Labour Party conferences can be boring even in the best of times. But we’re in the coronavirus era so a virtual conference is, perhaps, the best we could have hoped for.
Labour Conference has never been the sovereign body of the Party, and its decisions were regularly ignored or side-lined by Labour Governments and the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). But it does give a voice to the activists and the rank-and-file in the constituencies, and it provides a forum for the unions to make their demands on what was originally intended to be the political wing of the trade union movement.
The dead hand of right-wing bureaucracy during the Blair era ended the open debate and factional back-stabbing that were the highlights for the delegates at a week at the seaside in a normal year. There was a bit of a comeback under Corbyn. But Corbyn’s gone and these are decidedly not normal times.
Sir Keir Starmer’s followers like to compare him to Labour winners of the past such as Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair. But they, for good or bad, were skilled orators who had plenty to say. Starmer is neither.
Talking to his ‘virtual’ audience this week, Starmer said it was time for members to be “brutally honest” about the changes required for a Labour victory. “Never again will Labour go into an election not being trusted on national security, with your job, with your community and with your money.”
But the issue is not why Labour lost the last election but how it’s going to win the next. Some on the left are still stuck on the blame game over the last election because they refuse to accept the reality that is was Labour’s U-turn on Brexit that cost them swathes of seats in the north. Starmer, to his credit, realises this. The man who was once the front-runner for the Europhiles in the Labour Party has a new mantra now. “The debate between Leave and Remain is over. We’re not going to be a party that keeps banging on about Europe,” he says. But he’ll need more than that to win back traditional supporters who went over to the Tories at the last election over Brexit.
Labour needs to have clear policies to mobilise millions of workers around their platform. We need to campaign to end austerity and defend the health service and public education. We must support industrial development to create new jobs to end the unemployment and destitution that has blighted the lives of so many working-class families in recent years. We must ensure that current demands for the renationalisation of the railways and the utilities are just the first step in restoring the entire public sector that existed in this country until 1979. Above all, we must fight for peace, the scrapping of Trident and the withdrawal of all British troops abroad, including those in the occupied north of Ireland.
Droning on in front of a camera to tell us he’s not Jeremy Corbyn may have been music to the ears of the aging Blairites who have embraced Starmer as their new Messiah. But it’s not going to mobilise the millions of workers and students that rallied to Labour’s banner when Corbyn was at the helm.