The Labour Conference and the Party under Blair and Starmer
By Eamon Dyas
What can we take from the Labour Party Conference at Liverpool? Keir Starmer acknowledged the importance of trade unions several times in the course of his speech and he indicated that he understood the relevance of proper training schemes and apprenticeships for any future economic prosperity; he also raised the prospect of the formation of a publicly-owned British Energy Company at some point in the future. Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chancellor, committed the Party to funding the training of enough district nurses to double the number of those qualifying every year. On top of that there was to be training for an additional 5,000 health visitors and 10,000 more nurses and midwives each year. Then there was Louise Haigh, the Shadow Transport Secretary, committing the Party to taking the railways back into public ownership.
There is nothing among those commitments that we can argue with. But if we look deeper into these commitments there is just too much woolliness about them to insulate them from the suspicion of insincerity. Starmer may have acknowledged the importance of trade unions but this sits uneasily with his attitude to the transport workers’ picket lines just a few weeks ago – a specific example of the importance of trade unions that he failed to mention in his speech. Likewise, his acknowledgement of the importance of training and apprenticeships did not lead to any specific proposals by which such training and apprenticeships could be made a reality. The closest he came was through his idea for a publicly-owned British Energy Company which would become the motor force that would propel British manufacturing companies in directions where such things would somehow be generated. But then again, his commitment to a publicly-owned British Energy Company – something that will only see the light of day several years into the future – sits uneasily with his apparent reluctance to take the energy-provision companies back into public ownership in the here and now.
Then there was Rachel Reeves’ commitment to the training of double the number of district nurses, 5,000 additional health visitors and 10,000 more nurses and midwives each year. The funding for this, she announced, would come from the re-imposition of the top rate of income tax that had been removed by the current Tory leadership. I’m not sure if the revenue thus saved would be enough to pay for such things as presumably, prior to its abolition it was used to fund other State responsibilities which would suffer as a result of it no longer being used for such purposes. But whatever, let’s agree that it could provide sufficient funds for this level of health service training. But training, unless it equates with those trained subsequently being employed by the NHS, will be of no advantage to those who rely on the NHS. One would have expected that this aspect of the equation would then have been explained by the Shadow Chancellor as well as some account of how such additional NHS employment would be funded. Yet this was not explained, and to be fair she didn’t actually commit to any policy that saw these additional trained health service staff automatically being employed by the NHS. Presumably many, if not most, of them would find their way into the private health services and health employment agencies that currently cost the NHS an arm and a leg to pay for in order to fill the gaps in NHS services!
Still on the question of the NHS we looked in vain for Starmer to offer a solution to the NHS provision crisis – and one that is bound to get worse during the winter. When he did mention it, it was to emphasise that he didn’t believe its problems could be overcome by throwing money at it or by subjecting the organisation to another overhaul. Starmer set the section of his speech dealing with the NHS in the context that “Prevention is better than Cure”. He went on to imply that many of the problems experienced by the NHS could be solved by the use of technology and recounted a story of having seen how robots can be used to assist in improving the efficiency of surgical practices thereby avoiding the ongoing complications that currently mean that many surgical patients spend longer occupying hospital beds than would otherwise be the case. His reasoning was that the more extensive use of technology could free up thousands of NHS beds each year. There’s nothing wrong with seeking an alleviation of the NHS crisis by investigating the prospects offered by the increased use of technology. But we don’t have to look to new technologies to find solutions. There is another more established technological option closer to home – and one I have personal experience of – which would ensure a more timely medical intervention in ways that avoid unnecessarily long stays in hospital. That option is to invest in sufficient numbers of CT and MRI scanners for the NHS to ensure that patients are either not compelled to wait months for screening or the NHS is compelled to fork out the costs of paying private hospitals for their use. However, an immediate technical option of this sort would involve an initial monetary investment in both machines and the specialist personnel who operate them – something that Starmer seems reluctant to commit to. Just an addendum before I leave this subject. There is the challenge of formulating a policy on how, in government, it would pay for a proper social care system. Unless I missed it, this was another issue that was not properly addressed, despite the problems of an aging population being acknowledged.
Regarding another announcement at Conference which raised extensive applause: the commitment from Louise Haigh that a future Labour Government would take back the railways into public control. Again, this is something that we can all agree on. However – and unfortunately a lot of “howevers” and “buts” arise from the front bench speeches to Conference – this commitment was low on specifics. For instance, significant parts of the rail network are already in public hands. The stations and the track remain under public control. It is the rolling stock consisting of the passenger carriages and locomotives that constitute the most important part of the rail system which remains under private control. But even the publicly owned track system and the rail stations are compromised by private involvement. The arches upon which the tracks are laid are owned by private companies who rent them out to small businesses and some of the main railway stations in London and other major cities were redeveloped with private capital in ways which ensured that the areas of these stations could be used as shopping malls for which rent could be extracted from retailers – in much the same way that the areas of airports are used. So, when Louise Haigh says that Labour is committed to taking the railways back into public ownership what is it that she intends to take back?
The role of the State – a core consideration in the construction of policy
The reason why there is so much confusion and uncertainty with regards to what Labour currently stands for is the question on how it would use State power while in government.
