Labour Party leader Keir Starmer’s speech, supposedly setting out his vision for Britain, did nothing to counter the criticism that he is dull. It contained virtually no policy proposals. Nonetheless, it played another role, more important from Starmer’s point of view, hammering home what he considers his most important message: that the Corbyn era is over.
Many of those who voted for Starmer to become Labour leader did so in the hope that he would not abandon the main policies from Labour’s 2019 election manifesto. From day one of his leadership, however, it has been clear that he has no intention of standing by any policy which runs counter to the interests of the capitalist class.
Starmer’s mantra was summed up in his speech when, against the backdrop of a union jack, he said: “For too long Labour has failed to realise that the only way to deliver social justice and equality is through a strong partnership with business.”
Who did he mean when he said that? Not Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband. Starmer was trying to trash Corbynism: five brief years when Labour had a leadership that was at least prepared to put forward a programme in the interests of the working and middle classes, instead of the pro-big business mantras of the New Labour era.
The capitalist elite fought tooth and nail to defeat Corbyn and, unfortunately, the hesitancy and willingness to compromise by Corbyn and those around him handed them victory. The result is Starmer, now with Peter Mandelson at his elbow. Mandelson, Tony Blair’s “prince of darkness”, who once declared that New Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”, is back in Labour’s inner circle, and Starmer’s speech was no more than a New Labour re-tread.
No mention was made of nationalisation of privatised public services, or of kicking the profiteers out of the NHS. Corbyn’s pledge of a programme of mass council housebuilding has disappeared, to be replaced with a meaningless aspiration of “affordable” housing. For decades now, Tory and New Labour governments have promised affordable housing, but by relying on the private sector to deliver, have created nothing but insecure, expensive homes.
Starmer promised a new “partnership with business” again and again. In the course of the pandemic, the gulf between big business and the working class in Britain has been laid bare. A few at the top have done very well. Over the last year, the chief executives of Britain’s 100 biggest stock market-listed companies have collected an obscene 73 times the average wage of their workers.
Meanwhile, workers are facing the dole queue or fire and rehire on worse terms and conditions, as employers fight to ensure that their profits are protected, and make their workforce carry the can for the crisis.
Unsurprisingly, given Starmer’s policies, the president of the Bakers’ Union has reported that consultation of his unions’ members on disaffiliation from Labour has found only 9% think that Labour is serving their interests. Faced with desperate battles to defend their jobs, wages and living conditions, the working class doesn’t need a ‘partnership with business’, it needs its own independent political voice, to stand up against the attacks of the bosses in the political arena.
At this stage, the leaders of the Labour-affiliated left-led trade unions are focused on fighting a rearguard action within Labour, demanding that Corbyn is reinstated as a Labour MP, and that party democracy is restored.
Unfortunately, the destruction of Labour’s democratic structures in the Blair era was not reversed under Corbyn, nor were the pro-capitalist MPs and councillors deselected. That leaves Starmer at the head of a party machine in his own pro-capitalist image, with no intention of allowing it to be shifted left by the affiliated trade unions. Nor do the unions have a large financial influence – just 11% of Labour funds came from trade union affiliation fees in 2019.
The left union leaders are demanding that Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) calls an emergency conference. But they need to go further. If, as is very likely, the NEC refuses, the union leaders should call a conference themselves, involving all those – inside and outside the Labour Party – who oppose Starmer’s move to the right and want to fight for a vehicle for working-class political representation.
If a conference agreed even limited steps, such as freeing trade union branches to stand or back anti-cuts candidates in May’s elections and setting up a trade union group in parliament (perhaps proposing Corbyn as its chair), it would do more to fight back against Starmer’s New Labour than any amount of pleading behind closed doors.
It would also prepare the ground for a widespread anti-cuts challenge in May’s elections. This is more important now than at any time in the last ten years, with eight out of ten councils with responsibility for social care facing technical insolvency, and Labour councils preparing to implement the resulting devastating cuts to their services and employees terms and conditions.
However, if the left trade union leaders do not act, the Socialist Party will be fighting to ensure there is a working-class anti-austerity challenge in May’s elections. Socialist Party members will be standing as part of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) alongside other trade unionists, community campaigners and young people to fight back against the Tories and Starmer’s New Labour at the ballot box.