Attendees at a conference of Momentum, a group of grassroots supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, in Liverpool to coincide with Labours' national conference.
It wasn’t a surprise, but that didn’t make it any less historic.
As Labour Party members lined up to get their conference credentials on the morning of September 24, we all knew the result soon to be announced: Jeremy Corbyn was re-elected as Labour leader with 61.8% of the vote. The veteran socialist MP had defied a coup attempt that had the support of 80% of Labour MPs and much of the British establishment.
The conference that ensued had a very different air than what Labour members were used to. It was the second held with Corbyn as leader, but after one year of experience of Corbyn at the helm — and passing the crucible of the right-wing coup — Corbynistas were now much more coherent, competent and determined to offer a socialist vision that can win and transform Britain.
The early days of shock at Corbyn’s “from nowhere” victory in September last year were over, as was any naivety over the intentions of those wings of the party yet to reconcile with Corbyn’s leadership.
The conference took place in Liverpool and there could hardly be a more symbolic setting. The north-western English port city was run by Labour councillors allied with the Labour’s Trotskyist Militant Tendency in 1980s. The crushing of the leftist surge in the party began by expulsion of the entire Liverpool branch in 1985. Many of modern Britain’s most famous socialists are also connected to the city, from legendary Liverpool football coach Bill Shankly to Beatles singer John Lennon.
Perhaps as important as the conference itself was a festival organised by Momentum, the grassroots outfit organised by Corbynistas. “The World Transformed” (TWT) was a four-day event filled with politics and art.
Featuring many familiar faces of the left, it was similar to many leftist festivals organised in Britain with one crucial distinction: Many of the speakers were now members of Labour’s “government in waiting” and exciting discussions about how could Labour win government and what kind of socialism it was to build permeated the schedule.
The conference took place in the posh ACC convention center, huddled by the mighty Mersey river, but the inaugural TWT happened in the artist-led centre Black-E. There was a 20-minute walk between the two venues and they couldn’t have looked more different — the opulent lounges of the business-like ACC versus the hustle and bustle of Black-E, where almost every event was packed to the brim.
One might think the two events are at two different worlds — except that the current leadership of the Labour Party, which actively took part in the discussions of TWT, was also delivering the main keynote speeches in the conference. This symbolised the victory of the left in the party.
Corbyn spoke at the Black-E on the opening night of TWT and he offered a vision very similar to what he’d go on to offer at his concluding speech to the Labour conference. This is a vision of expanding “democratic public ownership”, raising taxes on big business, borrowing to invest in housing, health and education and a foreign policy based on “peace and justice”.
But it was in the crowded halls of the Black-E that one could see an honest effort on part of the Corbynistas to define their socialism.
The best attended events in TWT were the debates. One such debate was on “progressive alliances”, a code-word for a possible electoral pact between the Corbyn-led Labour Party and other “progressive” parties such as the Greens or the independence-seeking Scottish National Party. Greens’ leader and sole MP, Caroline Lucas, spoke in favour of such an alliance as did Neal Lawson, head of Compass, a Labour think-tank that could be described as belonging to the party’s so-called soft-left.
Two leading Corbynista spoke against such an alliance: Jon Lansman, the founder of Momentum and head of Corbyn’s leadership campaign who, as the head of Tony Benn’s deputy leadership campaign in 1981, has been at the heart of party’s socialist left for decades; and Rhea Wolfson, co-chair of Scottish Labour Young Socialists who was recently elected to the party’s rule-making National Executive Committee (NEC) on a Corbyn-backed ticket.
The tension between the visions offered by Lansman and Wolfson and the enthusiasm the room seemed to have for Lucas and “progressive alliance” idea highlights one of the challenges facing Momentum.
Many of those who have recently flocked to the party, excited by the “new politics” that Corbyn promises, might like the idea of supporting Greens. Many were voting Green when Labour had gone right-wing under Blair and Brown.
But Lansman and Wolfson have a more strategic vision of turning Labour itself into a “progressive alliance”. Lansman noted that with Corbyn at the helm and with Labour having become the largest political party in Western Europe, this was an “odd time” to speak of an electoral pact with the Greens. He suggested that they could join the Labour Party and have a relationship to it, similar to that of the Co-Operative Party (where some MPs run as members of both organisations).
Wolfson affirmed Labour’s “working-class” basis and its unique ties to the trade unions, and reminded the audience that left voices were needed “on the conference floor” as well. To solidify their gains and sharply turning Labour toward their socialist vision, Corbynistas need to convince their supporters to take an active interest in the internal life of the party.
Two of the other best-attended panels were organised by Jacobin, the US-based left-wing magazine that dispatched its editor, Bhaskar Sunkara, and a few of its editors, to Liverpool. Catarina Principe, a leading member of Portugal’s Left Bloc, also attended.
One was on “parliamentary socialism” on 21st century and debated the ideas of Ralph Miliband, the British Marxist thinker who, in a famed 1961 book, wrote about the limitations of Labour Party in implementing socialism. John McDonnell, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor and Corbyn’s closest ally in the parliament, used this panel to put out his ideas vis-a-vis the state and recount his experiences as London’s deputy mayor in 1980s before the capital’s local government was abolished by Margaret Thatcher.
Interestingly, McDonnell suggested that Miliband’s last book, 1994’s Socialism for a Skeptical Age, could be a blue-print for a Corbyn administration.
Another Jacobin-organised panel on “What can a left government do” was addressed by Jon Trickett, Labour’s shadow business secretary, who spoke about the challenges that a left government would have in dealing with the financial sector.
On the panels and in the audience, a diverse array of socialist voices added to the debates and these weren’t limited to Britain: members of parliament from Germany’s Left Party and Spain’s Podemos and activists from the newly-founded left party of Poland, Razem, also took part.
In these panels, we could hear the incipient attempts to define an agenda for Labour — a work in progress that has nevertheless begun.
But while the theoretical attempts were going on in the Black-E, the Corbyn team offered a resolute and determined program to the conference and the country. In the process, they made a mockery of the attempts of the Labour right to present them as people with no intention of bringing Labour into power.
McDonnell’s conference speech was full of specific measures: cracking down on tax avoidance, offering cheap credit to small business, repealing trade union act, building a “high-wage” economy, establishment of a real living wage, “written into law” which would be at least 10 pounds an hour.
The shadow chancellor ended his speech by asking the conference, gathered in the birthplace of John Lennon, to dare to “imagine” a different world. He said that Labour’s vision for such a world had a name: “You longer have to whisper it’s name — it’s called socialism.”
This comment led to a sustained standing ovation that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
In his final speech, Corbyn was also not afraid to drop the S-bomb as he pledged to build “21st century socialism”. He looked more confident and resolute than ever as he said Labour did not believe Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s pledge not to hold elections until 2020 and will prepare for a general election in 2017.
Having survived the onslaught, Corbyn has lived to fight another day. The task in front of him and his movement remains gigantic: To deal with much of the party establishment that has not hidden its hostility to him, to win electoral support and form a government — and then to move toward establishing a socialism that remains insufficiently defined.
It is a mountain to climb but Liverpool 2016 sure was an impressive start.
[Arash Azizi is a writer and a member of the British Labour Party and Momentum.]