On Saturday night, the Oxford Union voted in favour of the motion “This House does not know what the Labour Party stands for.” The final count had 188 members voting for the motion and 70 members voting against.
The star speaker in the proposition was Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP for North East Somerset who was Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, Minister of State in the Cabinet Office, and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He previously read history at Trinity College, Oxford.
When introducing Rees-Mogg, Anita Okunde of University College remarked on his failed bid for Union presidency back when he was a member, which elicited a great deal of laughter in the chamber. She also introduced proposition speakers Theo Adler-Williams from Worcester College and Robert Griffiths, a Welsh communist activist who has been General Secretary of the British Communist Party since 1998 – pointing out his party’s lack of a single electoral seat.
Adler-Williams introduced Ali Khosravi, who was Co-Chair of the Oxford University Labour Club last year, and Joe Moore, a Political Advisor to various Labour MPs. Regarding the lack of Labour MPs on the opposition bench, Adler-Williams said that the Union contacted over 50 Labour MPs but realised that the party would not allow any to attend.
Speaking first in proposition, Adler-Williams began with a brief history of Labour and their stances leading up to Keir Starmer’s leadership, when Labour no longer had a clear policy “because they purposefully choose to speak in so many tongues” in order to have a “bomb-proof” campaign. “If you write a manifesto that can’t be criticised by the Tories,” he said, “then you’ve just written a Tory manifesto.”
Okunde, speaking in opposition, opened with a classic reference: “Comrades, there’s a spectre haunting not only Europe, but us. That spectre is 14 years of Conservative Party ruling going on.” She argued that “Labour stands for what it has always stood for: for the many and not the few,” attributing policy changes to Labour adapting to the current system where the working class has different needs. Okunde advocated for Labour because of its vision for housing, working class representation, a genuine living wage, and more, concluding that she believed in “Labour’s vision and principles in shaping [her] journey and that of countless others.”
Griffiths, in proposition, admitted that he could be put on either side of the debate, and indeed his final message advocated a third path: rather than voting for either side, he called on members to “Sit still! Occupy the Chamber!” to which the floor responded with laughter. He called Labour’s policy U-turns “spectacular somersault,” citing failures to make mail, railways, and energy public. To Griffiths, the reversal “doesn’t make any sense unless you want to cuddle up to big business,” alleging Labour to be “the party of the 10%, the party of business” in a fiery speech.
Khosravi, speaking in opposition, opened by addressing Griffiths’s point that Labour stands for big business, turning this around to argue that “[Labour] does stand for something, just something [Griffiths] doesn’t agree with,” receiving a round of applause from the chamber. He then argued that people “must not confuse the letter of the manifesto with what the party stands for, philosophically or on principle.” The Conservative contradiction, Khosravi said, is believing “that Labour stands for nothing yet Labour is such a dangerous threat that must be stopped – make up your mind.”
Closing the case for proposition, Rees-Mogg compared Labour’s 26 U-Turns to the car chase U-turns in “James Bond films [the Union is] such an aficionado of,” referencing the society’s “Casino Royale” theme ball that took place the day before. Moving on from serious policy U-turns, Rees-Mogg ridiculed Labour’s “most silly” case of dishonesty when Starmer initially claimed to be great friends with Jeremy Corbyn but later claimed they were never friends.
Rees-Mogg observed that Labour is increasingly centrist, stating that “as Labour becomes more and more Tory, I feel the country becomes safer and safer!” to a round of applause. As such, he believed that Labour is prioritising electoral success over policy implementation, asking the Union to consider the goal of going into politics despite its sacrifices: “you achieve what you believe in – not winning individual elections but what is best for country.”
Lastly, Moore closed the case for the opposition by refuting the 26 U-turns argument: “The policy [Labour] remains committed to is still a policy, simply with “changes in degree or magnitude.” He cited employment rights and energy among the evidence for an economic plan with “a more activist, more involved state – a government shaping, not being shaped by, the market.”