What game is Starmer playing?

On the eve of the Labour Party conference, Veronica Fagan asks what game is Starmer playing?

 

In the run-up to the Labour Party conference, the media has been full of tales of how Starmer is planning to reintroduce an electoral college for future leadership elections and declaring war on the left of the party. On first consideration you wouldn’t have thought that’s how a serious opposition party would want to be spun – especially not when the governing party leave so many open goals on issues that deeply affect the majority of the electorate – from Universal Credit, Social Care, the NHS, Fire and Rehire, inflation, unemployment and so much more.

But you would be missing a key point here. There is no doubt that the stories about the electoral college are emanating directly from Starmer’s office, issued deliberately close to the conference itself so that they dominated the news and that Starmer himself briefed the Shadow Cabinet on the proposals. These would reverse a change brought in by Ed Milliband in March 2014, back to one where individual members have a third of the vote, unions another third and Labour MPs the rest. This is clearly a proposal to give more power to MPs and less to ordinary members – and an attempt to persuade the unions that it is in their interests.

It has been good to see an outcry not only from many individual party members but from a whole range of MPs including Shadow Cabinet member Sam Tarry and that soft left grouping Open Labour is also urging delegates to reject the proposal. New Unite General Secretary Sharon Graham has made clear she is strongly opposed and the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation (TULO) didn’t show any enthusiasm about it. Again there is much speculation about what was actually said by whom but some of this is more heat than light. 

The FBU’s Matt Wrack has called out Luke Akehurst’s speculation that ‘the unions’ backed the proposals in principle but wanted a delay for a special conference. But it’s worth noting that all the large unions, so GMB and Unison alongside Unite, voted for the new system last time around – so that might mean they currently have a mandate in terms of existing policy which would be difficult to ditch quite so quickly – especially for Unison’s Christine McAnea where the left recently won the leadership elections in that union. 

And there is also some suggestion that what might emerge at some point in these discussions is a reformed college in which the PLP would only get 20 per cent of the vote and unions and members forty per cent each – an accommodation which would then be wrongly presented as a victory for democracy!

Real prizes

But Stephen Bush’s article in the New Statesman looks at all this in a different light; speculating that the real prizes in terms of rule changes for the right are elsewhere. While I’m less sure that his assertion that sitting MPs have a lot to fear in terms of reselection – even under full open selection there was very little change in the PLP – I think he may well be right in terms of distracting discussion from other changes people ought to find outrageous. Labour List covered some of these a week ago and I would pick out those around MP’s selection – allowing the rule that you have to have been a party member for a year ‘to be delegated as the NEC sees fit’, forcing candidates to go through training ‘as prescribed by the NEC’. Those who have suggested that this is a move to further ‘professionalise’ the PLP are partially correct – but it’s surely also a move to handpick people who are judged to be compliant.

Other outrages include that any member who “instigates, brings, lodges, issues or funds” legal action that is partly or wholly unsuccessful must reimburse Labour for costs incurred and that Constituency Labour Parties will need the permission of the NEC to affiliate with organisations. There are also a series of new rules that it is claimed are mandatory following the Equality and Human Rights Commission which further undermine the role of the National Constitution Commission and hand over significant parts of Labour’s procedures to people outside our movement. I’m not a lawyer but I somehow doubt this would be happening if such changes were not also in line with the wishes of the current leadership.

Democracy? What Democracy?

But regardless of the specifics, anyone with any regard for democratic processes anywhere would be screaming about the fact that it is within the rules – not amended either under Ed Milliband or Jeremy Corbyn – that the National Executive Committee can make proposals to conference to change rules which they agree at a meeting only the day before. Worse these undemocratic moves are often bundled together with other positive changes that would strengthen democracy. That’s how we lost open selection at the 2018 Labour Party Conference because left MPs and unions decided there were other fish to fry – or naively assumed there would be plenty of time to return to these issues.

