By KD Tait
In early September Keir Starmer reshuffled the shadow cabinet ready for a general election campaign, stuffing it with Blairite hardliners, friends to big business and sworn enemies of the left.
Just as the Tory conference marked the beginning of the struggle for the leadership of the Conservatives in the wake of an expected election defeat, Labour’s conference will set out the election campaign it intends to win.
So what election campaign is Labour preparing to fight?
With Tories fractured into competing factions, Labour is sticking to the mainstream Conservative policies of the last 13 years: no real reversal of austerity; no mitigation of poverty; no major new investment in infrastructure or green transition; no major union reforms.
Starmer’s promises made to secure the leadership have all been abandoned. Even the two supposed central pillars of a reforming Starmer government – Angela Rayner’s New Deal for Working People, and Ed Miliband’s Green New Deal – have been gutted.
With Liz Kendall in the Department for Work and Pensions and Wes Streeting at Health, the two most high profile proponents of market disciplining of public services have been handed control over the two pillars of the welfare state – social security and health and social care.
The reason given is not a public admission of pro-market ideas or outright hostility to public ownership and the unions, but that in the wake of Liz Truss, ‘the economic facts have changed’, therefore Labour has to stick with the Bank of England and Jeremy Hunt’s limits.
Labour’s strategy amounts to arguing that the Tories are incompetent, that ‘culture wars’ put people off and that the less policy Labour has, the less there is for the Tories to attack. But the merit of this line of attack is not self-evident.
Starmer and his former banker shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves harp on the theme that no reforms can be considered without ‘growing the economy’. The implication being that free school meals, dignified social security for the unemployed and disabled, etc are a drag on economic growth.
With the Tories aiming to mobilise votes in key constituencies by abandoning two decades of economic consensus on environmental questions, Labour are banking on winning by presenting themselves as the party of moderate continuity with the neoliberal consensus of Blair or Cameron.
Whatever ‘choice’ is implied by the relative class interests on which both parties are based, the limits of choice remain within parameters set firmly by the establishment – the city of London, the big landowners, the bond markets.
However, this is an establishment fighting a rear-guard battle against the destabilisation in the political sphere as the long-term consequence of the 2008 crisis and the UK’s inability to recover combined with the self-inflicted harm made by Brexit and the mishandling of the pandemic. For now British capitalism has ruled out a return to either free market fundamentalism or social democratic Keynesianism as exit strategies from its impasse.
Truss’ humiliating overthrow by the bond markets and Bank of England was presented as a ‘natural’ and unremarkable punishment for breaking with economic orthodoxy. Corbyn’s overthrow at the hands of the pro-capitalist majority in the PLP, the party bureaucracy and the unions was punishment for threat he posed, the eruption of the masses into politics. Nevertheless, the ability of the establishment to reassert consensus in the two main parties is far from assured.
However, Labour looks the most stable. This year’s conference will be a victory lap for Labour’s avowedly pro-capitalist social liberals. Indeed, even under Blair there was a small and sometimes vocal backbench left in parliament and even more so in the constituencies. If there is still a left it is very small and largely silent – waiting for better days that may never come. The response of the trade union leaders to Starmer’s counter-revolution has ranged from unenthusiastic toleration to sullen abstention.
The degree of resignation of the trade union leadership to Starmer was demonstrated by the posture adopted to his repeated refusals to support the cost of living strikers. The right wing leaders (Unison and the GMB) said nothing. The lefts, like railworkers’ Mick Lynch and Unite’s Sharon Graham criticised the rightwards turn but offered no alternative.
Anticipating a general election, instead of capitalising on the government’s weaknesses, both held back instead of escalating the industrial struggle to force a decisive confrontation – which the government would certainly have lost.
The motivation: the desire not to collide with the political strategy of the Labour party leadership to present itself as the reliable partner of a British capitalism by confronting them with a mobilised labour movement pressing for its immediate interests.
What this development shows is how correct Trotsky was when he described Labour as the party that ‘leans upon the workers but serves the bourgeoisie’. By accepting the ownership and profits of the bosses as sacrosanct and parliamentary elections as the only legitimate road to ‘power’, it commits itself to obeying its masters on all important questions, in economics and in national and international politics.
Even the lefts in the party and the unions see Labour as the only realistic instrument for achieving ‘socialism’. Consequently they think it inconceivable to win an election without the right in the party. But by doing so they invite their own defeat time and time again.
Union militants must resist this ‘wait for Labour’ strategy. They should hold discussions on what demands they should press on the Labour Party in their branches, trades councils and conferences – and then openly campaign for them. At the same time they should relaunch the strike wave, opposing every pay cut, job loss and closure with mass demonstrations, all-out strikes and workplace occupations.
Ultimately only a party rooted in the day to day class struggle, opposed to British imperialism and its wars, dedicated to abolishing capitalism and breaking up its repressive machinery and determined to replace these with institutions of workers’ power can defend our vital everyday interests and open the road to socialism.