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Red Lines: The key sources of internal party tension at Labour Conference ’22

Red Lines: The key sources of internal party tension at Labour Conference ’22

Keir Starmer's challenges at Labour Conference 2022 (Illustrations by Tracy Worrall)

7 min read

From worries over a lack of vision to hostility between the party and its affiliated trade unions, Sienna Rodgers looks at the key likely sources of Labour tension at Conference ’22

A looming recession; inflation spiralling out of control; a new Prime Minister in No 10. No pressure on Keir Starmer, then.

Although the opposition leader has told colleagues not to underestimate Liz Truss, and warned she could benefit from a honeymoon period, the multiple crises engulfing the country and a fast-approaching general election mean expectations are high for his performance at Labour Conference 2022 – only his second in-person gathering since taking the job.

The economy will be the heart of his keynote address, building on a “growth, growth, growth” speech delivered over the summer. “The growth speech was laying the groundwork for unions and businesses. Then we’ll turn to what growth means for people – that will be his Conference speech,” one source close to the Labour leader told The House. Considered more important by Starmer’s aides than big policy offers is the need to tie existing Labour proposals together with a compelling story.

“We really want Conference to be a referendum on solidarity with striking workers”

Labour MPs frequently say they want more from the leadership on vision. Publicly, this often comes from the party’s left. Richard Burgon, secretary of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, told The House: “One of the lessons from 2019’s general election was that announcing a plethora of policies in the short campaign isn’t the best way to get those policies across to the public.

“I remember in 1997 John Prescott waving his pledge card with five Labour policies – that’s the kind of thing we should be doing now. The concern is that unless we become more propositional, we could fall foul of having just relied upon the Tories imploding.”

The anxiety around not having done enough does not come only from the left of the party – at least in private. One shadow cabinet member told The House: “Clearly, we need a big push to be confident of winning the next general election. Right now, you couldn’t be confident. Something more is needed to get us there. That something more is a bigger sense of Labour’s vision for the country and what it would be like.”

Reflecting on the difficult conditions faced by the new Prime Minister, they continued: “There’s quite often an assumption in Labour that economic crises under Tory governments will benefit us, but all the evidence points the other way.”

A bigger source of internal tension in recent months has been around Labour’s relationship with trade unions. The picket line ban imposed on front benchers by Starmer amid rail strikes in June frustrated many MPs, including several shadow cabinet members, and – The House understands – no fewer than three Labour whips. Even those who agreed with the principle of the instruction complained of poor communication.

“It’s not the job of Labour MPs to stop people going to work, but it is the job of Labour MPs to show people whose side we’re on. We should have worked out more clearly in advance how Labour was going to demonstrate that support, without necessarily going on picket lines,” a leadership loyalist in the shadow cabinet conceded.

“There’s an awful lot of testosterone in the leader’s office”

Amid the picket line row, Mick Whelan – general secretary of train drivers’ union Aslef and chair of Labour Unions, the influential organisation comprising all unions affiliated to the party – cast doubt over the future of the Labour-union link, suggesting it may already be “gone”.

“The trade unions would like to be listened to more. The party would claim they are listening to us, but it’s not the relationship as it’s traditionally been,” Whelan told The House. “I do struggle on occasions that the party seems ultra-cautious on when to support the trade unions. If a cause is just, it’s just.”

Whelan believes the approach taken by the leadership is electorally risky as well as internally divisive. “There’s an awful lot of testosterone in the leader’s office. It’s incredibly dominated by [factional groups] Labour to Win and Labour First, and they believe the old [former New Labour adviser Lord] Mandelson mantra that ‘they’ve got nowhere else to go’,” he said, referring to the idea that the votes of traditional Labour supporters can be taken for granted.

Although the 24-hour rail strike during Conference was called off following Queen Elizabeth II’s death, union and party sources predict the fault lines around industrial action will not have changed. Momentum, the organisation that grew out of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid, still intends to capitalise on these tensions. “We really want Conference to be a referendum on solidarity with striking workers,” a source said.

The group plans to “dominate the space visually” in Liverpool, with stickers, posters, T-shirts, pledge boards for MPs to sign and pose with, all promoting their “Labour for labour” message. Momentum hopes to emphasise the link between Labour with a capital L, i.e. the party, and lowercase labour, meaning the wider trade union movement, as a way of bringing together the left and soft left of the party against the leadership.

The Labour left expects to be weaker at Conference 2022 than in recent years, and a slimmer timetable will limit formal debate

Another policy area bound to cause tensions is electoral reform. A motion in favour of proportional representation (PR) fell last year despite huge support from local party delegates because affiliates were not on board. Since then, Unite and Unison have changed their positions on it. As long as PR secures a place on the priorities ballot – the list that determines which motions are debated – it is certain to pass.

“Keir thinks PR is deeply unattractive,” a source close to Starmer said. The leader is concerned about Tory attacks warning of a “coalition of chaos”. There is another reason he isn’t keen: the suspicion that the party would be accused of colluding with the Lib Dems because Labour wants revenge for Brexit. And the current strategy of targeting party resources efficiently, which usually means dialling down efforts in Lib Dem targets, is thought to be working well. As a senior source puts it: “We’re fishing in different pools – we don’t need a back channel or deal.”

The 2021 gathering was dominated by rule changes, from those made necessary by the Equality and Human Rights Commission report on Labour anti-Semitism to others aimed at undoing Corbynite reforms relating to internal party democracy. Sources close to Starmer have told The House to anticipate fewer rows over the rulebook at Conference this year.

Recent internal successes offer little reason to rework the rules beyond tweaks and “tidying-up” amendments. On candidate selections, for example, the leadership is pleased with the results so far. Aside from Chingford and Woodford Green, where members chose Labour left-wing economist Faiza Shaheen, they have gone in Starmer’s favour.

This is partly attributable to the changing factional make-up of the membership and partly to strategy. Whereas Corbynite panels of the party’s ruling body drew up shortlists comprising their favourite applicant plus a couple of candidates so bad, or such strangers to the constituency, that they were deemed no-hopers, the current leadership has taken a different tack.

The new technique, described by aides as “quality control” and by others as “the heir and the spare”, is to exclude undesirables at the start of the process, leaving only the top choice alongside one or two contenders the leader’s office could happily live with. Observers note this tool is no less blunt than the Corbynite method, yet far more effective.

With the party’s left predicting a 10 per cent decline in delegates coming from its camp, Momentum activists do not intend to focus their fight with the leadership on rule changes. There may be policy victories that are uncomfortable for Starmer, however. More importantly, his critics plan to focus not on the Conference floor but on media attention and those issues most likely to attract it – namely nationalisation, amid the energy crisis, and strikes, with a backdrop of soaring inflation and stagnant pay.

The Labour left expects to be weaker at Conference 2022 than in recent years, and a slimmer timetable will limit formal debate. Even so, there are other ways for internal critics to voice dissent – which means no guarantee of a smooth ride for the leadership in Liverpool.

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