Commenting on the start of the Labour Party Conference, the Daily Telegraph, ran an article in its issue of 26 September which carried the headline:
“Blair won a landslide because he offered an alternative and engaging vision. Keir Starmer does not: Just not being the other lot may be enough to win an election after fourteen years. But it’s not enough to shift the weather.”
Of course, the Daily Telegraph comes at this issue from a completely different perspective but it does highlight the importance of a sense of vision for any political party seeking to take up the reins of government. It is this question of vision that remains the outstanding absence from what Starmer has brought to his leadership. It appears, from what has happened up to now, that his election strategy has been based around a minimalist approach to policy which makes it difficult to identify the existence of any particular vision that he might hope to present to the electorate. Given the chaos in the Tory Party it may be that this will prove enough to get him into Number 10 but the manner in which he is being handed the keys to Number 10 by the Tories has also tended to obviate the responsibility of the Labour membership to ensure that he goes into the next election with policies that can alter the economic basis from which so much of our social ills emanate. In that sense he is being given a clear run by both the government and his own membership. But there are many within the Party that would prefer to see Starmer going into that election held to policies that are both radical and in harmony with both its traditional vision and, as has been said earlier, with the prevailing political zeitgeist. However, the manner in which this component in the party has been treated does not bode well for the prospect of any Labour Government under his leadership raising above the role of just being a less awful alternative to the Tories.
The “do nothing, be nothing, say nothing” performance of the party leadership over the past year has not only depended on keeping the electorate in the dark regarding a future Labour Government’s approach to society’s growing problems but also to impose a blanket of strict silence on the party’s own membership lest that membership generates a momentum that compels the leadership to commit the party in government to something of real significance. This has resulted in a party where it has become necessary to impose unprecedented levels of censorship and exclusion in order that it comply with the “no policy, no controversy” formula for the hoped-for success bequeathed by the turmoil in the Tory Party.
It was widely reported that Starmer was to quote Blair in his speech to Conference. If so – though I didn’t notice it myself – it would have served to reinforce the view on much of the Left that he is simply a Blair Mark 2. But this is to completely misread the significance of Starmer. Blair was of a different time and the party in a different place for any comparison between him and Starmer to have any actual meaning. Nor does such an equation provide any real insights into what the party has become under its current leader.
It can justifiably be claimed that Blair’s influence on the party has proven toxic to its core sense of purpose. However, that toxicity wasn’t something that was intrinsic to Blair’s desire to adapt the party to the realities of post-Thatcher Britain and nor did it impose an inevitability on what came after. The eighteen years of Thatcher government from 1979 to 1997 represented a transition from a Britain which at the outset still retained a strong industrial base (albeit one that had already been experiencing steady decline due to failures of investment) and a strong and influential trade union movement.
The very real changes brought about by Thatcher’s policies stripped the State of most of its previous roles in the economy and made British society and its well-being more reliant on the market. Those changes also succeeded in removing a meaningful and influential trade union movement from its previous position in society. These were no mean achievements and they made it incumbent on the Labour Party to adapt to the society that these changes had brought about. It was Tony Blair that gave expression to the tendency in the Labour Party which recognised the need for change and the Left, unable to see the significance of what Britain had become as a result of Thatcher, was late to the task of providing any alternative that might have countered this.
What Tony Blair presented to the electorate as New Labour in 1997 was itself not necessarily something that would go on to prove toxic to Labour’s traditional vision. The Labour Party had always had to confront changing realities. It could not have survived the seismic social upheavals of two world wars without proving that it had the capacity to adapt to those changed realities. But adapting to a changed reality had never, in the past, committed the Party to abandon its core purpose in desiring to change that reality. Indeed, Blair’s ambition to change the Party to adapt to the new post-Thatcher reality need not in itself have proved so lethal to that core purpose. There is no reason to believe that if the 1997 Labour Government had, in time, gone on to initiate policies which sought to counter that post-Thatcher reality the Party would have been permanently knocked off course. What proved fatal to the Party was Blairism – an outlook that evolved within the Party on the basis of a belief that the Thatcherite reality represented something immovable and permanent. Once that outlook became established the idea that the Party should have an alternative vision based on its traditional values became increasingly problematic.
But none of this should blind us to the fact that the Thatcherite reality was always going to present a far more challenging one for the Party than anything it had to confront in the past. The post-Thatcher reality had stripped society of the two most significant components that had traditionally given the Labour Party its sense of purpose – manufacturing industry and a strong trade union movement. In such circumstances, what was required was a vision which had the capacity, not to endorse the Thatcher reality, but to confront it. It is one thing to accept the need to adapt to a reality with the purpose of changing it but quite another to abandon any ambition to change it and thereby endorse it. The route offered up by Blairism was to endorse that reality and ever since, with the exception of the ill-fated Corbyn years, that has been the tendency in the Party which has come to dominate it.
