Speech of his life, make or break moment – it seems every leader’s set piece conference speech is blown out of all importance by the 24/7 media today. Yes, Starmer’s speech does tell us about his accelerating move along the road to full on Blairism, but it has less impact on mass opinion than he or the media imagine. More significant is whether Labour can mobilise people in opposition to this government and put forward progressive policies to win power and change people’s lives. On that count the speech gives us little hope.
If you cut through the rambling 90 minutes of praise for his wonderful family, the police, the army, the nation, the NHS or the exaggerated claims that Blair levelled upsociety, what do we have? Look, I am totally not Jeremy Corbyn, I will not challenge capitalist interests and I am more honest and serious than Boris Johnson. Labouris ‘back in business’ indeed, as no threat whatsoever to the establishment.
His Mum and Dad were certainly decent people. Who knows or cares. But by the end of one of the longest leader’s speeches I am sure people were screaming into their hands, please no more homilies about your Dad and Mum, we got that bit. In any case this idea that a Labour politician proves his or her politics is correct because their family were working class is just wrong. Some of the most reactionary right-wing politicians inside Labour (or outside) have come from impeccably deprived households (e.g. Alan Johnson) and some of the revolutionaries who did change people’s lives were from the middle class (e.g. Fidel or Che).
The emoting on his family was also meant to reinforce one of the speech’s themes, the need to follow the rules. Sounds uncontroversial until you think about what rules and whose rules. Like his whole political philosophy there is a basic acceptance of the system and its power structures. So there is an unquestioning acceptance of the strong economy, the nation, the role of the police and armed forces, Ofsted and the union. These are just givens and Labour’s role is to improve working people’s opportunities or individual rewards within that system.
Just to take the police example. If Doreen Lawrence had followed the rules and not challenged the rule-breaking of the Met she would never have got justice. Police certainly did not follow best practice or did not even have the right rules in the first place in relation to the Sarah Everard case. A police officer used the rules and his warrant card to kidnap Sarah. Current rules do not help in the Sabina Nessa murder case either since they are inadequate in dealing with male violence against women.
The state and the army break the rules when they want to such as with the torture in Iraq or the rendition of suspected terrorists to the United States. Labour’s leader is not interested in that side of the rules.
Many mentions of the strong economy were made and the way a Labour government would be its active partner. The aerospace industry is lauded over the development of the new hydrogen wing. Creative and high tech companies are uncritically praised as innovators. Again, this is looking back, not forward, to the old clichés of Harold Wilson’s white hot heat of the technological revolution. How does the corporate aviation industry sit with some of the progressive elements of Labour’s Green New Deal. In our Starmerworld all is serene and competent – government will bung money and help innovation but the ownership and decisive control of the strong economy will always remain with the capitalists.
Even mainstream commentators have picked up on the fact that he hardly touched on the fuel and energy crisis. This was an open goal and while criticising Johnson’s handling of the situation he failed to put forward a few simple, popular policies. Opinion polls consistently suggest there are majorities for taking the utilities back into common ownership. However, Miliband was slapped down by Starmer forproposing this Labour policy to conference. If you are obsessed with not antagonising those powers that constitute his strong economy,you will not mention the nationalisation word.
His attack on Johnson as a showman, lacking depth and seriousness,underestimates the threat to Labour and to working people of the political project incarnated by the prime minister. The showman attack is as superficial as the ‘scum’ insult thrown out by Raynor to showboat her leadership ambitions. Both insults focus on individual characteristics and qualities and fail to understand the political ideologies or systemic class interests embodied in political leaders.
The other night Sky News sent a reporter to a Nottinghamshire red wall constituency and did the usual vox pops. One working class guy said that Boris – a rich privileged Etonian – was okay since he was ‘one of the lads’. In the same report Starmer’s name recognition was poor and one person said she wanted Corbyn back. Other focus groups have reported how Johnson is someone you could have a drink with. In these cynical times, when people take it for granted that politicians are dishonest and lie, voters factor in Johnson’s character. People do not vote particularly on values or vision,but rather on which policies they think favour their interests. The leaver voters’ bread and butter support for Brexit was much more important than any thoughts about Johnson’s personal morality.
Other commentators have correctly identified how Johnson is able to differentiate himself from Starmer because he has a political project that relates to this general populist dissatisfaction with the system. The Labour leader, on the other hand, is all about getting people to follow the rules and mostly adapt to the system.
He acts the tousle-haired insurgent. Starmer, by contrast, spends his days auditioning for the role of red-faced, purse-lipped manager, perennially disappointed in us, his ungrateful customers.Aditya Chakrabortty, Guardian 30 September
The question, as it always has been with Starmer as Labour leader, is whether the public will agree by the next election that the chaotic but charismatic rebel now in office should be replaced by a more capable and predictable rule-follower.Sienna Rodgers, Morning email, Labourlist, 30 September
We need to challenge Johnson’s politics not his personality or morality. Starmer could have spent his 90 minutes on attacking the massive cuts in living standards coming this winter with the end of furlough, the universal credit cut, the hike in NIC contributions, the opening of evictions and the massive increase in energy bills.
As we outlined in our analysis of his 35 page pamphlet, the Road Ahead, Starmer is leading the party back into the arms of Blairism. Far from being new and looking to the future the soundbites and themes were ripped straight out of the Blair playbook. So we had the unspoken but clearly referenced education, education, education and the tough on crime greatest hits. The school improvement plan was another and was placed firmly in the hands of Ofsted, every teachers’ friend as we know. Yes there are a few reformist and necessary measures on taxing private school fees and rights at work, whichall socialists support. This is one reason why despite everything we call for a vote for Labour against the Tories. But the real message Starmer wanted to communicate was that the capitalist economy, the state, the union and the nation are safe with us.
Whether it was because people were losing the will to live or their stomachs were rumbling at the end of the speech, Starmer’s attempt to rouse the troops against Sturgeon’s ‘tartan tories’ fell flat. Perhaps the audience were better informed about the situation in Scotland. Putting himself forward as a better champion of the imperialist union is not going to win him back votes soon there.
Finally, one difference from Corbyn’s final speech to conference was the poor attendance – the balconies were closed off and day visitors bussed in – and the extraordinary sight of armed security policing inside the hall. Pictures are available at the Skawkbox site. Despite all this there was brave opposition in the hall by hecklers who reminded Starmer of his failure to back the demand voted by conference for a minimum wage of £15 an hour. Clearly a ‘strong economy’ cannot be forced by Starmer’s Labour into conceding such basic demands that would actually help change peoples’ lives.
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