The internal rule changes agreed at the Brighton Labour party conference have as their purpose diminishing the influence of the membership and protecting MPs and the full-time bureaucracy from accountability. The disdain of the party leadership for its members was graphically illustrated by the video of Keir Starmer totally ignoring a young activist, Emma De Saram, who tried to engage with him about the climate crisis as he walked to the conference entrance.
The rule changes were forced through after the narrow confirmation of David Evans as general secretary, despite opposition from constituency representatives, and only passed with the support of Unison delegates who voted against their union’s policies. As Diane Abbott put it: “Peter Mandelson has his uses. He made it explicitly clear that the purpose of the rule change for electing the next leader was to prevent another Corbyn becoming leader. And CLPs will also now have much less say in the selection of parliamentary candidates. The aim is that MPs will not be at all accountable to members, and instead are beholden to the party centre, the party apparatus and the leader.”
In contradiction to these changes, delegates passed overwhelmingly a motion for a comprehensive Green New Deal, which called for nationalisation of energy companies, a government programme to create well-paid green jobs, mass investment in green technologies and renewables, and a just transition for workers displaced by the modernization of the economy. In addition it demanded the expansion and electrification of integrated public transport, including public ownership of railways and local bus networks, as well as subsidies for home insulation and zero carbon homes. This was the same resolution the conference arrangements committee had tried to rule out of order in the run-up to the conference, but its decision was overturned after a public backlash.
This did not stop Starmer from referring to shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves’ announcement of £28 billion a year of spending on green investment as a “green new deal,” even though it is a pale reflection of the policy passed by the delegates. Since Reeves’ plans include investment in hydrogen, which currently mostly comes from fossil fuels, and since energy nationalization has already been rejected by the leadership, there is nothing to stop this £28 billion being given to private industry with little public control.
What is striking is how quickly the leadership disavowed other radical decisions, including a historic motion on Palestine that acknowledged Israel is practicing apartheid and called for strong sanctions. A first-time delegate wrote in LabourList that demands for a £15 an hour minimum wage received standing ovations from the floor, and while there were some disagreements, “many questions have been decided by near-consensus, with more than 90% of delegates voting the same way. This was the case with the motion that called for public ownership of energy companies and it was the same for motion in solidarity with Palestine. And yet both of these were directly refuted by shadow cabinet members in the press within less than 24 hours: Lisa Nandy on Palestine and Rachel Reeves on public ownership. It struck me that the biggest divide in the Labour Party is not between left and right or between members and unions. The biggest tension is between the movement that is meant to set our political direction, and the parliamentarians who refuse to follow it.”
The parliamentarians were confident in their ability to dismiss the membership’s opinions because of the left’s defeat in the key votes over the rule changes. The Guardian commented: “In the past, when delegates have threatened to vote for policy the leadership does not support, the leadership has mobilised its supporters to try to get the move defeated. But at this conference the leadership has largely settled for a different view – waving it all through, without even putting up a fight, on the grounds that conference decisions can be ignored come election time.”
Starmer’s long speech told his audience what they wanted to hear: that Labour could win the next election. He ignored the many structural difficulties that would pose, including the loss of Scotland’s many seats and the government’s attacks on the right to vote, instead repudiating the last two manifestos: “We will never under my leadership go into an election with a manifesto that is not a serious plan for government.” But if the party’s strategists were serious about forming a government, they would have paid more attention to why Labour was so relatively successful in 2017 and why Johnson was able to defeat it in 2019. Instead, they spent their time scheming how to isolate and defeat the left.
The policy programme developed under the left leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell had drawn on the work of “some of the best left-wing thinking from across the country and around the world,” writes Joe Guinan in Tribune. “In place of the main planks of the economic programme of the 2017 and 2019 Labour manifestos—public ownership of rail, mail, energy, and water; state-led investment in a green industrial strategy; the greatest expansion of trade union and workers’ rights in living memory; and democratisation of the economy through alternative models of ownership and bottom-up Community Wealth Building strategies—we find a return to the supply side politics and economics of Blairism.”
That was the substance of the ideas proposed by the Labour right. However, a political space for socialist thinking was to be found at the World Transformed festival nearby, where there were many lively debates about today’s urgent issues. A Momentum activist enthused about a community wealth building workshop that suggested the idea of communities “auditing” wealth that is currently flowing through them and finding opportunities to retain it in the community. Participants gave examples of taking over abandoned retail spaces to make them spaces for local businesses or community centers, and building around existing community activities such as bike repair and food hubs.
Momentum members are discussing what approach to take to work in the Labour party. Some call for putting left candidates on the ballots for target seats in the next parliamentary election, while others look towards building extra-parliamentary power through participation in struggles within local communities. But to do both is a challenge, and requires a clear political platform on which to orient and unite members. The organisation also needs to take a hard look at whether it should fight for the more radical conference policy decisions within the party when members can now be so easily auto-excluded, and whether Momentum members still have to be eligible for membership of the Labour party.
The last word must be given by Emma De Saram. Despite her encounter with Starmer, she was able to meet and hear from inspiring Labour MPs such as Zara Sultana and Nadia Whittome, “part of a new generation of politicians who are listening to young people and are prepared to take transformative action. Although most people on Twitter were supportive of me, I had several people telling me to give up hope in Labour and campaign for change through other means. But for me, it has to be both … most of my friends said they have either cancelled their membership or are thinking about it. Some said they’ve become apolitical. But for me, challenging Keir Starmer is one of the most important things I could be doing. The Labour Party could lead a government that delivers the Green New Deal. It’s going to take a government-led effort to transition our economy away from fossil fuels and deliver millions of good green jobs in the process.”