There are many positive consequences to the re-emergence of real political differences in Britain, but the extended, theatrical conference season is not one of them.
If we leave aside what is different about the conferences – the swathes of nauseating toffs in Birmingham versus the sea of bright-eyed idealists around Labour in Liverpool – there is a quality that has become common to them, and I don’t like it. It is sycophancy.
The corporate exhibitions and sponsored fringe events have always been a form of organised sycophancy. Does a company that builds wire-guided missiles really need to schmooze a parish councillor from Cleckheaton and give them a stick of rock? No. It’s an ego massaging job as gross as that practised in automobile showrooms.
But deference has now found its way into the culture and production values of the conference hall itself, including Labour’s. Stages have become vast. The leader’s speech – now running longer than the first act of Die Walküre – has to be punctuated by standing ovations, which are treated as if newsworthy by TV journalists on six-figure salaries.
Then it’s selfie time. I don’t begrudge a politician like Jeremy Corbyn being mobbed for selfies: his conquest and liberation of a party once occupied by the forces of the elite is a historic event, and you would want to show your grandchildren you had met him. But I do think, when it’s applied to minor politicians and journalists, the selfie epidemic speaks to a deferential culture between leaders and masses which is not healthy.
Tony Benn, for example, was a magnetic speaker but I do not remember him being lionised. His followers were self-confident trade union activists, some of whom were legends at stopping entire production lines by ringing a bell. The 1981 Benn for Deputy movement was just one part of a vibrant revolt from below, which included Scargillism, CND and the anti-racist movements that emerged in the aftermath of the inner-city riots.
If you’ve only ever known the slick world of conference, fringe and leader’s speeches I want to take you back to Sheffield in 1980, towards the end of the steel strike. I remember sneaking into a mass meeting, for steelworkers only. It filled Sheffield City Hall, which holds more than 2,500 people. The shop steward who smuggled me in told me: “Let’s sit at the back in case we have to shout.”
There was, of course, shouting. Though led by militants, who had ditched the union’s Cold War-era bureaucrats at the start of the strike, replacing them with a committee of shop stewards, they were about to win a pyrrhic victory and needed to decide what happened next. Everybody at that meeting knew the decision would be taken there, not in some office.
Not long into the meeting, the convenor of British Leyland’s Cowley plant, Alan Thornett, one of the most prominent Trotskyist militants of the time, was ushered onto the platform, accompanied by two bodyguards. I should add there were no police, no reporters, no TV cameras. Thornett gave a thrilling though realistic speech, detailing the route from a continued steel strike to a general strike to bring down Thatcher.
These were the days of rank and file politics, the product of two decades of growing agency among shop-floor workers. For them, every factory floor or bus depot was a democratic forum, in which everybody could have their say except the management.
In comparing that era to the present one, I’m under no illusion that we could go back to it. The question facing the left in Britain is how to go forward, beyond the conquest of the Labour Party and some trade unions for the politics of redistribution and social justice, to the revival of agency and control among millions of disempowered people.
The selfies and the standing ovations and the laudatory singing mask the biggest weakness of the modern British left: the hollow space that could easily appear between a left government and a passive population.
If Michael Foot had won the 1983 general election (a big if, I know, but worth imagining), the focus would not have been on the first 100 days in the Commons. It would have been on the factories, mines and shipyards where workers would have created new distributional facts on the ground. And on Brixton, Liverpool 8, Moss Side and St Paul’s, where a street-level challenge to racist policing practices would have been empowered.
Today, both the shop-floor militancy and the community activism that swung Labour to the left 30 years ago are attenuated. Instead, buzzing around the edges of the Corbyn project are people exploited in what Italian Marxist Mario Tronti once called “the social factory”: climate campaigners, anti-fracking groups, movements for trans rights, the McStrike workers, campaigns for cultural democracy and the decriminalisation of sex work etc.
At The World Transformed, which ran in parallel to Labour’s conference, there were a few times when the spirit of the mass, disruptive, fractious “politics from below” appeared – as when different sections of a packed hall gave rival standing ovations for Lexiteers, hard Remainers and a supporter of Labour’s existing line (i.e. myself). Seeing from the platform the raucousness generated by a real debate, I wanted not only to see it replicated on the conference floor: I wanted this to be the conference floor; to move from applauding rival speakers to taking control, in the style of a deliberative assembly.
Sometimes left governments are lucky – as with Attlee’s in 1945 – and the elite just has to accept their programme, because it cuts with the grain of history. But in our era, history’s grain is knotted. A left Labour government would be contested from below – just as Syriza was contested by tens of thousands of rich people and their children taking to the streets in anticipation of a Moschino-clad rerun of the Greek civil war.
Because of that, Labour needs – overtly – to link its policy priorities to building left-wing social capital on the ground. This is the spirit behind John McDonnell’s tour of regional towns, where local action plans, drawn up in consultation with business and local government, link with campaigns by party activists.
But it’s a long way from that to the kind of social movement you’ll see depicted in Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo. Labour cannot become a social movement. The mechanics of running for office and governing militate against that. The party can borrow techniques from social movements – as with its community organising unit – and recruit activists from social movements.
Sadly, Momentum also cannot become a social movement either: as long as supporters of privatisation, war and austerity conduct their rearguard action through the institutions of the party, Momentum has to be a machine for contesting them. But social movement is what we need – a series of overlapping networks, controlled by nobody, morphing and learning at the level of local communities and workplaces and interest groups.
If you ignore, for a moment, the sycophantic tweeting of the TV news reporters, Labour clearly “won” the conference season. Having moved left for two years, it stopped moving left and began to embed its left policies in more concrete language – focused on small towns, not big cities, and on offers amounting to pounds and pennies in your pocket. It enthused a sceptical cadre of local councillors. It looked like a government-in-waiting.
But it is nowhere near winning the ideological battle, whereby a few of its policies and ideas become the new common sense, in pubs, coffee shops and at the school gate. From Wat Tyler to the Levellers to Peterloo – right through to the miners’ strike – British socialism has always been strongest when it was a movement from below.
For certain, defending and deepening Labour’s left programme, and populating the PLP with more people who support that programme, is a task that can take up several nights a month for the average activist. But the missing thing is resistance: to public service cuts, to poverty pay, to the grasping landlords who are making life a misery for young people. It’s there but it’s not setting the agenda.
When you resist you learn agency and, unlike a party conference, everybody can take part.