What we saw at The World Transformed
What a difference a year makes. Last September, the pro-Corbyn activist group Momentum debuted its fringe festival – the World Transformed (TWT) – at the Labour Party’s conference in Liverpool.
At the time, Corbyn had just seen off a leadership challenge from the soft Left MP and ‘extremely normal man’ Owen Smith. His victory was comfortable, but the campaign was bruising. Labour MPs were trying to de-legitimize the Corbynistas in the national press; they accused Momentum of acting as a ‘party within a party’, with The World Transformed functioning as a ‘poisonous’ rival to the Labour party conference.
The 2017 General Election has cemented Corbyn’s position as leader of the party and conferred a newfound confidence on Momentum.
This was on full display at the second edition of TWT in Brighton, which ran from 23 to 26 September. This time, the festival was less marginal: it was held closer to the main conference, with a larger programme. Over 5,000 tickets were sold for events at nine different venues (including to one punter who had flown all the way from Moscow).
On the first day, the Shadow Minister for Early Years was on a panel with several Marxist feminists, discussing a radical approach to childcare; journalist and activist Paul Mason and radical geographer David Harvey traded theories on technological determinism at an event whose queue stretched for a few hundred metres; and the few political pundits who took the Corbyn phenomenon seriously, rather than dismiss it, were invited to reflect on the ineptitude of their colleagues.
Although there have always been fringe events during Labour’s party conference, TWT is more ambitious. It seems to take its cue from counter-cultural festivals of the New Left, like the Dialectics of Liberation Congress held in 1967 at the Roundhouse in London, when intellectuals and activists came from across the world for two weeks of partying and critical thinking.
At the Synergy Centre in Central Brighton, which functioned as the main TWT venue, the walls were covered in subversive art, with aesthetic references ranging from internet memes to the hand-sewn banners of trade unions.
Emerging from a probing discussion on radical democracy in the education system, I happened across an all-female chorus giving a rousing rendition of the Italian anti-fascist hymn ‘Bella Ciao’, with the lyrics updated to include a vision of open borders.
This spirit extended to the talks, which often opened into breakout groups. This encouraged a lot of complaining about the state of the Labour Party at a local level. Activists spoke about the way they are frustrated by party bureaucracy; about how new members are put off by the opacity of Labour’s rulebooks; about the difficulty of maintaining morale in the face of rightwing Labour councils, like those engaged in demolishing social housing.
These issues are linked to the problem of democratizing the Labour Party, or turning it into a ‘members-led mass movement’ – one of Corbyn’s stated goals when he became Leader.
At a talk called ‘Understanding Corbynism’, Alex Nunns, author of The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power, said he understood this ‘democratization’ to be a ‘desire to integrate the value of social movements’ into the Labour Party. How such dynamic movements will actually latch onto the ossified structures of the Labour Party is unclear.
Nunns also made the observation that the opposition that Corbyn has faced these past two years since he was elected leader – from the press, the military and especially the Parliamentary Labour Party – has been essential to consolidating his leadership. He said, half-jokingly, that he worried for Corbyn’s future now that he’s no longer seen as the underdog but a Prime-Minister-in-waiting.
The most interesting moments from the weekend were critiques of Corbyn just like that one – from those sympathetic to his project. The apparently radical manifesto that Labour put forward during the General Election was ‘strategically brilliant’ but also left much to be desired, according to Professor of Cultural and Political Theory and intellectual architect behind a lot of TWT’s events, Jeremy Gilbert.
The manifesto’s promise to build more council homes to deal with the housing crisis, Gilbert said, is necessary but paternalistic. Thatcher was able to mobilise discontent against social housing in the 1980s in part because of its top-down, bureaucratic nature. He suggested that Labour look further at new forms of ownership, like co-operatives, to safeguard social housing from another future of managed decline and privatization.
Journalist Maya Goodfellow focused on the racial dimension to the manifesto, which left large, strategic silences when it came to defending migrants.
‘There’s no other time to make these criticisms clear,’ she argued.
The main takeaway of the TWT is that the British Left need no longer be placed within quotation marks. There is no grand sense of unity, but there is an optimistic orientation towards putting a genuinely leftwing leader in Downing Street for the first time.
But there is little time for complacency. Corbyn’s team have some dominance over the party apparatus but it is nowhere near the hegemony needed for government. (It took years for Blair to re-shape Labour in his image.) Ideological compromises, already made over NATO, Trident and migration, are likely to increase as they come closer to power.
At one event, John McDonnell’s political advisor was jokingly called a ‘Blairite of the Left’ by the moderator when he said he wasn’t going to directly answer a question about the sensitive issue of Uber’s potential licence loss in London.
It was a funny moment, but also revealing in the way high office might affect Corbyn’s straight-talking self-image – it was just one of many small fractures that could deepen as Corbyn gets closer to the world he seeks to transform.
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