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Editorial: Can left policy wins at Labour conference be made to stick?

YAWNING contradictions between the radicalism of delegates and trade unionists at Labour conference and careful hedging from the top table tell us a lot about the state of the Labour Party.

In Jeremy Corbyn’s day the shadow cabinet could seem isolated as it perched precariously atop an often mutinous parliamentary party. But not at conference, where Corbyn’s huge popularity with the members created a carnival atmosphere.

This year’s dynamic could hardly be more different. Plain sailing in Parliament — where the fact that Keir Starmer is not Corbyn and that MPs don’t trust the members with another leadership election combine to give the leader an easy ride despite his failure to lay a glove on Boris Johnson — has given way to a fractious conference, where waspish chairs clash with voices from the floor and shadow ministers eye the hall nervously like an unpredictable animal.

As Starmer’s mauling over trying to end one-member, one-vote for leadership elections proved, the leader is not strong enough to force and win showdowns with the party in Brighton this week. 

The approach from frontbenchers is to throw enough red meat to the hall to get them through the week unscathed while doing all they can to avoid endorsing conference decisions that commit them to specific socialist or internationalist policies: energy nationalisation on Sunday, real solidarity with Palestine (including support for sanctions on Israel) and a peaceful foreign policy (conference has voted to condemn the new anti-China military pact with the US and Australia as “a dangerous move that will undermine world peace”) yesterday. 

Shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy’s combination of progressive policy (ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia), judicious silence (not mentioning the question of arms to Israel key to the very resolution about to be debated) and cold war propaganda directed at China was a typical example. 

So too was that of shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, combining furious attacks on the Tory contracts to cronies scandal with promises of big public investment in greening the economy (but no promises on the role of public ownership in delivering it) and a long spiel about sound management of the nation’s finances that allowed her to hint at “difficult choices” (in politician-speak, almost invariably code for attacks on social security) and sketch out the creation of a kind of fiscal supervisory body that would presumably further detach economic policy from democratic decision-making.

For the left the important questions are how significant the policy wins on the floor of conference are and whether the party can be made to campaign for to the genuinely progressive proposals that have been unveiled (like legislating for sectoral collective bargaining.) Key to both is rebuilding a strong, combative and confident left across the whole labour movement.

There is much talk of the rule changes Starmer did succeed in forcing through — such as doubling the proportion of MPs needed to get a candidate onto the ballot for leader and making it harder to deselect MPs — as game changers, but this is misleading. 

The left’s attempts to deselect even the most offensive right-wing MPs were miserable failures even under the previous rules, because of a lack of organisation and strategy, especially a disconnect between left-wing members and trade unions. 

Now the bar is higher but the task of building a coherent political and industrial left remains the same. Ditto with the 20 per cent of MPs requirement: 40 MPs’ nominations are out of the left’s reach now but would not be if the left and the unions were more united around a common programme and deployed their considerable weight to achieving it.

Labour members and affiliates are repeatedly demonstrating their wish for a socialist and truly internationalist programme. Starmer will try to ignore this after conference — he is doing his best to remain oblivious to it during conference — but he should not be allowed to. 

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