And of course what has been happening under Starmer’s leadership is a massive escalation of the witchhunt, so wide and swift that it’s difficult to keep up. In these last days we have heard stories of people who were elected as conference delegates receiving suspension letters blocking their attendance – and some apparently without knowing what crimes they are being accused of at the time. Then there was the grotesque case of Young Labour’s Jess Barnard; where the fact that it was quickly rescinded should not obscure not only the outrage of what happened presumably initially at the hands of some bot – but that it must have been signed off by someone with authority. And this is combined with attacks on Young Labour itself – far too radical for this leadership apparently.

Then we have the fact that the NEC meeting on July 20 agreed to proscribe three organisations – Labour against the Witchhunt, Labour in Exile Network and Socialist Appeal. Not only was the wording loose as to what ‘crimes’ people could be auto excluded for – with no effective right of appeal – but in practice, many of those who have received these letters are apparently accused of clairvoyance. So attending meetings organised by a group that was proscribed many months later has been the sole alleged transgression in some cases. And it’s important not to forget that the NEC also set up a panel to consider whether further groups should be added to the banned list. More than shades of 1984. 

And alongside this onslaught, there has been a myriad of other attacks on democracy at a regional and local level. No one outside the bureaucracy has any idea of how many CLPs have not met since Starmer took office – but I’ve certainly heard many members complaining that is the case. Then there have been many others where officers have been removed – often for allowing members to decide, rather than people they employ, what they should be able to discuss. This has sometimes been followed by subsequent meetings being supervised by full-time officers – or by no meetings at all.

I could go on with horror story after horror story but that’s beyond the scope of this piece. There are however a few other essentials I do need to stress.

The first is that the instrumentalisation of antisemitism that started to undermine Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, which also brought to the fore the notion of ‘the wrong type of Jew’ has continued apace under Starmer and Evans. Jewish Voice for Labour calculates that “Jewish members have been disproportionally targeted with investigation for antisemitism. It appears that as a population share, almost five times more Jewish than non-Jewish Labour members have faced complaints of antisemitism which have been investigated. We estimate that Jewish JVL members have been subject to actioned antisemitism complaints at a rate 20 times greater than non-Jewish Labour members”.

Jewish Voice for Labour calculates that “Jewish members have been disproportionally targeted with investigation for antisemitism. It appears that as a population share, almost five times more Jewish than non-Jewish Labour members have faced complaints of antisemitism which have been investigated

A further point is worth stressing about many of those being auto excluded, suspended or expelled – many of them have 30, 40 or even 50 years of party membership under their belts. These are not just people who joined the party to support Corbyn – or came back after leaving over Iraq but those who have spent all their active political lives doing so, and now being thrown to the wolves by Starmer and Evans,

And while Starmer and his lackeys have been keen to keep this out of the media; Jeremy Corbyn, elected as Labour MP for Islington North – and the former leader of the party who presided over unprecedented growth in party membership – remains suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party after almost 10 months, though his suspension as a party member was short-lived. This is more than an attack on Corbyn, it’s an attack on his CLP, Islington North and on all those who voted for him.

And of course, all these attacks on left individuals and CLPs, combined with a complete and total failure to call out the Tories for their consistent and criminal attacks on the working class, have as Evans and Starmer have calculated led to despair and frustration amongst significant parts of the Labour Left. For every one person, we have lost through expulsion we have lost many more as collateral damage.

It would be a mistake to think all this is happening because Starmer is incompetent. The reality is that his project, also underlined in his lengthy statement of ‘policy’ is to make clear that Labour is – again – a party safe for capital. He is prepared to destroy any minor glimmer of radicalism, any aspiration that remains from Corbyn’s tenure that another world is even desirable never mind possible. It’s a myth that the Labour Starmer aspires to create needs hundreds rooted in their communities and unions ready to go on the doorstep in their own constituency or up and down the country. Instead, a little bit of telephone canvassing by those promised promotions into the hollowed-out edifice that is local government in England in particular combined with massive promotion of the leader and Shadow Cabinet’s words of wisdom through both mainstream and social media will do.

