On the eve of conference, the Labour Party is at war with itself. The incendiary and badly handled move by Keir Starmer to bring forward a proposal to change who elects the leader of the party points to a leadership fully focused on internal battles, even as Starmer’s personal approval ratings tank and the Tory poll lead reasserts itself. By shifting the debate on to how the next Labour leader is elected, it also reveals a leadership with little confidence in its own ability to succeed. In trying to assert strength, Starmer has projected weakness.
While Starmer’s initial focus seemed to be on marginalising the left in Labour, in recent months this has slipped into a more general attack on the rights of members across the political spectrum. This culminated in a recommendation from the party machine to block the Labour For A Green New Deal motion, which was later reversed, a series of proposed rule changes to centralise power in the hands of the general secretary and now an attempt to substantially dilute the value of members’ votes in Labour leadership contests.
The leadership’s focus on these aims means Labour is not campaigning on the issues that matter, nor is it building support for the party across the country. Our overall priority at conference now must be to stop any changes to the way the leader of the Labour Party is elected. We believe the majority of members support this aim, whatever their disagreements on other issues, because the system being proposed by Starmer takes power away from hundreds of thousands of members and affiliate members – and gives it to fewer than 200 MPs in Westminster.
The idea that this will somehow empower the trade unions is absurd. It gives the most rightward part of the labour movement, the Parliamentary Labour Party, an effective veto on who can stand for leader. Anyone with a basic commitment to democracy and Labour being a progressive force should oppose this.
In preparation for conference, and in anticipation of the trick the leadership are now trying to pull, our organising team have been mapping the political balance of Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) across the country and the politics of delegates. Our sample size of well over 400 local parties tells us that there is a good chance of a left majority at conference in the CLP section, as well as a substantial number of persuadable delegates. It has been a politically volatile 18 months, so it would be naive to state with total certainty the exact number of left delegates at conference, but the bullish briefings from the Labour right now look to have been overconfident. This has probably informed Starmer’s kamikaze strategy.
Not only does Starmer risk dividing the party again, but he also risks major defeat – even if he gathers enough support from trade unions. The expected card vote on ratifying Labour’s general secretary, David Evans – which will demonstrate significant opposition to the highly politicised way in which he has performed his duties – highlights further difficulties. We have made clear that we strongly oppose the way in which Evans has performed the role, and will be calling on delegates to reject his ratification and support changes to make this political role elected and properly accountable to the membership.
We are also still determined to make the case for the transformative socialist policies we need to overcome the crises of climate change and Covid. Earlier this year, we ran our first ever policy primary, where 3,000 Momentum members voted for our policy priorities to take to Labour conference. It was a brilliant exercise that mobilised and inspired our members and the wider movement, and every one of the policies chosen by Momentum members will be debated on conference floor, following compositing. These policies include a £15 minimum wage, a green new deal, proportional representation, social housing and a four-day working week.
We will be encouraging all delegates to vote for these motions and there is an opportunity to get some passed as Labour policy. Though unlikely to be backed by many trade unions, proportional representation in particular looks to have generated substantial support from local parties, thanks to good work by Labour For a New Democracy – though we have little confidence in the Labour leadership to take up this demand when their attitude to democracy in our own party is so hostile.
Sadly, this is the word that comes to mind when we think of the current Labour leadership: hostile. Hostile to members, to democracy, to policy and even it seems, to winning. And what sticks in the throat, as we enter yet another protracted round of factional in-fighting, is that the last 18 months have revealed in a harsh light the need for an opposition that makes a passionate case for an alternative. One that can change working-class people’s lives for the better – just as Sharon Graham so forcefully argued. This is Labour’s mission, but we have been badly led astray.
Rather than standing up for something, the Labour leadership has repeatedly stood on its own toes and conspired to erode its support among the party membership and the public. Fake investigation notices, suspensions of members for passing motions and now an attempt to reduce the democratic rights of members are a painful distraction from the issues that matter to most people.
Conference should be a springboard for the Labour Party to get out and campaign across the country and in our communities. Starmer’s pledges, combined with the good work done by Andy MacDonald on workers’ rights and with a commitment to a wealth tax, could have been the basis on which to unite the party around a common vision. It still can be, and we will work for this, but as Starmer shows no interest in his own pledges and continues his factional obsessions, it’s unlikely in the long term to be a coalition led by him.