“The mood has changed. The atmosphere isn’t like any previous conference. You can sense it in the air.”
These were the words of Jim, an experienced socialist Labour member and delegate at this year’s party conference. And it was a sentiment shared by many others in Brighton this weekend, including other conference delegates and visitors, along with activists attending the Momentum fringe festival, “The World Transformed”.
Indeed, this year’s Labour Party conference began like no other, with the man of the hour himself, Jeremy Corbyn, addressing a crowd of thousands at an open air rally on the eve of the conference. Introduced by his key ally, the shadow chancellor John McDonnell, the Labour leader was greeted by the overwhelming young Brighton crowd to the now traditional deafening chant of “Oh, Jer-e-my Cor-byn!”
With a noticeable playfulness and skip in his step, Corbyn gave the audience an overview of where Labour was heading after the surprise success in the June general election.
With critics now largely silenced, and feeling the support of a mass movement beneath him, the Labour leader clearly felt confident to put his programme forward boldly, announcing a string of left-wing policies aimed at tackling the ills of modern-day Tory Britain: from the housing crisis and the rising inequality; to the prevalence of mental health issues and the stagnation of wages.
Such is the confidence of Corbyn and his team - given the ever-growing grassroots movement behind him (and the ever-intensifying crisis within the Tories) - that he and other speakers were even unafraid of positively using the world “socialism”. The details of what such a programme would entail were largely left (purposefully) vague, but the crowd responded enthusiastically nevertheless with endless applause.
The Blairites and Brexit
Notable by its absence Corbyn’s from opening speech was the question of Brexit. As with the general election campaign, the Labour leader focussed attention on the vital social issues of jobs, housing, and the NHS – questions that have the potential to cut across the Remain / Leave divisions within our post-Brexit society.
Nevertheless, the Labour right wing came to Brighton intent on not letting the question of Brexit go ignored and unanswered. From organising a pro-EU demonstration along the seafront, outside the conference venue; to putting on an array of fringe meetings in favour of the Single Market: it is clear that the Blairite faction sense a weakness when it comes to Corbyn’s position on Brexit – a weakness that they are determined to exploit to the maximum.
In this respect, the Blairites of Labour First, Progress, etc. are correct. Corbyn’s current position on the EU and Brexit is clearly limited. Under pressure from big business on one side, demanding continued access to the Single Market, and from parochial trade union leaders on the other, demanding restrictions to the freedom of movement, the official Labour stance on Brexit has veered and zig-zagged from one untenable and contradictory position to another.
The Labour right wing can see this, and are therefore attempting to use the question as a stick to beat the Labour leader with. Furthermore, in order to divide the Left, they disingenuously and purposefully confuse the issue of the Single Market – a capitalist trading bloc – with that of the healthy internationalism that many Remain-voting Corbyn supporters have.
Despite such attempts to attack and undermine Corbyn and the Left, however, the Labour right wing were thwarted at the first hurdle, with delegates voting overwhelming in favour of discussing issues and policies other than Brexit and the Single Market at this year’s conference, including motions on the NHS, housing, and the railways.
These shenanigans, however, have highlighted the need for the Corbyn movement – including the trade unions and Momentum – to put forward a clear socialist alternative to that of the Blairite big business Remain and the Tory train-crash Hard Brexit.
Corbyn himself on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday correctly stressed that the EU’s laws and institutions would prevent a Labour government from carrying out a left-wing programme. Now he and other Left leaders must draw the logical conclusion of this and boldly explain the need to fight for a Socialist Europe – an internationalist and socialist alternative to the current broken status quo of the Single Market and Fortress Europe.
The transformation continues
Already the conference has underlined the enormous changes that are taking place in the party. The Left has organised locally – in many cases organically, without any support from the official Momentum structures – in order to guarantee an overwhelming left-wing delegate composition.
Meanwhile, after facing criticism last year for sucking delegates away from important conference votes with their nearby fringe festival, this year Momentum ensured that delegates were alerted of when key decisions were coming up, utilising a new mobile app to inform and instruct delegates about when and how to vote.
At the same time, the attendance at the World Transformed events highlighted the rejuvenation that Labour has undergone with its influx of youth. As more experienced Labour members took to the conference floor, a new generation of activists debated at an array of talks and discussions, with an array of topics on the agenda exploring all manner of questions.
Although open political discussion was largely thwarted in such events by the insistence of breaking up into small groups after the initial speeches, the Momentum fringe festival still provided a useful platform for bringing young grassroots activists together.
The key task now is for political education, agitation, and organisation at all levels, based on providing socialist answers to the questions arising on the doorstep – on the economy, education, healthcare, foreign policy, and so on – in order to give campaigners the political weapons we need to fight the Tories and end austerity.