With Labour still languishing in the polls, Peter Kenyon reports on leadership failures to heal divisions
This year was quite refreshing. Members had clearly been busy in the months leading up to a resumption of in-person political discourse. Labour’s future electoral prospects without electoral reform prompted over 50% of the 600-plus constituency parties to call for proportional representation. The appointment of David Evans as general secretary was challenged – an unheard-of impudence on the part of members. He survived – just.
For the leadership, consolidating its right-wing coup against former leader Jeremy Corbyn appeared paramount. Preparing for minority government – which under the present voting system is the best that Labour can hope for – was apparently, as the Conference progressed, not important at all.
Party leader Keir Starmer and his allies have spent the last 18 months since his election in April 2020 trying to airbrush former leader Jeremy Corbyn from the public consciousness. The Brighton 2021 Conference was to be the backdrop for turning the clock back a decade on how the party elects its leaders. Head office briefings plauded the return of the electoral college in which an MP’s vote is worth some 2,000 ordinary members – a foolhardy attempt to try to rig the party’s next leadership election. Unremarkably, negative reactions from the two main voting factions at Conference meant it was binned before Conference started – the trade unions and CLPs, each of whom have 50% of Conference votes. Starmer was bound to lose. So the right-wing around the leadership regrouped. They tabled a fresh plan to raise the number of nominations required to enable a Labour MP to get on a leadership ballot paper from 10% to 20%. Even then they only narrowly secured Conference approval, by leaning on trade union delegations for support. Any member with a head for numbers can work out that the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs don’t have to recruit many more MPs to give the right nightmares again. The current number of Labour MPs is 199, so under the new rules the left candidate would need 40 votes. There are currently 34 Labour MPs listed on the SCG’s Twitter account*.
In interviews prior to his closing speech on Wednesday 29th September, Starmer was asked what was more important to him – party unity or winning? To which he replied, “Winning”. Well, if he is interested in winning in the country, there was little evidence of that. Ever since Labour lost Scotland to the Scottish Nationalist Party, its ability to win enough seats elsewhere in England and Wales to form a majority government at Westminster has been in serious doubt.
There are two strands in the debate – a democratic deficit has emerged as a major concern among members, as much as tactical considerations based on Westminster parliamentary arithmetic. The Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform together with the Labour Campaign for a New Democracy have worked that out, as was evidenced in the motions tabled at Conference for electoral reform. They succeeded in securing support from over 80% of CLPs. The issue came second in the Priorities Ballot. A composite motion was agreed. It was debated on the floor of Conference. But here’s the rub. The leadership lacked the political muscle to ensure the ideas were formally kept alive. The composite motion to end ‘first past the post’ was voted down by some trade union delegations exercising their block votes – a very old Labour practice.
It was a sign of just how weak Starmer and his allies have become inside the party machine. They squandered what little political capital they had waging war on the left inside the party. There was nothing left in their arsenal (no pun intended – Starmer supports Arsenal Football Club) to persuade the unions that at the very least the issue needed further discussion.
On the Conference floor there were interesting speeches by the party’s shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, announcing a major reform of business rates to ease cost pressures on the high street and create a more level playing field with online retailers through tax reforms. Sections of the 2019 election manifesto covering the Green New Deal were repackaged by former Labour leader Ed Miliband. But a big split between the right and the wider membership opened up over public ownership, especially of the energy companies, and the minimum wage, with the resignation during Conference of workers’ rights spokesperson, Andy McDonald. He alleged the Leader’s Office attempted to gag him over support for a £15 per hour minimum wage backed by Conference. Starmer’s closing speech (heralded as an election game-changer) was long, ponderous and uninspiring, as evidenced by post-Conference polling.
Labour has some very good ideas for government that will improve people’s lives. Unfortunately, many were set out in its 2019 election manifesto. Cue: Corbyn shroud-waving.
So, Labour remains hamstrung by its own leader’s anti-Corbyn fixation. Its best electoral hope, therefore, is that the Tories lose the next general election, and lose badly.