Starmer’s Labour conference left lots of unanswered questions

Fringe frisson: Croydon MP Sarah Jones (seated on the left-hand side of the panel), Labour’s industry and decarbonisation shadow, was at an event sponsored by oil industry lobbyists

A party preparing for government probably wants its annual conference to be dull.
But as ANDREW FISHER, pictured right, discovered among the freebie tickets and the oil industry and hunting lobbyists in Liverpool at the Labour Party conference this week, there was also an important moral issue

In contrast with the chaos and crankery of the Conservatives’ annual conference the week before, this week in Liverpool, Labour has projected stability.

If anything, plonkers with glitter aside, the 2023 Labour Party conference was a bit dull.

Perhaps anticipating that dullness, local Labour parties and trade unions sent fewer delegates to conference this year. While party members and trade union delegates stayed at home, business lobbyists swelled the ranks of attendees, with more than ever before paying for access to those they believed would soon be government ministers.

The party offered 1,500 Labour councillors free passes to the annual meeting.

Two councillors told me they were usually expected to fork out more than £100 to attend conference, but this year they had been allowed in for free. At least eight Croydon councillors took advantage of this offer.

Vox pop: Chrishni Reshekaron was one of several Croydon councillors who used conference to raise their public profile

Business lobbyists may have swelled the overall ranks of the conference zone, but few were interested in sitting through largely policy-free speeches from shadow ministers in the conference hall.

This is where councillors on freebies were ushered in to fill the empty seats.

In his leader’s speech on Tuesday, a glittering Keir Starmer said we “held out our hand to business”; donation returns to the Electoral Commission show business leaders have greased those palms well – even as Labour’s membership income and trade union donations have shrunk.

Despite the largely pro-business tone, Croydon North MP Steve Reed, now the shadow environment secretary responsible for water, struck a different chord.

Reed told those assembled at a fringe event organised by the country sports and hunting body, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation: “We will put the water companies under special measures that will include mandatory monitoring of all outlets, severe and automatic fines whenever there are illegal discharges of raw sewage, personal criminal liability for water bosses who refuse to take action to stop the most severe of these discharges, and new powers to Ofwat, the regulator, to cap or stop bonuses being paid to water bosses who are allowing this destruction of our wildlife and our countryside.”

While these tough words are reflective of the scandalous conduct of water companies, many remain unimpressed. Cat Hobbs, the director of We Own It, posted on Twitter, “Privatisation and regulation have failed since 1989. Bring water into public ownership.”

That was indeed the commitment of Starmer when he was running to be Labour leader in 2020 – pledging that rail, mail, energy and water would all be brought into public ownership in the next Labour manifesto.

It is not clear whether Reed’s proposals won’t mean water being brought back into public ownership. Speaking to experts in the water industry at conference, most thought that at least some water companies would collapse if tougher fines and sanctions were imposed.

Trickle-down economics: shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves gives her conference speech

Thames Water came close to collapsing into administration earlier this year, and some say it is still on the brink. What would be Reed and Labour’s solution then? They would have to bring water into public ownership – to maintain continuity of supply – at least in the short term.

Earlier this month in the Financial Times, Thames Water warned that the existing paltry fines for pollution need to be capped, as the company desperately needed to win over investors. Perhaps Reed’s insistence that fines should be higher and tougher is his back-door route to public ownership of water?

Croydon’s other Labour MP, Sarah Jones, had an eventful experience at one of her conference fringe events on Monday, when young climate activists from the Green New Deal Rising campaign disrupted an event she was attending that was sponsored by the oil and gas lobbying organisation Offshore Energies UK.

Jones is now Labour’s industry and decarbonisation shadow minister. Offshore Energies UK is the lobby group that represents Shell, BP and Equinor, the company behind the recently approved Rosebank oil field off the Shetland Islands.

‘The moral depravity of the Blair years’

There were many unanswered questions at Labour Party conference, including how Labour is going to improve public services without raising taxation.

Simply asserting that Labour will “deliver growth” is not a good enough answer. Any uptick in economic growth is likely to take years to have an impact, and our public services, suffering from understaffing, backlogs and decades of underfunding, cannot wait.

While the long-term economic agenda set out by shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and Starmer contained promising elements – a Biden-style investment-led industrial strategy to build housing and clean energy – its effects will take time to reap rewards. The need for investment, in people and public services, is immediate.

The whole week at conference was overshadowed by the grave situation in Israel and Gaza: a despicable and unjustifiable attack on innocent civilians by Hamas; followed by yet more violence against innocent civilians from Israel, which has illegally occupied the Palestinian territories for 56 years.

Not in my name: sometime human rights lawyer Keir Starmer appears to ignore the Geneva Convention over Gaza

On Sunday, Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner led conference to observe a minute’s silence for “all the victims and sympathy for the bereaved”. It was impeccably observed by all.

Yesterday, Starmer gave an interview in which he said that Israel does have the right to cut off water, electricity and food supplies to Gaza’s 2million-plus population.

In openly supporting what are, under the Geneva Convention, war crimes, Starmer is endorsing the murder of innocent civilians.

Unless and until this statement is withdrawn, Keir Starmer is not fit to be Labour leader, let alone Prime Minister.

While party conference started on a high, it has ended on a low – back in the moral depravity of the Blair years with a disregard for international law.

Not in my name.

Andrew Fisher’s recent columns:

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3 Responses to Starmer’s Labour conference left lots of unanswered questions

  1. Peter Underwood says:

    While I would disagree with Andrew on some parts of this article, I would like to thank him for taking a stand against Keir Starmer’s comments backing war crimes.

    Standing up for human rights shouldn’t be a party-political matter, it should be a basic requirement of anyone who is active in politics. History has plenty of examples of what happens when we allow leaders to treat some people as deserving less rights than others.

    Politics would be of a far higher standard in the country, and across the world, if we were all willing to call out wrongs by own leaders and our own parties. Political parties and leaders aren’t like football teams, we don’t have to keep supporting them even when they are bad. They deserve no loyalty when they abandon decency and morality.

    I hope Keir Starmer withdraws his support for actions that would increase violence and death, and I hope our current Government does as well. We should all be supporting the peacemakers, not the warmongers. The people of Israel and the people of Gaza have suffered too much and for too long

  2. Peter Kudelka says:

    I would be interested to hear Mr Fisher’s views on the carpet bombing of German cities in WW2 and the use of the atomic bomb in Japan. Both contentious issues then and now.

    • chris myers says:

      Well, we know what Mr Underwood’s views on this would be – no bombing anywhere, any time. We would have had to work very hard to bring Hitler and Hirohito to the negotiating table

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