The Passing Labour Show
Lord Michael Spencer, a London billionaire and Conservative Party donor, notes that conference speeches are a particularly good time for ‘theatre’, rather than genuine politics (Financial Times, 8 October). He was referring to Boris Johnson’s anti-business rhetoric at his party’s conference, but a similar consideration applies to Keir Starmer’s performance at Labour’s conference a few weeks before. Starmer could not have asked for a better show – there were plenty of opportunities to ridicule hecklers from the Labour Left, demonstrating beyond any doubt that Starmer has decisively moved the party to the centre, in both rhetoric and policy.
No substitute for power
The priorities of the current shadow cabinet are, supposedly, getting ‘serious about winning’, as opposed to ‘thinking protest was a substitute for power’, as shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy put it. This is meant to stand in contrast to whatever frivolities took place under Jeremy Corbyn (whose party took down a Tory majority in 2017 and who beat Margaret Thatcher’s record for most government defeats as opposition leader). In practice, ‘getting serious’ means shedding the ‘democratic socialist’, due to the view that the British electorate is consciously moderate and so more centrist politics amount to being in touch with them. A number of attacks on the left have been affected, with absolute impunity. Rather than the ‘ten pledges’ that Starmer campaigned on, which promised, in essence, the 2017 Corbyn-era manifesto, the Corbyn shadow cabinet has been rejected and Blair-era rhetoric dug out.
One of the most controversial attacks was a change to the election mechanisms, now requiring the support of double the MPs to stand for election, and giving MPs a disproportionate say in leader selection. Before, it was ‘one member, one vote’, but as that led to landslide elections of a left-wing Labour Party leader, the policy cannot be allowed to continue. The surprising aspect is how overt the motivation is – every mainstream journal (often explicitly) recognises the move for what it is: an anti-democratic ploy to beat down the Labour Left. Of course, that means it was roundly praised by the commentariat, with the Observer (3 October) view on the policy being that it ‘indicated that [Starmer] is a leader who will put country before party factionalism’, one among many ‘achievements [that suggest] Labour is not an entirely spent political force and offer a glimmer of hope for the future of the British centre-left’.
Blair, Blair, Blair
There were also a number of overt gestures towards Tony Blair’s (recently mentioned in the Pandora Papers) rhetoric; about the Tories being ‘soft on crime, soft on the causes of crime’, and Starmer’s quip that education is ‘so important that I am tempted to say it three times’. There is something of an oddity in the commentary: the Labour Left are routinely criticised for ‘wanting to return to the 1970s’ or being ‘devoid of fresh thoughts’ (Financial Times, 28 September), but a return to Blair’s rhetoric is ‘serious’ and ‘electable’. Labour Left MP John McDonnell criticised the move as a result of panicking, and as ‘no longer relevant’. He is unlikely to be listened to, as left and centre party unity is not on the agenda anymore.
Starmer also responded to hecklers by saying that Labour is now about ‘changing lives’ and not ‘chanting slogans’ – a memorable slogan itself. Yet the concrete policies needed to change lives are scarcely heard of. It is easier to pin down Starmer’s politics by what he is opposed to than what he is for. The push for a £15 minimum wage has been rejected in favour of £10, and rejection of nationalisation as a way forward. Andy Burnham and Ed Miliband, who have suggested that public ownership may be viable, are causing frustrations.
On the other hand, the Party has lurched towards a different attitude to business, leading to a striking contrast between Labour and the Conservatives. Johnson has been explicit on inequality and has blamed businesses for low wages, something which has worried donors, who are ‘nearly universally Thatcherite free-marketeers’ (Financial Times, 8 October), and he has criticised the austerity programmes of previous Conservative governments. Starmer’s position has been pretty much the opposite. Indeed, the business press recognises that Johnson’s own rhetoric might help Starmer position himself as a ‘more serious political figure’, ie, one that business can take seriously.
Turning to broader issues of foreign policy and the climate, Starmer simply ignored a young activist asking about his opinion on the motion on a Green New Deal, calling for public ownership of energy, bans on fracking, improved and electrified public transport, and unionisation laws. The motion passed at Conference, with 59.2 percent in favour (LabourList, 26 September). The activist later wrote that ‘Keir Starmer’s stonewalling is a fitting metaphor for Labour’s treatment of its young members, whose generation used to be at the core of its voters’ (openDemocracy, 29 September).
This hasn’t been the only divide between members (particularly the youth) and Starmer and his cabinet. Delegates turned on the party line when it came to two important foreign policy issues: the position on Israel, and AUKUS, the Australia, UK, US military alliance. Starmer said that ‘Britain must look after our most important relationships or our influence and security quickly declines. So, Labour welcomes [AUKUS]’, but the alliance was described as ‘a dangerous move that will undermine world peace’ in a motion that passed with 70.4 percent of the vote. Likewise, Conference heard a motion that condemned ‘de facto annexation of Palestinian land’ and an ‘arms trade used to violate Palestinian human rights’, and described Israel as an apartheid state. The motion passed, but Starmer and many shadow cabinet members distanced themselves from it immediately, and doubts were raised about whether it would ever be reflected in party policy.
Divisions are becoming clear. The moves to restrict the power of party members have some justification from the perspective of the shadow cabinet – the members, many of whom joined during the Corbyn era, want the party to head in a very different direction to the way Starmer is pulling. Whether a return to Blairite politics will work will depend more on how the Conservatives act than on Starmer’s own merits. It seems the only thing he has been effective at is the quashing of the left. Yet, the movement built up over the last few years still has a say, especially on foreign policy– this will be an important distinction between him and his party members, many of whom are impressed by Corbyn’s credentials on war. This was taken to be a decisive factor against him in the eyes of the electorate (though much of that may have to do with the ‘terrorist sympathiser’ media spin). Starmer seems to be no dove, even if not as hawkish as Blair. This may cost him the support of many of his members, but they will matter less and less to the party’s politics. Foreign policy has been, traditionally, where left-wing politics consistently distinguishes itself from centre-left liberalism. The shadow cabinet, even if not the Labour Party, has, almost across the board, chosen the latter.