If you want to change the world, just forget Brighton

NS Labour conference 2004 - As its conferences now show, Labour has acquired focus but lost enthusia

There is one good reason for attending the Labour party conference: it offers the last hope of unseating Tony Blair as Prime Minister. It won't happen through composite motions from the constituencies, or any of the other cumbersome and largely defunct mechanics of democratic control. It will happen if the members of the Labour Party do what the Women's Institute attempted at Wembley in 2000, and slow-handclap him off the stage. If Blair is unable to complete his speech at Brighton, he's finished.

Otherwise it's hard to see the point of the Labour party conference. Gone are the days when the conference told the party leaders what to do. Decision-making in the Labour Party today is a closed loop. The Prime Minister appoints the party chairman, who then ensures that the party supports the Prime Minister. The National Policy Forum recycles Downing Street's ideas through a bogus consultation process and back to Downing Street. At the conference, the nobbled National Executive Committee oversees nobbled debates on nobbled motions in front of a partly nobbled audience. The members are required only to show up, so that their presence can be used to validate the decisions made by Blair and his grey men months or years earlier.

All this might be tolerable if the conference was remotely entertaining. But the ancient, tedious procedures, the incomprehensible rituals of the Orthodox Old Labour Mass, once designed to permit believers to commune with God but now almost devoid of meaning, are still in place. The speeches, designed for the media, not the members, are written to elicit obedient responses from obedient delegates. They will surprise only those who haven't been paying attention. And security has become so tight that you'll spend half the conference on the street.

Sure, there are plenty of stalls and sideshows to wander round. You can attend the session on "gambling and social responsibility", sponsored by Sun International, a big casino company. You can hear PricewaterhouseCoopers explaining how to improve public services (presumably by outsourcing them to PricewaterhouseCoopers). You can watch as the Mobile Operators Association, which has sponsored the session on public consultation, explains why planning permission should not be required for mobile-phone masts. Yet you could do all this at the annual conference of the Confederation of British Industry, where you can also hear the Prime Minister and half the cabinet speaking with rather more candour than they do in front of their own party.

Today, in short, the action is not at the Labour party conference. It has shifted to another place. At the European Social Forum in mid-October you will find everything that the Labour Party has lost: the passion, the ideology, the freedom and the chaos. And this year, for the first time, the forum will be held in the United Kingdom.

The ESF is an offshoot of the World Social Forum, which was launched in Brazil in 2001. It's not a party, it doesn't have a programme or a set of policies, but it now attracts all those who - like the disaffected members of the Labour Party - still want to change the world.

Last year, 51,000 of us turned up in Paris. It was an awful mess. To remind their citizens of their faded left-wing credentials, half the departements of Paris jostled to attract us, with the result that the events were split between the four most distant corners of the city. We spent about two-thirds of every day on the Metro. In future, all such meetings should be held in right-wing areas. At the World Social Forum in Mumbai this year, the city authorities shunted us into a single site - a disused showground in a dusty suburb - with the result that it worked very well.

This time, apart from a few workshops in Bloomsbury, we will be stuck in the Alexandra Palace, so, whatever else goes wrong, at least we'll manage to get to the meetings. There will be hundreds of events - and if you choose your seminars carefully, you will hear the world's newest thinking on everything from agriculture to xenophobia.

The forum's problem, like that of the vast global justice movement it represents, is the opposite of Labour's. We are free to speak and think and behave as we like without being pushed around by brainless goons. Without a programme for change, however, it amounts to little more than grandstanding and self-affirmation.

We all know what's wrong with the world. We are much less certain about what needs to be done, and have only the faintest idea of how to do it. As Susan George has pointed out, unless we move on to questions two and three, we are wasting our time.

And so we encounter the age-old paradox of transition. For a political movement to remain large, it has to remain diverse. For a political movement to be an effective agent of change, it has to pursue a programme. The process of choosing a programme involves a battle against diversity. In battling diversity so as to produce a set of workable proposals, you run the risk of losing the popular support on which the proposals are supposed to be founded. This is the battle the Labour Party has fought, and in which it has suffered a crushing and disastrous victory.

The temptation to adopt the same control-freakery in order to provide a focus for the international movement has proved, for some, irresistible. For the past year, the organisers of the forum have been engaged in low-level warfare with a group called "Democratise the ESF". It claims that Globalise Resistance (more or less a creature of the Socialist Workers Party) and the London Assembly took the decision to hold the forum in London before there had been proper consultation. It accuses them of railroading the organising committee to achieve a false consensus: a tactic familiar to anyone who has studied the deliberations of Labour's National Policy Forum. It claims that the old left has been shutting out the new left.

If this movement has learned anything, however, it is surely that we do not have to choose between chaos and control. All over the world, inspired by processes such as the "consultas" staged by the Zapatistas in Mexico or the participatory budgets in Brazil, it has been experimenting with new forms of popular democracy. And what these demonstrate is that there is no decision the control freaks can make which the people can't make just as well. This is what the Labour Party once knew, and what Blair has encouraged it to forget. It becomes harder at the European or the global level, but there are plenty of means by which the global representative democracy that some of us believe is necessary can be made subject to popular control.

Representation without participation has failed, almost everywhere on earth.

It offers too many opportunities for capture by ruthless technocrats. It has permitted the corporations and their frontmen to step between the people and their delegates. It has led to a mass disaffection with mainstream politics, which has encouraged, in turn, mass enthusiasm for alternative means of organisation, such as the European Social Forum.

We are in danger, like the Labour Party, of squandering this enthusiasm through a lack of focus on the one hand and excessive control on the other. We don't need a Tony Blair, but we do need to decide, collectively and democratically, what we intend to do with the anger and the passion and the hope we have tapped into.

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The real Tony Blair