political parties, in favour of state funding combined with the removal of trade union funding. This would inevitably slash the influence of unions within Labour. Cross party agreement was not possible to achieve. Blair failed to get the backing of his own party as the affiliated unions mobilised to ensure that Labour endorsed continued union funding of politics.

Starmer has not raised this issue publicly yet, but will likely bring it to the fore when he is ready to advance this agenda.

Prepare to resist

A Labour administration pursuing the priorities of capital, as Starmer intends, will step up the current economic, social and international offensives. The left, inside and outside the Labour Party, will have to resist such an administration and trade union involvement in politics will also need defending. After 14 years of fighting the Tories, campaigns against austerity, racism, and war will find themselves opposing Labour. Progressive people should start to prepare now.