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How Starmer Exposed the Myth of Labour Party Unity

Keir Starmer was elected to the Labour leadership on a pledge of party unity, but his actions since have shown that Labour's right-wing cares more about defeating the Left than winning power.

Credit: Leon Neal / Getty Images

The policy announcements might have been underwhelming and Keir Starmer’s 90-minute leader’s speech a drawn-out non-event, but the Labour leadership did at least come away from this year’s party conference with something to crow about – namely, further marginalising its rank-and-file membership, and resuming the hollowing-out of its internal party democracy after the brief, tentative aberration of the Corbyn years. Needless to say, in doing so, it was enthusiastically applauded by the clapping seals of the Westminster lobby.

In Brighton, battles over policy tended to be overshadowed by those over rule changes, with many wondering what rabbits the party leadership would pull out of its hat. Sure enough, the Labour right went straight for its holy grail – bringing back the electoral college for leadership elections, with a third of the vote for constituency parties, affiliated trade unions and the Parliamentary Labour Party. This would have given the latter an effective veto, thereby blocking left-wing candidates from ever winning the Labour leadership again.

But Starmer and his allies had failed to get all their ducks in a row, with seemingly little effort devoted to consulting trade union leaders in advance. As a result, Starmer was reportedly subjected to a tongue-lashing at the pre-conference TULO meeting, described by observers as a ‘car crash’. However, the right did have a fallback position and eventually succeeded—albeit narrowly—in getting the nominations threshold for leadership candidates raised to 20 percent, a bar almost certainly too high for the Socialist Campaign Group to reach.

A number of other rule changes passed which are primarily designed to further shield Labour’s self-entitled parliamentary elite against any democratic challenge from below. In particular, the threshold for trigger ballots has been increased: triggering a full selection process now requires support from a majority of both branch parties and CLP affiliates—as opposed to one-third, to which the threshold was reduced under Corbyn—in a move that’s been sardonically referred to in some quarters as the ‘Duffield amendment’. 

Also, there’s now a six-month freeze date for voting rights in future leadership elections and the ‘registered supporters’ category has been abolished—the point of both changes being to prevent another Corbyn-style influx into the party—while the number of motions to be debated at conferences has been reduced from 20 to 12. The appointment of David Evans as general secretary—something which ordinarily passes without controversy—was controversially rubber-stamped, after heavy-handed interventions from party bureaucrats.

While, on the one hand, this is an assertion of bureaucratic strength, it also represents a tacit acknowledgement of political weakness. If the party leadership and the right felt confident in their ability to inspire people, they wouldn’t have felt it necessary to roll back the modest democratic gains of the Corbyn years with such haste. But it was clear again at this year’s conference, as it has been since 2015, that the real intellectual energy and the radicalism so badly needed for our current moment is still to be found on the left.

After being subjected to relentless public humiliation over the last 18 months—a spiteful flogging to appease Britain’s ghoulish and sadistic press—few can blame those socialists who’ve walked away from Labour already, angry at their treatment. But fortunately, some fighting spirit does endure among the rank and file. The passage of Labour GND’s Green New Deal motion, after a cack-handed, failed attempt by the Conference Arrangements Committee to strike it out on spurious grounds, was a particularly satisfying moment.

Inevitably, the Labour frontbench made a point of trampling all over it. Both Keir Starmer and shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves insisted they wouldn’t take the energy sector into public hands – despite Starmer calling for the ill-defined ‘common ownership’ of energy in his worthless 10 pledges, and despite it being essential to a just transition programme worthy of the name. The millions of British households facing eye-watering increases in their energy bills this winter will no doubt be surprised to learn, as Reeves appeared to suggest, that the private ownership of utilities doesn’t have ‘day-to-day, bread and butter’ consequences.

Poll after poll shows that public ownership of energy and transport remains hugely popular among voters – a remarkable thing given that, with the exception of the Corbyn era, no mainstream party has argued consistently for it in decades. But the primary objective of the Starmer leadership isn’t so much to do what ordinary people want or what’s actually in the public interest, but to position itself as a reliable second eleven of British capitalism so it’s deemed unthreatening enough to take the reins when the Tories finally discredit themselves.

The problem is that waiting for the Tories to blow themselves up doesn’t seem to be reaping dividends for Labour. The party enjoyed a brief poll boost after Rishi Sunak’s regressive and deeply unfair National Insurance hike — the burden of which falls on the working-age population, which largely doesn’t vote Tory — but this soon petered out when it was unable to offer any alternative of its own. No wonder the Tories feel sufficiently emboldened to snatch back the paltry £20 uplift to Universal Credit and ignore any pleas to the contrary, including from their own backbenchers, because their opposition’s main focus is elsewhere.

All that said, it’s been depressingly easy for the Labour right to reverse the rather meagre democratic reforms of the Corbyn years – and the policies, too, are being denuded of substance if not simply dropped altogether. The right, to give it its due, has shown the kind of ruthlessness that proved to be lacking on the Labour left. It would do us no good to beg Starmer to make good on his earlier promises of unity: it can only ever be a pipe dream in a party split between socialists and those who resist socialism with every fibre of their being.