What Keir Starmer’s Labour conference speech means for the party’s left

The leader promised the sound of the future – but he is still at war with the past.

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Is this the sound of the future arriving? That’s what Labour leader Keir Starmer promised party members in his conference speech on 22 September – conducted, as almost everything in politics is these days, in a diminished fashion via Zoom.

The fear on Labour’s left flank is that the future sounds awfully right wing: cautious and hesitant on economic policy, authoritarian on immigration, and timid on cultural issues. Their worries stem not only from Starmer – who pledged that the party would “never again” go into an election with voters feeling it couldn’t be trusted on national security (a not particularly coded attack on Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy positions) – but also the speeches and interventions of the shadow cabinet.

Anneliese Dodds, the shadow chancellor, opted to focus on the Conservative government’s “cavalier” use of public funds, and to promise that under her, the UK’s spending would be more cautious and sensible than under the Tories. Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, told the BBC that with Starmer as leader, Labour would always put Britain first, and indicated that the leader’s vow to maintain Corbyn-era tax-rising commitments had been rendered moot by the coronavirus recession. 

The reality is that Starmer’s biggest shifts so far remain changes of tone rather than policy. He is attracting rave reviews from the commentariat and criticism from his left by defining himself against a version of the Corbyn era that didn’t really exist – one far more vocal on cultural issues and braver on immigration than Corbyn was in practice. The most significant bits of Corbynite radicalism – a more humane policy on family reunion and the closure of the Yarl’s Wood detention centre – remain party policy, at least for now. Some MPs on Labour’s left hope Starmer’s departure from Corbynism won’t be as radical as he suggests. But the fear among other Corbynite MPs is that the changes in tone are the prelude to a significant shift rightwards in policy. 

What can they do about it? The Labour left has its biggest parliamentary cohort for decades. But it controls none of the levers of party power. Starmer has his preferred general secretary, David Evans, in office and a majority on the ruling National Executive Committee. And recent changes to how the membership elects its nine representatives to the committee are guaranteed to further weaken the Labour left’s hold. 

Labour’s Corbynite MPs now have the same problem that Corbynsceptic MPs previously faced: the membership of political parties tends to shift with its leader. Their task is made more difficult because Labour’s most committed Corbynites favour direct and immediate confrontation – as the Corbynsceptics did in the past. Hostile action is a self-defeating strategy that alienates members in the middle of the party. 

Avoiding confrontation, however, means quietly acquiescing to the exodus of Corbynite members and their gradual replacement by pro-Starmer activists. To make matters worse, while Corbyn included prominent and talented Corbynsceptics in the shadow cabinet, Starmer has relegated the most talented Corbynites to the back benches or junior roles. 

In addition, Labour’s left is divided not only on strategy but over methodology too, disagreeing on whether the Socialist Campaign Group should be a talking shop and support structure for left-wing MPs, or a more organised grouping with fixed positions.

All of this puts the Labour left in a seemingly fatal position: too weak to win direct confrontations, it is further enfeebled by silence. But the nature of Labour politics is that no faction is ever completely extinguished – as long as it retains a share of support within the trade union movement, and it is possible, perhaps even likely, that the Labour left will be strengthened by upcoming changes in the unions. 

In recent years, three of the four biggest trade unions were, openly or covertly, warm homes for Corbynscepticism. The GMB, Unison and Usdaw were all willing to support Corbynsceptic candidates and employ former Labour staffers who had fallen out with the leadership. Only Unite’s Len McCluskey was a reliable ally, and even he had his own agenda – particularly on the industries represented by his union, such as aviation and defence – and was not an uncritical or unconditional friend to Corbyn.

Now McCluskey is retiring, along with Dave Prentis, his opposite number at Unison – the UK’s largest public sector union, which is Starmer’s biggest and most important supporter in the labour movement. Christina McAnea is the favourite to replace Prentis, but the Corbyn-endorsed Roger McKenzie could yet win – and turn the politics of Unison on their head. The low turnout in these contests makes them unpredictable. As Unite has a first past-the-post system, any of the candidates could win: Steve Turner (on the left but a “deal maker” in the words of one Starmer ally), Howard Beckett (unlikely to do business with Starmer), or Gerard Coyne (a figure to McCluskey’s right who would hand Starmer considerable internal power).

Meanwhile, Tim Roache’s leadership of the GMB has been cut short by accusations of sexual harassment and impropriety, which he denies. While the politics of the GMB are unlikely to shift, the aftermath of Roache’s exit means that the new general secretary will be more inward-looking, potentially weakening Starmer.

The Labour leader does not, by long tradition, get involved in internal trade union politics. But Starmer’s inner circle knows full well that these elections will either free Starmer to continue his revolution or sharply curtail it – and hand the Labour left the power to do more than just grumble about the Labour leader’s speeches. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 25 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The autumn of discontent

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