As Labour delegates meet in Brighton, people across Britain are queuing for petrol and facing empty supermarket shelves because of a shortage of heavy goods vehicle (HGV) drivers. A number of energy providers have gone bust because of a surge in gas prices and footballer Marcus Rashford has joined those warning that a cut in benefits later this week will push hundreds of thousands into poverty.
But instead of holding Boris Johnson’s government to account, Keir Starmer has picked a fight within his own party, pushing through rule changes to protect sitting MPs from local Labour members and changing how the leader is chosen. Deputy leader Angela Rayner, who covets Starmer’s job, offered her own distraction from the government’s failures by describing Johnson’s cabinet as “scum”.
Starmer claims it is better to get controversial rule changes out of the way now rather than arguing about them for another year before turning the party’s attention outwards. But he mishandled the process by failing to consult with the unions, which he hopes to restore to their traditional role within Labour of protecting the leadership from the members.
Under Starmer’s original proposal, the unions, Labour MPs and party members would each account for a third in an electoral college to replace the current one member one vote system. The changes that went to a vote in Brighton were much watered down but were still anathema to the left.
Starmer won the leadership on a promise to unite the party around 10 pledges, one of which was to “support common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water”. He abandoned that pledge on Sunday, saying he would not nationalise the energy companies at the centre of the current storm.
The Labour leader’s strategy of taking on the left in his party and moving towards the Conservatives on policy is in tune with the conventional political wisdom in Britain. But it is the opposite path to that taken by the two most successful centre-left leaders of the moment, US president Joe Biden and German social democratic leader Olaf Scholz.
Biden defeated Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries but then negotiated a policy platform with the left-wing senator that not only united the party but reflected the zeitgeist that favours a stronger role for the state and real action against inequality. Scholz, who is from the right of the party, made a similar pact with leftist social democrats and fought the election on a platform promising more economic justice and a firm position against the far right in the culture wars.
When Sanders addressed the parallel at The World Transformed festival in Brighton on Sunday, he said centrist leaders should now be on the defensive about why they did not back more radical policies.
“Those people who tell you you can’t do it, you ask them why, why can’t you do it?” he said.
“When you speak truth to people, they often respond in a positive way.”