This past week, like acid house in 1991, Corbynism officially graduated from niche, local parties to nationwide fever. Jeremy’s new politics of kindness went mainstream this conference in Brighton, and the thousands of us on this pilgrim journey to the sunny side of Britain witnessed first hand the triumphant, confident shift in British politics. It’s been long awaited.
The mood shift was apparent, not just in the polished and comprehensive leader’s speech (do I detect Owen Jones’ writing style in there? The vocabulary was definitely shared by the left of Labour throughout the fringe events). Of course, the mood was effervescent among the cool Momentum crowd and the vindicated old Labour guard. But it was also apparent in the eavesdropped conversations of the chagrined right wing, and the outsiders attracted to the new political gravity centre, like moths to the power flame.
Sitting in a typical Brighton indie coffee shop, I heard loud American lobbyists saying to each other: “You have to talk to the left, they take all the decisions now”. Fans of the Guardian’s Jonathan Friedland bemused bitterly at the Brighton centre over weak tea: “I don’t even know what the party stands for any more” (really? 62% of us do, you just have to read the manifesto), and they’ve had enough of Corbyn this, Corbyn that. The sad resignation in their voice spoke of defeat. The improbable politics of integrity seems to have matured, realigned its centre with national sentiment and armed its expansive resources of tech and youth power ready for the next election, which is no doubt soon upon us.
Not all is rosy and not all battles are won, for sure.
Much has been said on the left about Corbyn’s lack of address regarding Palestine recently. He definitely didn’t forget it in his closing speech, nor any other international war crimes left unaddressed by this government. The fringe was brimming with events, not just about Palestine, but the much maligned and now even laughable, witch hunt for Labour antisemitism. Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi launched the Jewish Voice for Labour in possibly the most popular fringe event of the Conference, with at least 400 people attending to watch Len McCluskey, Ken Loach and ASLEF president Tosh McDonald offer warm support and affiliation.
I enjoyed this festival of good vibes and solidarity; people who want to take care of others, who don’t want the disabled or homeless socially “cleansed”, stand for workers’ rights and bend backwards to provide equal opportunities to all. But according to the Tory press, I was wrong. It turns out I was deceived, and this is, in fact, a nasty party of nasty people who want to eject Jewish members for no reason whatsoever and are fond of abuse and violence. Of course, the violence means a mean tweet here and there from victims of false antisemitism defending themselves against fabricated accusations. While no one anywhere, ever suggested Jewish members be excluded from Labour, it was the false accusations of antisemitism of Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) themselves, that saw notable Jewish activists and intellectuals purged last year for their utterance of truths regarding the situation in the Middle East and North Africa.
At the many fringe events, a strong vision for the future of Britain’s economy and industry was presented, with new financial solutions like the Robin Hood tax. John McDonnell collected ideas from the forefront of economic thought to prepare the country for the new technological challenges of the fourth industrial revolution. This type of thinking lacks completely from the repertoire of the Tories, not least because the last thing that they envisage is a better future for the large mass of people. Looking at Tory policies, one imagines they plan to prepare for the new eve by simply “cleansing” all the poor. Starvation and financial coercion are some of the many tools they’ve been using for this purpose.
Owen Jones made a robust contribution at a few speaking events. He’s apparently over his anti-Corbyn identity crisis that must have cost Labour some Guardian-reading votes during the election. Faiza Shaheen from the Robin Hood tax campaign brought a very articulate vision of the real science of business and tax. In fact, the great and pleasant surprise of Conference was the vast amount of outstanding women in roles of somewhat great prominence. Jenny Formby from UNITE for instance, who called the crowd’s attention at the pre-Conference Corbyn rally to the essential role of rule changes in the solid effort of the left to re-democratise the party. Groups are already forming to draft and vote on changes to the rulebook and they can be contacted through [email protected].
Much work has to be done with meticulous attention-to-detail to remove the antidemocratic Blairite inheritance and return the party to what it was: representation for the people and workers. The new consensus is that the neoliberal stage is over — not just in Labour, but nationally.
I didn’t attend as a delegate, but more delegates than ever went to Conference. Partly due to groups of activists’ relentless lobbying to publicise the staff decision to illegitimately deny credentials to the delegates. Some of the most important achievements of Conference happened in the NEC and union meetings that happened before. The left wing won the vote over Brexit, despite strong pro EU voices. The party decided we need to go through with last year’s referendum vote.
Notably absent was any mention of opposing the systematic erosion of our digital rights. Except for one question from the public at the Fabian society Question Time fringe, no one once found it significant to stand against the Investigative Powers Act or similar acts of dictatorial reach. It seems that the concern for one’s freedom of speech and thought on our brain’s extension, the internet, lags behind in British consciousness, even on the left. Hundreds of fringe events addressed anything from ice-cream flavours to the rights of hamsters…but not the current legislation that allows the government to snoop into all our private data.
In all, much work will be done, but in better spirits. As any glimpse at the mainstream media will tell, much of that work will be rebuking the neverending antisemitism row, which seeks to take down one Corbyn ally after another. Because if the Chicken Coup architects retreated meekly for the moment, not the same can be said about the JLM, using its new rule change to punish unproven instances of subjective antisemitism. Amended by the NEC, the rule change still poses a threat of bringing Labour members into question for mere thoughtcrime on the very sensitive topic of antisemitism. It might not sound as dystopian to members of the British public, but to me as a Romanian, this rings deeply authoritarian. It is a step in the very wrong direction of history when people are ejected from their democratically-held positions for merely criticising the military actions of the state of Israel, or for thoughts they might have but never expressed. This is the cloud hovering over the hard-won triumphs of Labour Conference, and the field of our next activist democratic battles.