Reflecting on Labour Conference and The World Transformed – Part One

Part one of a series with New Socialist editors reflecting on their experience of Labour Party Conference and The World Transformed 2017.

After an inspiring if exhausting few days in Brighton attending both Labour Conference and The World Transformed, we at New Socialist felt it incumbent to share some of our personal reflections, both on the discussions we participated in, but also on the political significance of each event and how they relate to the changes within the party which have taken place over the past two years.

This year saw Corbynism really take hold at Labour conference for the first time. Last year’s conference was a major disappointment for the left - despite the success of the first World Transformed event - with the old guard holding sway in Liverpool. But this year, the left scored some significant gains, including the addition of three new CLP representatives to the party’s National Executive Committee. What’s more, the atmosphere in Brighton couldn’t have been much more different to Liverpool in 2016.

The media totally failed to capture the tenor of the debate

The media, fixated on minor rule changes, pointless Brexit posturing and the debate around anti-Semitism in the party, failed miserably in capturing the actual mood of conference and the tenor of the debates in fringe rooms and at The World Transformed. Desperate for a narrative of conflict, they (predictably) swallowed the lines from the increasingly marginalised right of the party and (largely) ignored the important debates taking elsewhere among the enlarged and emboldened left.

Yes, there was a celebratory mood at many events, but this was tempered by a recognition of the difficulties that lie ahead in both the long path to government and in implementing Corbynism in government. This was the real debate at this conference: not only how do we win next time and radically change the country when we do, but what aspects of Corbynism can we deliver upon now through community and trade union activism, as well as the more traditional modes of political opposition in Parliament and in the media.

Laura Pidcock is a star of our movement

Laura Pidcock, only an MP since June, has become an important figure in that she is a sort of avatar for the new left: young, working class, socialist, feminist, with a background in activism and the trade union movement. She reflects us and demonstrates what a PLP modelled in the membership’s own image would look like and could be capable of.

Unlike a lot of MPs, including many on the left, she did not resort to regurgitating an unchanged, one-size-fits-all stump speech at fringe events, but addressed the topic of each and questions at each directly and fluently. At New Socialist’s event on “Corbynism from Below” (audio here) Pidcock expanded upon the theme in her maiden speech that Parliament “reeks of the Establishment” and that its very structure serves to impede working class representation. Discussion centred around moving Parliament away from Westminster, the removal of arcane pomp and procedure and how to open up Parliament (perfectly expressed in her idea that it should be more open to the people, like a “community centre”).

What seems most striking about her as a speaker when compared to many other MPs, is that she is particularly adept at deploying anecdotes to reinforce and expand upon her ideas. Her important rejection of calls for “controls on immigration” style rhetoric, for example, was expressed not only through a call for solidarity with migrant workers, but also through the retelling a conversation she had with a constituent and how she had countered racist tropes such as ‘immigrants jumping to the front of the social housing queue’.

The conservatism of the Labour right

If the big political takeaway of the last election is that the public’s appetite for more radical policies has grown, why are the Labour right so unwilling to embrace a radicalism of their own? Are there not glaring contradictions within Corbynism for them to exploit? Are there not aspects of the manifesto that were lacking?

The obvious answer is that they are intellectually moribund and preoccupied with rubbishing Corbyn and Corbynism, unwilling to truly wrestle with the hard labour required for their reinvention. This could be seen at Progress and Labour First events - plenty of carping about Marxist infiltration and conference delegates exercising their democratic will but very little discussion of why their brand of politics has become so marginal and tired. If there’s a way for them to ensure their ongoing irrelevance, this is surely it.

Corbyn’s comments on regeneration are both welcome and overdue

One of the standout passages from Corbyn’s excellent speech on Wednesday was on the myth of council-led “regeneration” schemes:

After Grenfell we must think again about what are called regeneration schemes. Regeneration is a much abused word. Too often what it really means is forced gentrification and social cleansing, as private developers move in and tenants and leaseholders are moved out.

It’s hard not to interpret this as a direct challenge to Blairite Labour councils. While this intervention has come too late to influence key selections ahead of next year’s local elections, it (and further interventions on this topic) will hopefully serve as a brake to the worst excesses of these councils, build opposition to schemes such as Haringey’s HDV and add to the nascent, but growing literature on what left-led councils can do to buck the trends towards gentrification and social cleansing under the guise of regeneration.

The division between The World Transformed and the ‘official’ conference isn’t tenable

One of the problems of the runaway success of The World Transformed is that it has sucked some of the energy out of the official conference proceedings and fringe debates. The situation was improved greatly this year with the greater proximity of the TWT venues to the main conference hall, allowing activists and MPs to easily navigate between the two. However many attendees were only able to afford the much cheaper TWT or found it hard to get into TWT events because of their commitments as conference delegates.

Without TWT being subsumed into the official event and losing its crucial independence, the divide between the two could be even more porous and ensure that the energy and dynamism of TWT is reflected in the debates on the conference floor, fringe rooms and hotel bars too. The media still devotes its coverage overwhelmingly to the official proceedings and this is partly why their coverage is so lacking.

Hopefully opening up conference - not just its democratic function, but its social one too - will form part of Katy Clark’s forthcoming review of party democracy. Here is one obvious suggestion to make it a more open and inclusive affair: stop regarding conference as a money-making exercise first and foremost and make it a whole lot cheaper to attend.