By Nick Clark in Liverpool
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Starmer offers patriotism and support for bosses at Labour conference

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Keir Starmer opened the Labour Party conference in Liverpool with a rendition of god save the king, rather than supporting striking Liverpool dockers
Issue 2824
Keir Starmer arrives at Labour Party conference, a line of members wave on the right hand side of the picture

Keir Starmer made sure Labour Party conference showed the leadership’s loyalty to the British establishment (Picture: Keir Starmer/Flickr)

Keir Starmer and the Labour right began their party’s conference on Sunday determined to show it is for business and the bosses, not workers.

With an ongoing strike of hundreds of Liverpool dockers just up the road, Starmer could have launched with a show of support for workers fighting over pay. Instead, he chose to open the conference with a rendition of god save the king.

The right are also crowing that they are now firmly back in charge. At a rally of the right wing Labour First faction, shadow minister Wes Streeting was relieved “the flag we’re flying on conference floor this year is the flag of our own country.” It was a dig at previous conferences, when left wing members waved Palestinian flags. 

And Johanna Baxter, a member of Labour’s ruling national executive committee and a senior Unison union official, hit out at the idea that the party should support strikes. “I have a confession to make—I’m a trade union officer and I support Starmer,” she said. “We will always deliver more in government than we will standing outside in the rain waving flags.”

There may still be a clash between Labour’s leader and trade union leaders later in the conference.  Union delegates voted to include a debate on workers’ pay on the conference agenda. This was part of a vote at the start of conference to decide which topics get debated.

Motions submitted to conference include a demand to support pay rises at least in line with inflation—something Starmer refuses to back. But whether this actually makes it to conference floor will depend on the outcome of a bureaucratic “compositing” process designed to water motions down.

And shamefully union delegates didn’t vote to debate workers’ rights, while the left didn’t have enough support among party member delegates to include it on the agenda. That means motions calling for Labour to support scrapping all anti-union laws won’t get debated at all.

It was the first time since Labour’s 2016 conference that the left didn’t have enough strength to make sure its motions get debated.

It all added to the overwhelming sense—even among Labour members—that the party is irrelevant to the huge class battles over pay.

At a Workers Strike Back rally at the parallel left wing event The World Transformed on Sunday, union leaders complained that Labour couldn’t bring itself to support strikes.

John, a striking Liverpool docker, opened the rally with a plea for Labour MPs to join the picket line. “It would be nice to see Mr Starmer as well,” he said. The dockers were set to march on Labour conference on Tuesday—the day of Starmer’s speech to conference.

RMT union leader Mick Lynch said he still hoped Labour could be pushed into supporting workers. “My position in regard to this Labour leadership is that’s the people we’ve got,” he said. “I’d like my favourite lefty to be in charge. But it’s not going to happen. We’ve got this struggle now.

“We’ve got to kick them, we’ve got to push them, we’ve got to prod them. We’ve got to make them do a job for us and if they commit to doing that, we can support them in that election.”

But even at that rally—organised by Momentum, which focuses on trying to transform Labour—there wasn’t much enthusiasm for doing that.

There were huge cheers any time someone mentioned united strikes on Saturday—and even some when Lynch mentioned the RMT isn’t affiliated to Labour. But there were groans, and even one boo, when a Momentum organiser said she wanted to talk about Labour and conference motions.

At best the idea of fighting inside Labour was met with weary resignation rather than the enthusiasm for the “stay and fight” message of the previous year.

One Labour member, who didn’t want to be named, said, “I’m a member but I wouldn’t know the mechanisms to push Labour to support strikes, even if I thought I could.

“I joined the Labour Party for Corbyn but I’m not really involved. I feel a bit alienated by the politics of the leadership now and I only stayed in out of sheer pig headedness.”

Ewa, also at The World Transformed, said she thought Labour could still be pushed towards backing strikes. “It’s worth having campaigns around the Labour Party and to ensure general support for the working class—and that obviously involves striking,” she said.

But, she added, “The party itself has a lot of bureaucracy that’s hard to get over. In the current state it can’t be the catalyst for change. So it’s necessary for workers to organise themselves.

“Trade unions flourish when people actually fight and have wins, because then people realise that trade unions are useful and that you can win.

“So while strikes are happening, support the picket lines. And at the same time try to speak to people in your own workplace about striking yourselves. That’s how you strengthen the movement.”

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