Yves here. Wowsers. It’s one thing to see the putative but really not workers’ party in the US, the Democrats, happily don neoliberal clothing because TV ad costs. The Democrats at least can fall back on the excuse of a two-party system.
From Clive, who attended the Labour conference, via e-mail:
Too knackered to do anything sensible by way of reportage as just got back and getting out of Brighton is a ‘mare at the best of times as is the M25 in the rush hour but conference is over and all I can say is it wasn’t overall as bad as it could have been, but only because when you know you’re at rock bottom hope torments you that the only way is up. So I’ll have to settle for a brain-dump, with apologies.
Now we know: Keir Starmer won’t generate a surge of support | Aditya Chakrabortty | The Guardian is probably the most accurate and objective summary I’ve come across. Starmer is setting himself up, unrepentantly, as the heir to Blair….
The £15 minimum wage defeat was the bitterest pill to swallow. The Corbyn faction made compromise proposals behind the scenes, I’m told £12.50 was bartered down to with £15 being an aspiration. Throw in a “over the lifetime of a Labour government” (so we’d be talking up to 8 or 9 years away) and likely incremental rises just through keeping the minimum wage in line with average earnings grown would have almost got you to that. Rumours are that Johnson will make it £10 by the next election anyway. So the refusal by Starmer’s clique to not only go to £15 but to reject any promises to increase the minimum wage was just direction-of-travel setting. That direction being, of course, “pro business”.
All in all, even despite Starmer’s protestations about electability being everything, we’re a party that still much prefers agitating and opposing rather than any prospect of power. My lingering sense from the Conference is that it’s all just so much more fun. You can tell yourself how very, very clever you are (a perennial fault of us lefties), indulge yourself in make-believe while declaring yourself the most rational people because, after all we’re clever, aren’t we? You don’t have to answer any questions you don’t like, you can memory-hole entire episodes from your priors and pet your hobby horses. Governing makes this a lot harder, if not impossible. It’ll take, I reckon, another electoral defeat, possibly two, before there’s any chance of a wakeup call being heeded.
Why am I always reminded of Satan in Paradise Lost?
“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
I think we tend to forget how absorbing, and for some people fulfilling, the internal politics of any organisation can be. I’ve known people in organisations in various countries whose lives were utterly consumed with power struggles and ideological clashes to the exclusion of everything else. And that’s just in universities. The fact is that you can have a good career as a senior Labour Party apparatchik without ever having to dirty your hands with power. It’s all there in any political party: publicity, fame of a sort, your mug on TV, relative VIP status, alliances, treason, revenge, blackmail, power struggles, money for consultancy, a book or two …. I mean, why sully your hands with power? Takes the enjoyment out of politics.
The fact is that historically the Left has never really wanted power. The exceptions (from Lenin to Mitterrand) not only wanted it, they knew what to do with it. At least you could say that Blair and Clinton were interested in power, even if they hijacked otherwise innocent and harmless parties. Starmer just doesn’t seem to be interested in anything very much. Even John Crace seems to have gone off him.
PlutoniumKun points out that the Left does not have to be a bunch of wanking losers:
I hate to keep banging on the drum, but the European left needs to study Sinn Fein. They are the model of how a left wing party should focus on one thing only – power. In the early 1980’s they could barely muster about 3% of the vote in the Republic and maybe 10% at most in Northern Ireland. As a party, they are probably even more split internally on left/right, woke/traditional groups, but they never let that get in the way of relentlessly growing their vote share in every election north and south of the border.
It helps that they know their enemies – they hate the ‘internationalist’ left as much as the right, and they are helped by being focused on a nationalist agenda. But they have pretty much vanquished all their enemies/rivals on the left and have taken huge chunks out of their centrist/nationalist alternatives (Fianna Fail in the Republic and the SDLP in the north).
They do it partly by thinking long term – their own leader was poached from FF as a student – they saw her potential and deliberately recruited her. They have no problem with shoving media friendly (usually female and blonde) faces over local activists if needed to win seats. They have no embarrassment about waving the national flag. They revel in the hatred from the Dublin and Belfast mainstream media and establishment and make no attempt whatever to court them. They focus relentlessly on populist issues such as housing and health. They never let a desire for consistency or ‘messaging’ get in the way of what is needed to win a vote. They use the European Parliament and the NI process as a means to develop relationships in the US and Europe to undermine any attempt by the mainstream to marginalise them (it’s hard to marginalise a party which can arrange photoshoots with Bill Clinton and Obama).
