Are the Labour party’s internal battles just beginning?

Liam Barrett argues Labour is 'more divided than ever before' and Starmer's 'leadership lacks substance'

Labour rosette

As delegates like me were zipping up their suitcases to descend onto the seafront, Starmer was pushing through eleventh hour rule changes to reshape his party.

Starmer’s attempts to wrestle pro-Corbyn dissenters in the party were apparent from day one. Rule changes on increasing the threshold of MP nominations for leadership elections, amendments to the disciplinary process, and protecting MPs from deselection challenges all carried. Conference also saw the ratification of Starmer ally, David Evans as General Secretary, a highly polarising figure and a longstanding critic of “hard-left” politics.

Starmer showed might with his purging of the left by disguising it with bringing “our house in order” rhetoric. But the party is more divided than ever before and his leadership lacks substance.

CLPs enlisted a vast number of left-wing delegates to represent them, so the floor enjoyed impassioned speeches rebutting the leadership and challenging the status quo. Young people were defiant in their efforts to implement a transformative Green New Deal, a policy the leadership is alleged to be sceptical about, and calling for a £15 minimum wage against Starmer’s wishes.

While conference wrangled with the right’s organising efforts, Starmer had other problems that marred his first in-person conference. The surprise resignation one of the few Corbynites left in his shadow cabinet, Andy McDonald, means Corbyn supporters are now fully in the cold.

McDonald quit as shadow work and pensions secretary after being “instructed” by the leader’s office to argue against the £15 minimum wage proposal. McDonald decried Starmer’s breaking of promises and how he had lost hope in his bid for Number 10. The unity that we all longed for was revealed as never a priority. Left-wingers feel targeted.

Meanwhile, the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union (BFAWU) decisively disembarked from their 119-year affiliation with Labour. The left-wing union, demoralised by Starmerism, cited how “Labour has travelled away from the aims and hopes of working-class organisations”. The partnership between trade unions and Labour is fading. It is a worrying trend if the party wishes to be one for workers.

Even deputy leader and sympathiser to the left, Angela Rayner, did not leave Brighton unscathed. She was reportedly reprimanded by Starmer for using the word “scum” to condemn Boris Johnson’s government.

She looked like a lost soul on a runaway train, forlorn with McDonald’s resignation and frantically reaching out to BFAWU to persuade them to stay. Rayner is considered a potential leadership challenger to Starmer and someone the left could endorse, and her ambitions are plain to see. Her remarks on Johnson, pictures of her smoking and her speech for workers’ rights were highlights.

Corbyn, meanwhile, did not even set foot into the Brighton Centre but still caused a stir.

Members were meant to have a Damascene conversion after Starmer’s highly-anticipated speech on the final day. The speech was meant to be Starmer’s moment to shine and prove how he’s fit for the job. But his law and rhetoric fell flat against the backdrop of a policeman on trial for the murder of Sarah Everard earlier this year.

The exceptionally long speech covered Starmer’s early life, but little on what he stands for. We saw heckling and delegates holding up red cards throughout. He looked scandal-ridden and out of control.

The left should remain optimistic and not give up the fight to distance the party from New Labour. Starmer will not last long, and his role as a schmoozer to the centre-ground is insipid. A recent Tribune report revealed how 65% of the British published advocated a £15 minimum wage. Starmer is on a quest to downplay it. Similar numbers, 59%, of those polled backed the renationalisation of our energy firms, but Starmer ignores this.

Labour’s leader is not looking outwards, nor does he care for what’s popular. Conference was his chance to bask in the limelight. On the left, calls for a new leader beckon.

You can follow Liam Barrett on Twitter here.

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