By John Harris
Anyone expecting the revolution will surely have walked into Liverpool’s gleaming Convention Centre and wondered where it was. The Labour party conference might now be Jeremy Corbyn’s domain, but it was all surprisingly familiar: a great wall of men in dark suits, fringe meetings with titles like “What’s ahead for consumers in a digital future?” – and, by way of a cruel pantomime, the disoriented sons and daughters of the Blair-Brown years, still wondering how to respond to what has happened – and, on the evidence I glimpsed, not getting much further than mouthing such tired tropes as the need for “an over-arching narrative”.
In glaring contrast, the most fulfilling and enjoyable event in Liverpool was The World Transformed, the five-day “festival of politics, art and culture” put on across town by Momentum. Here, most of the sessions – spread around a church-turned-arts centre, which felt as homemade and human as the official conference was cold and alienating – were designed to allow as much participation as possible, and thereby spark the maximal level of debate. You could tell something exciting was afoot by the hubbub that extended from the tiny reception area out into the street, and beyond.
I spent a day there, contributing to an invigoratingly non-doctrinaire conversation about the politics of Englishness – and then watching a two-hour session that spoke volumes about one of left politics’ emerging fault lines. This debate was titled “Building a progressive majority”. On one side sat two people close to the Corbyn project: the veteran Labour leftie and Momentum founder Jon Lansman, and Rhea Wolfson, a Scottish Momentum activist recently elected to Labour’s national executive. On the other were the chair of the left pressure group Compass, Neal Lawson, and the Green party’s co-leader, Caroline Lucas. Around 200 people participated: as the conversation went on, it became both more impassioned, and increasingly fascinating.
Lansman is a fantastically capable organiser, with an instinctive understanding of many of the tensions and complications of Corbyn and his allies’ position, and an honest sense of Momentum as “a work in progress”. But he is also someone apparently too reluctant to move away from the verities of the last century. The Green party, he suggested, might be a laudably progressive setup, but it might be best off simply merging into Labour, like the Co-operative party did back in 1927. Proportional representation, he reckoned, was much less of an issue now the Labour party was on the road to internal democracy – and, in any case, remained a dangerous idea, which supposedly gifted small parties with too much influence and would adversely affect the left’s chances of acquiring power.
Wolfson parried points about Scotland with formulaic jibes against the SNP (“Nationalists!” shout far too many Labour people, as if that will settle the matter), full of the idea that sooner or later the straying Scottish millions would come back to their natural political home. It made for an odd spectacle: people from the supposed radical left, with instincts that were often disappointingly conservative.
A lot of the audience had a rather different take. Some said their affinity with Labour was complemented by occasions when they had voted for other parties. They liked Caroline Lucas, a lot. They also liked the idea of, as one speaker put it, “negotiating the future” via a revolutionised voting system, rather than imposing it with the support of a small minority of the electorate.
These were not the hardliners and ideological desperadoes that some people might imagine: their politics felt open, self-critical and realistic about the huge tasks it faces. They may not yet have a clear idea of how a new left politics might decisively cohere – but no one (not even gobby newspaper columnists) does, as yet. The point is to at least begin with a sense of how it might start to mesh, and the breadth of people who will have to be involved.
This article originally appeared in the Guardian