There is every chance that in 3 years they will be the largest party following elections north and south of the border. I can’t think of any other example around the world of a political party winning elections in two entirely separate national jurisdictions with two different electoral systems. Given that both the north and south are only marginally urban societies with a very large conservative rural population that is a pretty impressive achievement, especially when you compare it to the pathetic performance of the left in most of Europe.
We’re about to see in the US if mere progressives (albeit young ones who also have generational differences in priorities from party elders) have the cojones to tell the leadership that the usual bait and switching of the Left is no longer on.
By Caroline Molloy, editor of openDemocracy UK and OurNHS, a journalist and speaker. She has written extensively on politics, public services and the welfare state, and has a particular interest in public services and technology. Originally published at openDemocracy
Keir Starmer’s long-awaited, first in-person speech to Labour’s annual conference was predictably dull: a history lesson focused on the industrial revolution and the Blair government, while skipping silently over everything from Clement Atlee to Jeremy Corbyn.
In terms of policy, there was a pledge to spend more on young people’s mental health – without mentioning the widespread privatisation of that service, which currently sees almost half of its NHS funding being funnelled into private health companies.
There was also a vow to “give our young people the tools of the future” in terms of “digital” and “life” skills. Briefings ahead of the speech suggested that, on this, what Starmer had in mind was training young people to understand their credit scores, their private pension savings, and the contracts their landlords ask them to sign.
So, Keir’s big offer? A Labour government that will teach you to better navigate the choppy waters of capitalism, while paying another company to soothe your worries when the stress becomes overwhelming.
“All we have to do is to learn to adapt,” he said, while labouring a long analogy about his father’s factory and the need to “re-tool” ourselves.
Young people want more. Far from embracing their destiny as simply “Uber-riding, Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating freedom fighters”, as Liz Truss, now the foreign secretary, memorably described them in 2018, they want the certainty and security of publicly owned services. Polls routinely show that – just as much as their parents and grandparents – young people support public ownership of everything from buses to energy and water to health services.
According to shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves, these aren’t “bread and butter issues”.
But tell that to the young person seeing their hope and security eroded by the daily grind of what Reeves calls “everyday economics”. They aren’t wanting “jam on it”, as my mother would say. They’re just sick of theirprivatised bus service jacking up fares and cutting services they rely on to get to college, work or play. Despairing of being unable to afford their own place, given sky-high, privatised utility bills and private rents. Fed up with being paid poverty wages by privatised care companies and call centres, which duck even the minimal adult minimum wage requirements by hiring the young. Stressed by having to compete everywhere – in endless tests, in their online ‘brand’ – in a desperate attempt to win a decent opportunity in a country where, after nearly four decades of privatisation, everything is a marketplace.
And only the privileged can turn to their families for help, with many parents facing the same issues as their children.
No wonder young people are miserable – and that’s before you even get to the impact of global threats such as the pandemic, climate change, right-wing-funded culture wars, and the way Brexit has ended chances of social mobility.
Starmer is quite right to zoom in on mental health – but despite his promises to prioritise prevention, his speech suggests that, in reality, he’ll treat symptoms, not causes.
A pledge for more money to fund support in schools to access treatment more promptly through local “mental health hubs” will be welcomed by mental health charities. But Starmer said nothing of the fact that young people’s mental health is in the state it’s in, in part because in recent years it’s been the most heavily privatised section of our NHS. Currently, 44% of NHS spending in this area goes to the private sector, rising to 97% of all NHS spending when it comes to the most troubled young people. And there have been numerous horror stories about the results.
Starmer did rightly say that the future of the NHS couldn’t “just be about more money”. Was he going to acknowledge the need to stem the billions leaking out to the private sector? No – instead he enthused about how health would be “remade” by a “bewildering” array of robots and virtual reality. “I could talk about this all day,” he said, sounding in reality about as tech-savvy as Boris Johnson in his infamous UN technology speech about how “your mattress will monitor your nightmares”.