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Labour’s Late Start

This year's conference has shown Labour at last willing to intervene in a failing private energy system, but still not ready to do what the scale of this crisis really demands: getting rid of that system altogether.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer holds his key note speech on the third day of the annual Labour Party conference on 27 September 2022 in Liverpool, England. (Ian Forsyth / Getty Images)

Labour Conference 2022 has taken place in the context of national crisis and political change. The cost of living crisis worsens as energy prices rise and the pound falls. Kwasi Kwarteng has just announced a new class war budget. The Queen is dead, and Charles has ascended to the throne. As ever, the climate crisis continues to loom, with extreme weather wreaking devastation the world over.

Out of this cocktail of shifting conditions, the Labour Party’s approach to Opposition also appears to be changing. Having spent the Covid-19 pandemic barely challenging Boris Johnson’s government, Labour has now drawn some dividing lines with Truss’ Tories.

As Kwarteng cut the top rate of tax, a theme of Shadow Cabinet speeches was a mocking derision of the Tory trickle-down economics. The slogan of ‘a fairer, greener future’ has come with a series of announcements detailing a plan for green growth: as Truss seeks to revive a dangerous and unpopular fracking industry, Miliband is promising to get the country off fossil fuels entirely. Conference began with the headline pledge to entirely decarbonise the energy sector by 2030, which signals a growing confidence and ambition on climate, although energy only accounts for around a quarter of total emissions.

Louise Haigh made clear the party’s commitment to renationalising rail and giving local authorities powers to create their own municipal bus companies. Angela Rayner pledged ‘the biggest wave of insourcing for a generation’ and a new Fair Work Code to guarantee conditions, rights, and union access in the public sector, and almost a decade after promising to be tougher than the Tories on benefits, Reeves declared ‘there can be no return to austerity’.

Keir Starmer’s speech rounded off the announcements, including the creation of a new publicly owned energy company to generate renewables. This is a good start, and an important recognition of the need for public ownership in energy. But it will invest in the private sector as well as build clean energy itself, and it will start off small before competing in the market. To address the scale of the climate and energy crises, Great British Energy must be larger and integrated throughout the system to include transmission and supply.

The announcement of a new National Wealth Fund, too, is a correction to the decades-long siphoning-off of public wealth to private profiteers. Labour has pledged to take a stake in renewables companies created through public investment, but whether these will be minority or majority stakes depends on negotiation. It’s a crucial distinction between whether firms are left to the chaos of the market or subject to democratic planning. Labour is ultimately prepared to use the state to intervene in the failing energy market, but unprepared to get rid of it all together.

It is no surprise, then, that conference delegates were denied the opportunity to debate a socialist Green New Deal and energy ownership. Conference supporting such a transformative agenda would have shone a light on how Labour is still falling short. The party’s Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC) ruled out Labour for a Green New Deal’s motion, right-wing delegates voted to deprioritise the energy and the cost of living category, and delegates were denied access to a compositing meeting they were entitled to attend, meaning their public ownership motion was excluded. These motions would have made clear that there can be no place for profit-seeking or the market in an energy system aiming to rapidly decarbonise while levelling up workers’ pay and conditions.

Jim McMahon’s speech, which followed that of guest speaker Feargal Sharkey (of The Undertones), who passionately condemned water privatisation, was another example of recognising the failures of privatisation but responding only with state intervention in the market. McMahon did not announce the nationalisation of water, promising stronger regulation instead.

There are competing views within Starmer’s Shadow Cabinet. This conference had indicated the relative strength of those on the soft-left, at least in terms of economic policy. Labour’s platform is far from the democratic socialism of Jeremy Corbyn, but nor is it a return to Blairite neoliberalism—and given Keir Starmer’s lack of obvious political conviction and Rachel Reeves’ history, it could have gone either way. With Labour far ahead in the polls, facing the prospect of having to actually address capitalism’s structural crises, the party’s offer is distinctly Fabian.

Labour’s pitch is that it can competently manage capitalism in a way that the reckless and ideologically motivated Tories cannot, bringing in public ownership and state intervention where necessary, but rarely supplanting the market entirely. The Left should take some credit for the inclusion of some key measures, but fiscal discipline rules are still used to eschew full public ownership and Labour’s commitment to collaboration with business neglects the malign role of profit-seeking in driving emissions, inequality, and the exploitation of workers. Labour’s green growth plan is self-evidently not the socialism we need to tackle the climate crisis. There was, importantly, nothing said by shadow ministers on the minimum wage or taxing the rich.

This conference has also solidified Starmer’s Labour’s status as anti-democratic party internally. The unprecedented singing of the national anthem reflected the return to the stage-managed pageantry of the New Labour era while moving away from the dynamic internal democracy that animated Corbyn’s Labour. Party bureaucracy was deployed to marginalise the Left and trample democratic norms. If those in charge of Labour are to adopt progressive policy, it can only be on their terms.

But despite the anti-democratic crackdown, the Left has undoubtedly played a role in shifting the political centre of gravity within Labour. Some of the week’s announcements are a strong start but there is much further to go to match the scale of capitalist crisis. Although socialists do not control the party, the possibility of a Labour government within the next two years is a historic opportunity. We should not waste our chance to leverage it.