Mike Davis reflects on the virtual Labour conference fringe and Starmer’s speech while highlighting key ideas for a future without the Tories
Virtual Labour Party conference was a unique event – the first time in its 120-year history (apart from wartime) that the party had not gathered physically. Strange days indeed. With the dark clouds of plague hanging over the globe, new party leader Keir Starmer gave his keynote speech from ‘red wall’ Doncaster to an empty room with a silent reception.
The podium emblem, ‘A New Leadership’, sought to mark a new beginning from the five Corbyn years. Although short on policy, the critique of the Tories was sure-footed enough, with phrases like, “the people are expected to obey the rule of six while the government plans to break the rule of law”, and “too little, too late” on test and trace. There was a robust critique of Tory austerity cuts to public services which have weakened the ability of those services to protect the people from the ravages of Covid-19. His other indictment was of Johnson’s character: “not serious, not up to the job”, and the speech was peppered with examples of government incompetence, from lack of PPE for keyworkers to the school exams fiasco and dysfunctional apps.
There were stark reminders that Labour had lost four elections in a row, and of the Tories’ record of winning in the 20th Century, to emphasise the need to change. Attlee, Wilson and Blair were invoked as the Labour winners, with some acknowledgement of past achievements: the NHS, the foundation of NATO, the Open University, the Good Friday Agreement. However, Labour’s task was not to look back but to come out of the shadows and win. So the emphasis was on a future vision: an economy that works for all, addressing the climate crisis, closing the education gap, properly funded universal public services.
The leitmotif was winning back the trust of the British people with appeals to take another look at Labour. Efforts to don the garb of a patriotic ‘British’ mantle and commitments to move on from the ‘Leave/Remain’ argument will not inspire great approval ratings on the left while being unlikely to cut much ice in ‘red wall’ areas. Clearly, that was where the pitch was directed. Level-pegging in the polls, in the midst of a pandemic, indicates much work to do to win over a hundred seats to topple the Tories.
The virtual Chartist meeting on Sunday – chaired by myself and hosted by the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, with Ann Pettifor, Clive Lewis MP and Paul Nowak, assistant general secretary of the TUC – brought together over 70 activists to discuss the substance of a winning Labour alternative. At the meeting, themed ‘New Economy, New Democracy’, speakers emphasised some critical elements of a transformative democratic socialism.
Introducing the meeting the chair noted Chartist was celebrating 50 years of publishing. At the heart of Chartist politics is the view that top-down Fabian-style statism does not transform society or eliminate the inequalities, poverty, exploitation and injustice at the heart of capitalism. A bottom-up, pluralist politics is required.
Ann Pettifor, author of the The Case for the Green New Deal, highlighted some of the positives of the pandemic in bringing people together in acts of community solidarity, and the selfless social commitment of NHS and social care staff, transport and postal workers.
The thrust of her message was the need for an end to an economy based on fossil fuels, private profit and toothless regulation. The environmental crisis was also an economic crisis, needing a radical move away from unsustainable, polluting and socially harmful sectors. Though the pandemic wasn’t expected, the government should have been expecting the shock to the economy that was always in store. She also referred to the Women’s Budget Group, with which she works, and its prediction that a crisis for the care sector is looming because of the disproportionate effect the crisis has had on women, who make up the majority of the care workforce.
Clive Lewis, a shadow minister with several portfolios under Corbyn, spoke passionately of the need for a democratic revolution. He began with a dose of realism: the Tories had won most of the elections in the 20th century while Labour was trapped in the politics of oppositionalism and an ideology of Labourism – a form of sectarianism which stems from the belief that only Labour could be a force for change in Britain. ‘Our way or the highway’ had to be ditched.
He sounded a wake up call: Labour needs “to appeal to the better nature of our socialism” and we need to face the global crisis of socialism/social democracy. “We need to embrace collaboration and negotiation” as the way to real progress. This linked to the current limits of democracy. Pluralism has to be centre-stage if Labour wants to lead progressive thinking and a commitment to Proportional Representation would make a good start. Removing archaic institutions, greater devolution of resources to local councils, citizen’s assemblies and workplace democracy would all feature as elements of the democratic revolution. …
In the Q&A session, lead speakers acknowledged the limits of growth/GDP in the conventional sense as a measure of progress. Lewis also highlighted why an international perspective that critiqued the role of the British empire in promoting racism and undermining the ability of Africa and other colonised countries to develop needed to be kept centre-stage. Too often British ‘growth’ has been at the expense of generations of the colonised.
Paul Nowak was equally scathing of the government responses to the pandemic, having underfunded public services, short-changed millions of workers and now opening the door to mass unemployment. As people face the worst recession since the Great Depression, the trade union movement could play a leading role in the recovery. Government has been reluctant to talk to the TUC or take on its proposals to protect vulnerable sectors by extending financial support, investing in training and green industries or protecting the precariat with a living wage.
A thoughtful exchange occurred around the question of ‘just transition’: namely the conversion of carbon-intensive or socially harmful industries to being carbon-neutral and socially useful – aviation and arms being prominent examples. Identifying the essential ingredients to protect workers’ jobs and incomes whilst moving to a greener economy requires negotiation and imagination.
The dangers of a no-deal Brexit compounding the catastrophe of Covid-19 on health, jobs and living standards was highlighted. While it was pointless revisiting the Remain/Leave arguments, the importance of working with European Union states was also seen as critical to combatting the rising national populist currents and climate deniers. Ex-MEP Julie Ward pointed out that working with Europe is central to combatting corporate tax dodgers. To defeat the Tories, numerous speakers stressed a dual approach: the importance of building strong social movements, like the climate emergency groups and Black Lives Matter, alongside a rebooted Labour Party.
In emphasising the challenge from this ultra-right government, the chair quoted from George Monbiot: “our system allows the victorious government a mandate to do what it likes between elections, without further reference to the people. It can include breaking international law, suspending parliament, curtailing the judiciary, politicising the civil service, attacking the Electoral Commission and invoking Royal prerogative powers to make policy without anyone’s consent. This is not democracy, but a parody of democracy”. The chair reiterated Monbiot’s call for “a vehicle similar in scale to the Chartist and suffragette movements” to spearhead the 21st Century democratic revolution so urgently needed.