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Sir Keir Starmer has faced a furious backlash from the Labour left after he ruled out nationalising Britain’s biggest energy companies, a major departure from the party’s position under Jeremy Corbyn.
Defying Starmer’s leadership, Labour delegates voted in favour of energy firms being taken into public ownership at the party conference in Brighton on Sunday.
It marks a second conference defeat for the Labour leader, who was forced to water down his planned shake-up of leadership election rules.
Labour activists and left-wing MPs accused Starmer of breaking his own promises after he pledged during last year’s leadership campaign to “support common ownership of rail, mail, energy and water”.
Diane Abbott, shadow home secretary under Corbyn, said: “Campaigning for the leadership, Keir Starmer said he was in favour of common ownership. It was one of his ten pledges.”
Owen Jones accused Starmer of “saying things to get elected he doesn’t really mean”, adding: “He’s violated the explicit promises he made to get elected leader. This is dishonesty – and it destroys faith in democracy”.
Asked on BBC’s Andrew Marr Show whether he would nationalise the big six energy companies if Labour wins power, Starmer replied: “No.”
Claiming he had not given up on his previous commitment to “common ownership” of energy, the Labour leader said: “When it comes to common ownership, I’m pragmatic about this. I do not agree with the argument that says we must be ideological.”
“Where common ownership is value for money for the taxpayer and delivers better services, then there should be common ownership,” Starmer added – before pointing to the NHS Track and Trace system as an example of the kind of service Labour would keep in public hands.
But Labour delegates on the conference floor voted overwhelming in favour of a “socialist green new deal” motion – explicitly backing public ownership of energy companies. The motion also called for the creation of millions of green jobs and publicly-owned green investment banks.
Gaya Sriskanthan, co-chair of the Momentum, welcomed the result: “This is a turning point. The grassroots have had enough of timid centrism and have overwhelmingly endorsed transformative socialist policy that meets the crises of the 21st century head on.”
“Starmer has spent long enough running away from his ten pledges, it’s time to support transformative policy. Labour members back bold solutions, the leadership needs to follow suit.”
Chris Saltmarsh, the co-founder of the Labour for a Green New Deal campaign, also hailed the result. “Despite efforts to block this motion and stifle party democracy, members have demonstrated the strength of support for a transformative climate agenda.”
Urging the leadership to heed members’ wishes in the next manifesto, the activist added: “[Starmer] should re-state the ambitious pledges of his leadership campaign, and put the green new deal at the heart of his agenda.”
Labour MP Jon Trickett also urged Starmer and his team to listen to the conference vote. “Democracy must prevail,” he tweeted.
Although the votes of delegates are supposed to shape party policies, the leadership does not always follow conference motions when it comes to writing the manifesto.
Ed Miliband, the shadow energy secretary, told the conference on Sunday that Labour wanted to see a green Britain “where public and alternative models of ownership” play a role in the energy sector.
On Saturday Mr Miliband had been more explicit, telling The Independent: “We do believe there is an important role for public ownership.”
A video shared by the Green New Deal Rising group showed Starmer ignoring a young climate activist who asked whether he backed the TUC’s proposal to invest £85bn to create more than one million green jobs.
Young people were ignored by @Keir_Starmer when we asked him where he stood on the #GreenNewDeal in Brighton today.
£85 billion is the minimum we would need to create millions of good green jobs.
But Keir won’t even commit to that? pic.twitter.com/k9UHHQRBqe
— Green New Deal Rising (@GNDRising) September 26, 2021
Recent Opinium polling shows that the majority of the public support the idea of bringing energy companies into public ownership: 53 per cent of people support the measure, with just 15% per cent opposing.
Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng indicated earlier this week that he would be prepared to appoint a “special administrator” that would see some firms taken under the government’s wing – effectively nationalising them on a temporary basis.
The government is reportedly considering ways to step in to save some of biggest Britain’s energy companies if they struggle to cope with surging gas prices.
A separate motion for the Royal Mail to be returned to public ownership also passed at the conference on Sunday. Dave Ward, general secretary of the Communication Workers Union (CWU), said the motion “reasserts Labour’s commitment to public ownership”.
Unite’s Tom Murphy said problems in the country will “not be solved with belief in the market alone”, adding: “It’s vital that as we face the recovery and the long-term transition of a green future that this party does not turn its back on the democratic public ownership.