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Editorial: Labour's stormy start shows the right are not as powerful as they thought

A STORMY start to Labour Party conference shows that the right’s control of the machine is not translating to unchallengeable authority in the wider party.

A combative left is making its voice heard and delegates are scoring policy wins embarrassing for the leadership.

Keir Starmer has had a bad start to the week. 

If springing proposals to return to an electoral college for picking the party leader onto the agenda at the last minute was designed to stop the left organising against them, it backfired badly with unions unwilling to be bounced into such a move. He was forced to back down.

Those who argue that the watered-down rule changes presented today were his real plan all along, that abolishing one-member one-vote was a gambit to clear the path for less extreme anti-democratic moves, could be right. 

But if so it does not absolve Starmer of ineptitude or reduce the blow to his diminishing authority. 

The opening story of conference was that the leader tried to force a change to internal rules at a time when millions face falling incomes and rising prices. And that he failed.

A similar incompetence surrounds his misjudged attempt to row back on his own leadership pledges on the Andrew Marr show. Starmer’s team tried and failed to stop the Green New Deal motion getting to the conference floor.

On the day the motion — containing an explicit call for public ownership of energy — was due to be debated he tried to torpedo it by saying “no” live on TV when asked if he would nationalise the energy companies, before giving a mealy-mouthed cop-out when Marr presented him with his own promise to “support common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water.”

The motion passed anyway, putting Labour Party policy directly at odds with its leader’s public remarks the same morning and showing how little weight his voice carries with members and affiliated unions. A polished media operation this is not. 

Starmer has spent 18 months seeking to impose his will on the Labour Party by decree. He has hounded out thousands of members and provoked over 120,000 to quit in disgust.

He has made a mockery of due process by withholding the whip from his predecessor in defiance of a ruling by a panel of his own national executive.

He has placed stifling restrictions on what local branches of the party are even allowed to talk about and the repeated Covid lockdowns have given his machine 18 months to prepare a party conference to affirm and secure his “new management.”

The result is farcical. For all his fixes and auto-exclusions, 48 per cent of constituency party delegates voted against endorsing David Evans as general secretary — ordinarily a procedural matter that would pass without a murmur. Evans’s own speech was interrupted by chants of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” and the best attended events at conference have been those of the left.

This is not a time to celebrate. Starmer’s machine is as vicious in its determination to suppress the legacy of Corbyn as ever. Most Labour MPs are happy to ignore official policy as passed at conference and so the Tories will not have to worry about being seen to block an overwhelmingly popular renationalisation of energy demanded by the opposition.

But nor is it a time for the left to despair. It remains numerically strong. Debates have shown that it is strong among the affiliated unions too and that it can win positions bitterly opposed by the leader’s office. 

It is clear that rumours of the death of the Labour left have been greatly exaggerated. 

The task facing socialists is how to organise to use such strength as exists, within and beyond Labour, in defence of communities facing a looming assault on their living standards.

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