Everyone sensed the new energy at this year’s Labour Party conference, held in Brighton from September 24-27.
More cynical pundits referred to it as “giddy optimism” (The Guardian’s editorial), or “near-hysterical support” (The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins), conveying the idea of something irrational. Others referred to it as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s “evangelical church” (The Times’ Philip Collins) or even “the cult of Corbyn” (The Times, Spectator and Observer all used this phrase).
The reality of the conference was something not seen in Britain for a long time: thousands of determined and self-confident members of a Labour Party that boldly stands for what they believe in.
Their self-confidence stemmed not from some kind of Corbyn cult. It comes from the fact that they could now stand on the doorstep, or talk to their friends and family, arguing honestly and hence persuasively about why they should support a Labour government.
This self-confidence, with the political and personal energy released by working to support a party you believe in, was my experience of both the Labour conference itself and The World Transformed fringe festival, initiated by grassroots Corbyn- supporting group Momentum. The two events cross-fertilised creatively.
It was combined with the steely determination to win that is evident in, for example, the huge support for the constituency-by-constituency Unseat a Tory campaigns initiated by Owen Jones, and high attendance at panels such as “How to win a marginal”.
Power beyond parliament
Far from giddiness, I heard nothing but sobriety from the likes of left-wing journalist Paul Mason and shadow chancellor John McDonnell.
At packed meetings, they largely spurned crowd-pleasing rhetoric to explain in cold detail what a radical Labour government would be up against: not only a possible run on the pound, as the media made hay out of quoting, but a sustained investment strike, and other forms of non-cooperation and sabotage on the part of capital.
Financial analyst Ann Pettifor lucidly explained the powers the government would have through its role as the banks’ guarantor of last resort.
They listened attentively to Theano Fotiou, Syriza’s minister of social solidarity, describe the obstacles they faced in Greece as an (initially) radical party in government. Fotiou detailed failures in Syriza’s own strategy, organisation and leadership — especially its failure to maintain the party’s engagement with and accountability to social movements.
As if learning the lesson of Greece, Brazil and other attempts by what were initially radical left parties to implement their program as a government, McDonnell called on his listeners to organise, to mobilise and to educate.
He spoke of the need to build a popular movement that would provide both a counter-power to the hostile pressures from private business and the City. Such a movement would need to provide counter-arguments to a hostile press that will urge on all opposing interests, attempting to divide and demoralise Labour’s supporters.
Here a distinctive aspect of the conference, perhaps symbolic of the changed Labour Party, is the way it generally overcame the traditional divisions built in to Labour’s parliamentarism. Extra-parliamentary struggles and campaigns have usually been present at Labour conferences, but pushed to the fringes, while a legislative program for the parliamentary party took centre stage.
All life at conference used to be deadened by endless speeches by lords, ladies and honourable members. This time a large number of ordinary delegates got to speak, and spoke not only about policy but about action: teachers campaigning against the cuts, postal workers preparing to strike, health workers acting against the relentless moves by private companies to break up and take over the “profitable” parts of the NHS.
When they cheered McDonnell’s commitment to take back private financial initiative (PFI) contracts into the public sector, they did so not only because they supported the actions of the future Labour government, but because this commitment vindicates their years of campaigning to stop these PFI deals in the first place.
Cult of ourselves
Platform speakers also made extra-parliamentary action part of their arguments.
Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein used her slot as international guest speaker — formerly an opportunity for delegates to sneak out for a long cup of coffee while some disconnected notable gave an inconsequential speech — to insist that “No is not enough” She said we should be, and are, creating practical alternatives out of resistance in the here and now.
A packed conference chamber whooped their agreement, while across the road at The World Transformed the idea of pre-figurative politics was common sense in session after session.
The energy at the Labour conference, then, reflects more than adoration of the leader: “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” is meant more of a chant of encouragement than the approval of a passive fan.
Even at former Labour leader Ed Miliband’s highly convivial and humorously conducted pub quiz, the chants of “Oh Jeremy Corbyn” broke out on cue when a picture of the leader appeared in the “odd one out” section of the quiz. But the spirit of self-parody is a long way from the evangelical cult that uncomprehending pundits try to conjure.
Corbyn’s insistence on the “we”, not the “me”, is taken to brain as well as heart. We must win, and we must think and act strategically to do so. We must prepare for government, and not just leave it to the future ministers.
And the power of government is necessary but insufficient: we must mobilise our distinct sources of counter-power in alliance with Labour in government.
But it is not all onwards and upwards. The conference had a strong sense of the prospect of a Labour government and was committed to maintain the electioneering energy built up earlier this year. But there remains the problem of divisions – of MPs who not only disagree with the elected leadership, which is part of a democratic party, but still refuse to accept the legitimacy of Corbyn’s overwhelming double mandate, and continue to undermine him by stealth.
Many on the centre-left accept that Corbyn’s leadership is here to stay and, contrary to their expectations, is proving electorally successful. But there are others imbued with Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson’s deep contempt for the left and who do not accept they are now a minority in the party — and have plenty of friends among newspaper columnists.
Until another election period gives a left leadership equal access to the media, as happened in June, the left will continue to be seen by the public largely through the prism of party divisions in which the right is presented by the media as morally hegemonic.
What will overcome such anti-social behaviour, short of triggering a re-selection process, is unclear. Perhaps some combination of pressure from the unions and positive, energetic electioneering by the local party shaming such MPs into supporting the party to whom they owe their job.
Like housework, never finished
But such a scenario raises a further problem: of time, energy and resources for local activists, especially those organised through Momentum, as they face the multiple tasks demanded of them in the present complex and uncertain context.
The priorities evident at the conference indicate that this new, new left aspires to combine electioneering with creative extra-parliamentary resistance and alternatives. It refuses the either/or binaries of the past. But it refuses, too, a life of endless meetings, devoid of pleasure or reflection.
Talk to activists in any branch of Momentum and you find they are experimenting with a new role for Momentum once the left wins the majority of positions in the local Labour Party. The struggle for effective control over the local Labour Party, however, is a bit like housework, never finished.
No sooner do you complete one task, such as winning seats of the local executive committee, then another appears essential, for example the local campaign forum, controlled by the councillors whose relationship to the local party is highly mediated and only partially accountable.
Like housework it can take over your life, leaving no time for anything else. Unless, that is, you create some kind of autonomous activity with its own dynamic, as Momentum has done in several cases.
In Bristol, for example, a large Momentum movement — that has already led to several left-run local Labour branches and a delegation of more than 30 to conference — maintains itself as a flexible, creative space for the incubation of ideas, education, and grassroots campaigning. This feeds into local parties, but enjoys autonomy from them.
This was well symbolised in Brighton by the autonomy of The World Transformed. It was not held in opposition to the Labour conference, but had a life of its own. In this sense, along with the growing infrastructure of radical left media, it is helping to re-create a critical and internationalist socialist political culture that Tony Blair destroyed under his presidential “me” leadership.
The World Transformed and Momentum are turning Corbyn’s “we” into a living reality, with all the autonomy and creativity that such an arrangement implies.
[Reprinted from Red Pepper.]