It would be a mistake to think all this is happening because Starmer is incompetent. The reality is that his project, also underlined in his lengthy statement of ‘policy’ is to make clear that Labour is – again – a party safe for capital.

And even if Sir Keith himself doesn’t survive all this, he will have his place in the history books as he who expunged the ghost of Corbynism – the legacy he really seeks.

Resistance – if not now when?

All of this takes us to a situation where one of the key moments of conference will be the vote on Saturday afternoon, shortly after the conference opens to endorse David Evans as General Secretary of the Labour Party. Defend the Left, a relatively new network set up to bring together those who oppose the bans and proscriptions introduced by the NEC will be lobbying outside conference from 12 noon as delegates gather. This protest is part of a storm on Starmer which has also included a large online public meeting with Ken Loach as its most prominent speaker alongside Heather Mendick, Leah Levane and Andrew Feinstein and a series of actions across Britain.

The forces supporting the demand that #EvansMustFall are wider than those gathered together by Defend the Left, which at least means and seems the platform will be forced to have a formal vote – possibly a card vote – rather than slipping it through ‘by acclaim’ as we first feared. Unite, CWU and many of the smaller unions, the Socialist Health Association and many CLPs will be voting against. Despite this groundswell, it’s unlikely that the opposition will succeed.

The forces supporting the demand that #EvansMustFall are wider than those gathered together by Defend the Left, which at least means and seems the platform will be forced to have a formal vote – possibly a card vote – rather than slipping it through ‘by acclaim’ as we first feared.

There are three main reasons for this. First, despite rumours to the contrary, the left in Unison does not control that union’s delegation to the Labour Party conference. Second, despite the fact that the majority of CLPs probably oppose the move, many have been muted by the gerrymandering of their delegations.

But the third reason is undoubtedly the most depressing. There has not been agreement across the Labour Left on the need to fight these attacks. Worse, the two largest organisations Momentum and Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD) have in practice refused to work with others to do so. Neither participated in the Labour Left for Socialism event on September 18 planned over the summer as a response to the demoralisation many party members and trade union activists were feeling about the attacks on democracy and failure to call out the Tories.

To be fair, Momentum made it clear fairly early on that they weren’t interested. Even under their new national leadership, elected in 2020, largely act as if they are the only game in town – and suggest that the key issues are to focus on policy with a naivety to which I will return. CLPD did sign up to the original statement which includes ‘Ending the wave of suspensions, lifting those already unjustly imposed, reversing bans and proscriptions against the left’ but then withdrew from the September 18 event and failed to promote it.

But in a sense worse than these organisations failing to take part the arguments they and others used were even more problematic. Initially, it had been agreed that Ken Loach would be one of the speakers. Even though the event was being organised as a webinar to protect participants, it was argued that this would threaten conference delegations. The failed strategy which has seen Starmer defeat the left, step up the witchhunt and remain silent in the face of Tory attacks is apparently necessary to … be able to fight at some future date. Politics does not work like that and this supposed strategy will just see more and more left activists leave – and probably many of them drop out of politics entirely as a result of demoralisation and miseducation.

Labour Left for Socialism is planning a further event for the end of November so it remains to be seen how that will shape up in the post-conference situation.

There are also a series of rule changes proposed by CLPs – none of which the NEC is supporting. The most significant of these is that to make the PLP accountable to conference which would allow the membership to challenge the outrageous suspension of Jeremy Corbyn as a Labour MP. In more general terms it would significantly shift the balance of power in exactly the opposite direction to that being proposed by the current leadership.

Policy debates

While it’s the internal debates that are dominating so much it would be complexly remiss not to consider the policy debates that will take place at conference. It’s certainly true that they are less important that rule changes precisely because the rules allow the leader and the PLP to ignore those things they don’t like. Given that Starmer has ripped up every one of the ten pledges on which he was elected we can be certain that he will do the same with anything conference were to decide that he doesn’t like.