When Blair embarked on the task of adapting the Party to the changed post-Thatcher world he was dealing with an organisation whose central purpose had always recognised the need to formulate and implement policies around a vision that sought to change society for the better. This meant policies that provided for increased workers’ rights and the amelioration of the plight of the under-privileged through State intervention. Such had always been the guiding light of the party. When Blair became Prime Minister in 1997 the working class was a much diminished and less-organised section of society and the role of the State had been pushed back from areas where it had previously – mostly under Labour’s efforts – been given a central role in the service of the working class and the protection of the less fortunate. Under Labour’s influence the State had been put to active use in everything from housing provision to medical care as well as providing basic services like transport, energy and water as well as in the management, or supply of, many ancillary services. All this was done in the belief that, leaving such basic provisions to the market could only operate to the detriment of the more vulnerable sections of society but also, in the long run, prove damaging to the health of the economy.
Nonetheless, and notwithstanding Blair’s determination to make Labour relevant in a market-friendly political environment, the constituency of members within the party who continued to adhere to the traditional purpose of the party remained committed to that vision in the course of Blair’s re-purposing of it. Many members did of course become disillusioned by Blair’s policies and the way in which Blairism went on to strip the party of any ambition to make effective social changes, but there was no concerted campaign to outlaw them. Debate within the party continued to accommodate those who were critical of Blairism. This, together with the change in the leadership electoral rules instituted in 2014 proved to be important components in the election to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. Unfortunately, a coalition of Blairites, right-leaning elements, and EU remainers within the PLP and in Labour Party head office, together with an unprecedent establishment media campaign, sabotaged the Corbyn leadership and left the way open for Keir Starmer to assume the leadership in 2020. Beginning his leadership with a pledge to honour the Labour Party programme of State intervention that had been endorsed by Conference before his election, Starmer subsequently betrayed that pledge in favour of a “no-policy” policy and a refusal to accommodate the prospect of State intervention. But not only that. He has overseen a wholesale purge of dissidents and the intimidation of those who might have a different view on the role of the State in the solving of society’s problems.
Unlike Blair, Starmer in 2022 is not confronted with an electorate that had been convinced of the superiority of the market – a factor that was used to justify Labour’s market friendly policies at the time of the 1997 general election. In fact, quite the opposite, the Thatcherite free market experiments in all the critical areas of social existence have been well and truly discredited many years since – one of the reasons why Corbyn’s performance in the 2017 general election (before his leadership had been effectively sabotaged) was so successful.
From the perspective of a future Labour Party in power, the thing that makes Starmer’s leadership so different from Blair, is the simple fact that while Blair’s New Labour confronted a political landscape where the free-market retained the widespread faith of the electorate – a factor that might make his policies more understandable at least in the short-term – Keir Starmer has no such excuse. Poll after poll continues to reveal a disenchantment of the electorate with the free market policies that had their genesis with Thatcher. Similarly, unlike Blair, where by 1997, a significant section of the general membership acknowledged the need for the Party to accommodate the new post-Thatcher reality, the general membership that Starmer inherited from Corbyn was one that possessed no such significant component and where most of the initiative was in favour of a reversal of the Thatcher programme that had subsequently been endorsed by Blair. And yet Starmer prevaricates in ways that reveals a determination to maintain the supremacy of the market in spite of the changed sentiment inside the Party and among the electorate.
To all intents and purpose, Starmer’s professionally choreographed performance at Conference got us no further in revealing what it is he actually stands for. It was big on sentiment and slogans but, beyond those explained earlier, it provided no real specifics on what a Labour Party under his leadership would do in government.
Understanding the role of the State is central to any sense of political vision. All Labour governments throughout the twentieth century understood this and under such governments the State became a major influence on how ordinary people lived their lives. From their health to housing and including vast swathes of the economy it was the State that underpinned their life and protected them against the worst vagaries of the market. It is only if the State is allocated a central role in how ordinary people experience the world that any coherent vision can be constructed to serve that purpose.
Understanding the role of the State was also something that Margaret Thatcher did. But rather than see it as a potentially positive force she saw it as a negative force that held back the creativity of the market. Consequently, the policies she constructed around her political vision were designed to reduce its influence on society by rolling it back from the position which it had increasingly occupied since 1945. She did this from a genuine belief that the market, once freed from the constraints placed upon it by the State, would blossom forth and provide the impetus for a wider prosperity. But while it is undoubtedly the case that her policies did bring greater prosperity to some it did so at the cost of an increasing wealth disparity in society and an inbuilt insecurity that inevitably results from the chaotic and erratic nature of the market.
Given the prevailing sentiment both within and outside the Party, Keir Starmer’s reluctance to commit to any policies which could betray an expanding role for the State at the expense of the market cannot be understood in terms other than a personal antipathy to such things. The only places he can bring himself to utilise it is in the areas where the market is itself reluctant to commit sufficient investment to it – like his Great Britain Energy company.
After the Liverpool Conference, as before, the issue for Labour remains one in which it is under a leadership that refuses to develop policies that are in keeping with its traditional vision at a time when the political atmosphere is favourable towards policies that are consistent with that vision. Instead, the indications are that the leadership is leaning towards a determined retention of the existing low-participatory role of the State in the economy. Such a prospect can offer nothing for those who might seek to see a Labour Government undertaking real changes in how society functions in ways that offer more to the working class and the underprivileged.