After a shaky start to Starmer’s first inperson Labour conference earlier this year, the Labour leader emerged victorious and the head of the strongest faction.
A shift in power took place – towards Starmer’s social democrats and away from Momentum, which empowers Starmer’s policy agenda. Momentum failed to pass a vote of no confidence in the General Secretary David Evans. The Bakers’ union (BFAWU) lost its seat on the NEC, the powerful national governing committee of the Labour Party, and was replaced by the more moderate Musicians union.
Meanwhile, the newly elected leader of the leftwing union Unite who beat the left’s general secretary candidate, made a point of not attending Labour conference as part of her election promise to focus less on internal factional wars in the party. And even when Unite’s leadership did speak out against Starmer’s proposed reforms, it failed to block the changes that curtailed the power of the left.
Slowly, but surely, then, the moderate social democratic alliance - Labour To Win - is regaining power from the left. Andy McDonald resigning from the shadow cabinet meant that Momentum lost one of the few remaining sympathetic voices within the shadow cabinet. Coupled with the BFAWU’s decision to disaffiliate from the party entirely, this adds up to a significant loss of power for Momentum within Labour Party internal structures. Moreover, Momentum hecklers were drowned out by applause from the conference hall during Starmer’s speech. Owen Jones might argue that the left nevertheless maintained its influence over policy. However, the policy motions passed by conference are not binding on the leadership and any future manifesto policy will be negotiated by the very internal bodies over which Momentum is currently losing control, with some (though not all) of that control passing to the Labour right in the form of Labour To Win.
Just as importantly, Starmer’s party rule changes empower the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and disempowers members and supporters. The rule changes block the ability for supporters to sign up to vote in leadership elections, they increase the threshold of support needed for an MP to take part in a future leadership contest and make it harder to deselect sitting Labour MPs. This closes off key routes for the left to use to take back the leadership of the Labour Party in the future. The PLP’s loyalty and attention will gravitate towards the leader’s office without having to keep such a nervous eye on their more leftwing membership (as was the case under Corbyn). This should allow the PLP to be braver in supporting leadership decisions, which are unpopular with the membership whilst also taming the constant need for future leadership contenders to constantly play to the left of the party.
Arguably, there is no other way for Starmer to be successful other than take full control of the key organs of the party. If we imagine the Labour Party is a ship - the new captain must take control of every part of the ship if they are to successfully turn the ship around. If the engine room crew remain loyal to the previous captain and course then the new captain has no hope of success.
Starmer’s team must now focus on using all the policy space afforded by this opportunity to establish economic competence in the eyes of the electorate. A ruthless realist narrative that reassures swing voters needs to be established by Starmer’s Labour Party before the Conservative Party defines the party and Starmer for them.
Matthew Lloyd is a Graduate Teaching Associate & PhD Researcher in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London and a Guest Writer at the Mile End Institute.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Mile End Institute or Queen Mary University of London.