Labour Conference 2023 – Free market capitalism back in charge

The two following articles are edited version of  brief introductions given by Will McMahon and Janet Sillet at a Talking About Socialism … from a Marxist point of view meeting  “What happened at the 2023 Labour Party conference” on Monday 16 October 2023. They are published in the order of their presentation at the event.

First reaction to the Labour Party Conference – Will McMahon

In a way this is a bit like carrying out an autopsy – looking at what remains of the Corbyn movement. The answer being, not much, even the votes on railway and energy nationalisation were trod under foot by party spokespeople as soon as they were taken – a clear message to capital that Labour is safe to govern.

Being safe for capital is what Starmer represents, and there is no way of polishing this political turd, although, as we know, someone did try to throw some glitter on it.

It is years since I listened to the News Quiz on radio 4 but one of the comedians on the show last week suggested that rather than Labour pursuing the audacity of hope they represent the audacity of beige.

“What do we want?  Slow but steady improvement of public services. When do we want it?  In the fullness of time. How do we want it? Subject to terms and conditions.”

Now I wish that were the case – but I fear what we will witness will be far worse.

Labour’s election slogan in 2005 was “Forward not Back”. What I expect from Labour if it were to win power is not forward but back – back to the structure of a society that is pre-welfare state.

Housing policy as a case study

Housing policy reflects this. The house builders and those who invest in the housing market have overseen Government housing policy since 1992, have won the day. Council Housing is, more or less, a dead letter as Starmer’s housing plan is a combination of a re-assertion of the home-owner strategy combined with a push for further deregulation to meet notional housing targets.

Two key phrases were used. The first was ‘Affordable Housing ‘.  What we know about the term ‘Affordable Housing’ is that at 80 per cent of the market rate it is, for most of the working class and even the lower middle class, completely ‘unaffordable’.

The second key phrase was “YIMBY” – “Yes in my back yard” used by Starmer in his speech as a positive statement.  As Glyn Robbins explains in a recent article in the Morning Star

“The Yimby v Nimby conflict has been festering on social media for some time. It isn’t new either, but assumes more significance when it’s taken up by, potentially, the next prime minister…

For decades, libertarian Tories have argued that the best way to meet housing needs is to allow new homes to be built with the minimum of interference.  Yimbyism has been actively promoted by the property development industry and its lobbyists. Their argument is that only by dramatically accelerating new development, can we hope to provide the ‘affordable’ homes that are so desperately needed.

We now have decades of evidence that shows allowing private developers, including corporate housing associations, to lead housing delivery doesn’t work. But as homelessness has soared, so have the profits of the big house builders — reaching £7 billion in the last two years.”

My assumption is that there will be not much difference between a Tory and Labour Government housing policy after 2024. Rather than back to the future as Labour’s spin doctors want us to think, instead we will go forward to the past – a housing market that looks like it did in the first part of the 20 century.

An infinitesimally small amount of Council Housing, an ever-growing private rental sector, I include the social housing in this, that sector being fully commercialised in all but name, with ever growing rental prices that squeeze and subdue the working class, and a home-owning sector that the middle class occupy via inherited wealth. In other words, our housing will have a shape that was bequeathed to the 20th century by the Victorian period.

A century of politics erased?

If we look at the progress of politics in British History since the rise of the type of labour movement that produce the Labour Party, this conference does represent a moment of transition back to the pre-WW1 liberal-labour alliance that Blairism desired.

The response of the left at the Party conference was feeble. Stage management muted most criticism and the orchestrated standing ovation for Starmer a reminder of the Stalinism – the front bench clapping in a game of who was chicken enough to stop clapping first.

The fringes do not seem to have been much better from reports I have read. 

A main fringe of The World Transformed focused on a strategy to respond to Starmer was led by Neil Lawson of Compass, Jeremy Gilbert, who writes for Compass, The Guardian and The New Statesman, Shami Chakrabarti a left liberal, and John McDonnell, a social democrat. 

The main aim seems to be to stitch together a permanent alliance between the soft and hard left.  It is hard to see how any of these points of view can offer a socialist strategy to resist Starmer – McDonnell’s main advice being “now is the time to bite your tongue” and encouraged people to read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

According to a report from Kayden Jones in the Alliance for Workers Liberty newspaper “Most of the left at TWT seemed utterly disillusioned and disorganised.”

This is unsurprising is it not? A huge blow has been delivered to the Labour left and socialism in the Labour Party. The defeat of Bennism in the early 1980s was followed by the defeat of Kinnockism and the political dominance of Thatcherism.  Blair’s defeat of the post-Bennite left was delivered in Government through a social and economic policies framed by a growing economy and bolstered the private sector through new public management.

With Starmer we are heading for the privatisation of health and housing – the two bedrocks of the 1945 settlement – with only a promise of spending should growth permit it. Given the neo-liberal focus on the national debt this is unlikely to be soon – if at all.

Given all this, following the Labour conference – the question is, is it as bad as it looks? My answer to this is yes, and probably worse … I am still not even sure that Labour will win.