But that doesn’t mean that we should dismiss as irrelevant the subjects that CLPs and Trade Unions have decided should be submitted for debate – even though it is not possible to know exactly what will get through the subsequent priorities ballot. 

Given that Starmer has ripped up every one of the ten pledges on which he was elected we can be certain that he will do the same with anything conference were to decide that he doesn’t like.

By far the most popular subject is electoral reform with a variety of motions submitted by over 100 CLPs (of 648) all supporting proportional representation for general elections. Given that as the Labour International motion points out: ‘polling shows three-quarters of Labour members want Labour to back PR this should at one level not be a great surprise. And there is support for that move beyond those that sent this issue as their conference motion – as early as February this year the Electoral Reform Society knew that over a quarter of CLPs had passed policy supporting this move.

Traditionally significant sections of the Labour Left have in my view wrongly opposed PR but that reluctance to accept the huge democratic deficit in the First Past the post system seems to have shifted  – although the most traditionalist CLPD retains the dinosaur and tribalist view. At the same time, we need to be aware that for some around Starmer and to his right, support for PR is not about principle but about cuddling up to the Lib Dems – not at all the motivation for those of us who struggle for democracy at all levels.

The second most popular topic is the question of the Green New Deal. At one level this is completely appropriate in this time of environmental emergency. It was a victory that the earlier decision by the Conference Arrangements to rule out of order the motion from Labour for a Green New Deal, submitted by 21 CLPs, on the basis that it covered more than one topic was overturned after loud protests. The motion is grounded on the correct approach held by the overwhelming majority of the environmental justice movement that in order to have a just transition public ownership needs to be at the heart of our offer. But regrettably, neither that motion nor any of the others on the topic that I have looked at e.g. that from the FBU have anything substantially different to say from the policy successfully passed in 2019.

In particular, none of them focuses on the need to see hundreds of Labour Party and Trade union banners on the streets of cities and towns up and down Britain on November 6 demonstrating for climate justice during COP26 in Glasgow. It’s right that Starmer’s claim to ‘hardwire the Green New Deal into everything’ Labour does is another broken pledge but that’s no excuse for the rest of us not making it a major priority. It’s certainly a shame that Labour for a Green New Deal has not used the wide support they have especially amongst younger party members to promote this approach. We won’t force political change just by passing resolutions but by organising in our communities, on the streets and in our workplaces.

It’s right that Starmer’s claim to ‘hardwire the Green New Deal into everything’ Labour does is another broken pledge but that’s no excuse for the rest of us not making it a major priority.

Other topics with significant groups of motions include Palestine, where I am pleased to report that a dire motion circulated by Labour First, which would have contradicted existing policy at a time when Israel’s war crimes are more persistent than ever, was not submitted as a conference motion. The 14 motions submitted are all useful with two in particular – from Young Labour and Bath – having material that would be particularly useful in a composite if the issue makes it through the priorities ballot – which it certainly should.

If anyone is going to have the chance of reading this piece before Labour conference actually starts I’m going to have to leave further analysis of topics that may make the agenda – Housing, Social Care, Education, Afghanistan, Economy, Jobs, Benefits and more for a later contribution, together with reports from the hundreds of fringe meetings and the conversations with comrades over tea or a pint.

But while I’m not going to conclude with a detailed analysis of Starmer’s treatise because Dave Kellaway has already done so, and the Morning Star doesn’t make a bad job either in their editorial. But some things are worth repeating so this tweet is the most succinct analysis I have seen thus far:

(together with another from Ellie Mae O’Hagan pointing out that Wales, where Labour is successfully in government, is not mentioned once!!) My own contribution is to add that together with the attacks on democracy on which I focused earlier these pages of bland spin are consciously designed to scream that Corbynism has been completely expunged and Bliarism resurrected. But that battle is not yet concluded and there are thousands upon thousands of people who have no intention of making it easier by walking away.



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