By Michael Calderbank
Party Conference should be a platform to expose the incompetence of the Tory government, showcase Labour as an alternative government-in-waiting, and an opportunity for democratic debate and deliberation over the outlines of key policy areas and the party’s internal structures. Frankly, the wider voting public has little interest in the constitutional detail of party procedures, and there is little appetite from the membership for wide-reaching reforms.
In many ways, the only “winners” of Keir Starmer’s decision to pursue reforms to strengthen the privilege of MPs in relation to the trade unions and wider membership are the Tories – because the inevitable row has obviously constituted a massive distraction. The many worthwhile ideas set out in the new “”Green Paper” on workplace rights announced by Angela Rayner – building on work by Andy McDonald and Lord Hendy, and Laura Pidcock prior to the 2019 defeat – haven’t really had the cut-through they deserved.
Far from demonstrating the “strength” of his leadership, Starmer was forced to abandon his intention to hand MPs a third of all votes in the election of a new Leader, in favour of increasing the nominations threshold for getting on the ballot paper. At the same time, with the proposals agreed by the NEC voted through in a card vote, thanks to Unison delegates, the rest of the party has suffered a setback. Now affiliated unions and members will have less choice in future contests – and with fewer candidates likely to be on the ballot paper, there will be a reduction in the diversity of candidates too. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Finance Report revealed a sizeable drop in the party membership since 2020.
If General Secretary David Evans can breathe a little more easily after surviving a vote on his appointment – by 57% to 43% – the very fact that some of the major affiliated unions chose to object so publicly was itself an indication of his divisive leadership. His “motherhood and apple pie” speech emphasising the need to win elections and get organised nearly came unstuck when he urged delegates to remember why they joined the Party – cue shouts of “Jeremy Corbyn”!
The leadership hasn’t had things entirely their own way. A rule change moved by City of Durham CLP, and backed by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, ensures that the elected officers of CLPs will have the majority on any selection panels convened at short notice in the event of snap by-elections – ensuring that it is much harder for unsuitable candidates to be parachuted in.
On a policy level there has been a large measure of agreement, with the major division occurring over the Green New Deal – with the FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack making a passionate speech in defence of a composite calling for a “Socialist Green New Deal” and in opposition to an alternative composite supported by the GMB and Community, which would allow for continued support for jobs in fossil fuels and new nuclear. Confusingly, the rival motions were put to Conference because the movers in the compositing meeting thought that the two positions were incompatible. Therefore logically, when the FBU one passed the GMB’s should have fallen as a consequence. However, votes were taken on both motions, with both duly being carried – resulting in a fudged position. .
There is likely to be a big majority in favour of a motion supported by CWU on public ownership, which might come as an embarrassment to the leadership given Starmer’s apparent decision to trash the Party’s existing commitment to nationalise the big six energy companies. It is unclear whether Starmer’s view is supported his own Shadow frontbench colleagues, but it certainly goes against the mood of Conference. Indeed, Carl Shoben of Survation told a fringe meeting that fully 75% of those polled wanted Labour to be more supportive of public ownership, including Tory voters.
Further controversies lie ahead – with debates on changes to the internal disciplinary process to be voted upon, and a debate on electoral reform likely to provoke strong opinions. Quite how Starmer’s leadership speech on Wednesday will go down remains to be seen – but he has serious work to do in if he is to create enthusiasm either inside or outside of the conference hall.
Michael Calderbank is a member of Tottenham CLP and a contributing editor on Socialist Register.