No surprises at Labour Conference 2023 – Janet Sillett

There were, unsurprisingly, no surprises at Labour Conference 2023. Not even a reveal of some new ‘mission’ and definitely no change of direction, no new ideas, and no learning from Labour’s past mistakes. But it is still instructive to consider the current nature of the Labour Party through the lens of the conference.

And one glaring indication of the state of Starmer’s Labour is its complete corporate capture. Of its visitors and delegates 28 per cent came from business, 22% from party members and 3% trade unions. Corporate organisations sponsored many events and businesses paid to be invited to speak at fringes (such as Boeing and Air Bus). There were lobbyists everywhere. What is perhaps even more of note is the presence of right wing thinktanks like the Adam Smith Institute who praised Starmer’s speech and spoke at a fringe meeting.

What about the Labour left?

The left didn’t have a good conference – how could they have done? Luke Akehurst’s Labour First managed to get all its motions through to be debated in the priority ballot – a bigger success than last year. It clearly reflects that many on the left have been expelled or left voluntarily but it also indicates who CLPs are sending as delegates. And also, how the Labour machine prevents some obviously left delegates from attending. There were some ‘wins’ on the conference floor – such as the vote on public ownership of railways and the energy industry. However, even though it was proposed by Unite, it was immediately shrugged off by the shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds who told the BBC: “We’re not going to nationalise the energy system.” Asked if they would honour the vote, he said: “No.”

There were also fewer left rallies – at least I couldn’t see them advertised or reported anywhere. It looks like the LRC (Labour Representation Committee) didn’t have a rally – not unexpected as it seems to have lost members and its Zoom 2023 AGM was attended by very few members. The LRC rally used to be a highlight of conference. If Tribune had a rally, it was not in evidence. The Campaign Group did have one ‘Socialist solutions to the Tory crisis’ where the title seems to reflect their current strategy (if strategy is the right word for what looks like mostly silence) – a focus on the left developing solutions to the huge challenges a new Labour government would face post the next general election. It isn’t clear why they think they will have any influence on a Starmer government.

There was a launch meeting for a new left group, independent of Labour, the For the Many Network with prominent founders such as Ian Hodson and Andrew Feinstein. It feels similar to Enough is Enough but not led by trade union leaders. Whether it can have any impact on Labour, or the trade unions, is open to question.

What is clear is that the Labour left has not developed new ideas post the 2017 and 2019 Labour manifestos; that there are no new leaders emerging and that the trade unions within the party are marginalised.

Is Labour back to ‘business as usual’ i.e., to Labour before Corbyn?

The answer – ‘it’s complicated’. The context is very different to Labour under Blair, the economy is in a worse state and the left and trade unions weaker. Looking at economic policy it looks very much like Blair’s – PFI to return with a vengeance, though under a new name, but it’s the same public private partnerships lauded by Brown and Prescott. With Reeves’ fraudulent ‘fiscal rules’ the only way to invest in infrastructure will be to do so through Public-Private Partnerships. Reeves – and particularly Streeting, are even more enthusiastic than Blair about the role of the private sector, especially in the NHS (though Blair ensured the framework for the private sector’s involvement was firmly in place). The rhetoric of Starmer’s front bench is a further retreat from Keynesian. The front bench stressed public service reform but not how this will happen without additional investment – echoing Blair again. The optics were clear though – especially to the intended audience of private sector organisations and corporate giants in the conference hall and at the official fringe meetings.

Foreign policy is less prominent than domestic at Labour conferences but again Starmer was clear what the messaging takeaways should be. Starmer and Lammy were keen to distance ‘their’ Labour from Labour under Corbyn – they stressed the historic role of NATO in Labour’s foreign policy and the centrality of the transatlantic alliance. The Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October overshadowed the end of the conference. Labour’s response since is totally in keeping with the importance given to that alliance. On other areas of foreign and defence policy there was very little difference between Labour and the Tories. It is sadly very easy to imagine a Starmer government following a US president into a disastrous war. The one area of spending that seems not to be affected by fiscal prudence is defence spending.

But it isn’t all business as usual. Starmer is far more authoritarian than Blair. Blair stage-managed conference, but Starmer has made it into a fine art. Any debate about Brexit, for example, was squashed by the loyal right, even though it was being championed by Alistair Campbell and Neil Kinnock and isn’t a left-wing priority. Starmer is more determined than Kinnock or Blair to entirely purge the left – the scale and depth of the purge is far deeper. It isn’t that he is directly afraid of the left – rather that he is afraid of the left distorting his key messages to the media and business and that he sees it as imperative to distance Labour from Corbyn’s leadership.

What words sum up Labour Conference 2023 – aspiration, enterprise, country before party (a sham of course), working families, growth. And what words were not heard from the platform – equality, redistribution, class. Labour in October 2023 seems a strange mash up of Blair and Blue Labour – reflected in its messages around the economy, immigration, and social policy. And on top of that an unprecedented layer of authoritarianism.

What is ‘business as usual’ though – except for the brief Corbyn interlude – is Labour’s leadership’s determination to suppress any whiff of socialism. We can’t expect anything any different if Starmer’s Labour Party (as he always refers to it) becomes the next UK government.

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