For the Labour left, Keir Starmer’s tenure has been marked by a mix of battle, and departure: fight or flight from the party, with some falling asleep thrown in. Promising to bring unity and stick to left-wing policies, Starmer set about doing neither, but in a stodgily managerial manner.
It was like the leadership had decided not just to repel thousands of members by stripping out Jeremy Corbyn-era policies and people, but to ensure those who remained were bored into a stupor.
But the left was dragged back to battle mode for the party’s annual conference in Brighton. Starmer is trying to rush through rule changes on the selection of party leader. The leadership has cast this decision to have an almighty row as a sign the party is turning outwards to face the country, which is sure to delight a nation dealing with Covid-19 anxiety, spiralling costs, looming universal credit cuts, fuel shortages and bare supermarket shelves.
In reality, Starmer seeks to dilute the power of the party membership, lest this lifeblood of Labour have the gall ever to elect a left-wing leader again. With a watered-down agreement reached with furious union chiefs, this anti-democratic move will go to conference floor for a vote later today. As Momentum’s Mish Rahman pointed out to Sky News on Saturday, raising the threshold of MPs needed to endorse a leadership candidate would narrow the field to “a white man versus another white man” – or, in 2020’s leadership election, Sir Keir versus Sir Keir.
All told, this year’s conference will be a sharp shift from the annual get-togethers of the Corbyn era. Then, conference was abuzz with transformative ideas from a dynamic socialist force on the brink of government. With Starmer’s rule changes coming atop a political slide into bland, reheated managerial centrism the Brighton event has become a showdown.
But this standoff was not inevitable. The cross-party goodwill for Starmer following his election to leader was squandered in policy backtracking and unforced factional fighting, while failing either to hold a blundering government to account or to win public support.
Far from uniting Labour, Starmer has solidified the sense that its right and left factions have no business together in the same party, but for our electoral system discounting any alternative. It is like a long-separated couple living in the same flat because neither can afford to move out, locked into petty vengeances and rehashing old arguments.
The right of the party is desperate to rule Labour, but has no ideas to lead with. Stuck in a 1990s time warp, Starmer’s leadership cannot speak to the need for massive socio-economic change in a country blighted by staggering wealth inequality even before the pandemic made it all worse.
Underestimating the popularity of left policies, Starmer has also underestimated the tenacity of the left flank. You don’t survive in a party in which past leaderships have wanted your political tradition to become “a sealed tomb” without deep reserves of resilience. This isn’t only apparent in the socialist MPs who survived the wilderness years, holding the torch that eventually sparked Corbyn’s 2015 leadership win. It is evident in the membership’s capacity to deal with round-the-clock ridicule from sections of the media and from the party itself.
Now, the grassroots group Momentum, 20,000 members strong, is taking policies from a £15-an-hour minimum wage to a green new deal to the conference floor, showing membership support for tangible, fleshed-out left policies. The World Transformed festival, running alongside the main conference, has a focus on practical training, intended to help participants organise inside the party and beyond.
Both groups are alive to the fact that, while the left may not be prominent in parliamentary politics, it is still a significant force in society. Leftists have rallied to pandemic mutual aid groups, supporting communities in need while the Labour leadership pulls its punches against a government that left people in such a state of hardship in the first place.
The left has mobilised for the rights of frontline workers, stood against the Conservatives’ sweeping crime bill, and stood with those facing rent evictions and deportations. As Joe Guinan at the Democracy Collaborative has noted, the Corbyn project was a “long shot, a short cut” since it bypassed the need “for years, if not decades, of hard organising and base-building”.
If the pandemic has seen the Labour grassroots taking on this necessary groundwork, conference is the opportunity to swap notes. Scarred by election defeat, difficult lockdowns and a rampaging populist right-wing government, the left movement could use some face time in the sort of spaces that conference creates.
Inspiration and hope can spring up among the like-minded across multiple panels, workshops, sandwiches and pints in Brighton. We’ll see showdowns on the conference floor, but the left may yet emerge from the coastal town more focused and determined.
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