The rift between the Corbynistas and the right is irreconcilable. Simon Wells reports from Liverpool
There were numerous fringe events at the Labour conference in Liverpool, ranging from Defend Council Housing to the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers - and you could even go along to a sea shanty session with Associated British Ports. In addition, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy produced its daily ‘yellow pages’ bulletin in association with Left Futures and Labour Briefing.
Watching the event on television or reading about it in the mainstream press is one thing, but being there is something else. The media give the impression of a Shakespearean drama, as the main protagonists face off in the conference hall. However, that provides a very distorted perception of events taking place on the ground. Nevertheless, underneath everything there was a buzz, a sense of optimism - or resignation, depending on which side of the Labour spectrum you are on. For all the ascendency that the right may have had in previous years, the left is on the rise again.
I was interested in discovering what is really going on inside the minds of the right. It was for this reason that I attended several fringe events organised by the so-called ‘moderates’.
The first was organised by Labour First, set up in 1988 and now led by Luke Akehurst, who ran the ‘Anyone but Corbyn’ campaign in the leadership election. Similar to many left meetings, this was held in the upstairs room of a pub. It was packed out and an overflow had to be arranged, with speakers shuffling between two rooms. Its purpose was to discuss the reaction to the leadership election and gather ideas for “the next steps for Labour moderates”. The speakers were resolute in their determination to fight for ‘their’ party - like Gaitskell and Blair before them, today they are the representatives of the “moderate majority”.
They were appalled at the actions of Momentum. Many good people who had for years been working selflessly on behalf of their communities are now being threatened with deselection. But it was clear to me that the civil war has only just started: just as Momentum has been signing up new supporters, so groups such as Labour First are attempting to recruit those who are “frightened” by the Momentum surge.
One of the speakers was Angela Eagle, whose voice is not the loudest. She struggled to make herself heard in the packed-out meeting. But it got worse as she was talking, because we began to hear chanting, which got louder and louder until it almost drowned out Eagle’s voice. Outside we could see a protest passing the pub, with people carrying Socialist Worker placards, union banners and those of other groups. The conjunction of these two events was a storyteller’s dream. As you might have assumed, the speakers at this meeting emphasised that Labour has to become respectable, it has to be electable. Demonstrations, marches and speaking to the converted does not win you power.
The other rightwing meeting I attended was organised by Progress, the Blairite pressure group, whose theme was the “new information economy”. As I arrived, Owen Jones was speaking and he told the audience that, despite being associated with the left, he had spoken at a Progress meeting a year ago too - he is one of those who thinks we can accommodate the right. He spoke about the achievements of the last Labour government and said that we need to create an “entrepreneurial state”. While the audience appeared to approve of such phrases, it seemed to me that, for all the talk from Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith about reconciliation, events are too far gone, the differences are too big.
This was summed up by an anecdote a delegate told me. Having arrived by train in Liverpool, she asked a taxi driver to take her to the conference. The driver responded, “Which one?” The other conference - a distraction put on by ‘extremists’ if you read the mainstream press - was that organised by Momentum about a 20-minute walk from the main Labour Party event.
The Momentum event, called ‘The World Transformed’, ran concurrently with the Labour conference and was described as a “four-day celebration of politics, art, culture and community”. The main hall featured the sort of stalls that you find at the Socialist Workers Party’s Marxism summer school or a Socialist Party event, where you could buy books, Corbyn T-shirts and snacks - or wander over to the ‘media response unit’. Smaller rooms accommodated the numerous meetings and workshops.
I went along to a session entitled ‘Chakrabarti inquiry: does Labour have an anti-Semitism problem?’ Speakers included Jackie Walker, vice-chair of Momentum, who had been suspended from the Labour Party, but subsequently reinstated; and Jeremy Newmark, chair of the Jewish Labour Movement. The chair of the meeting told us that this was a space where we could air our differences and try to come to some agreement. Comrade Walker said that, because her social media comments, which led to her suspension, had been taken out of context, she would be reading from a prepared script. For those familiar with her story there was nothing new, but what has happened to her over the past year was shocking nonetheless.
However, the main draw was Jeremy Newmark and I have to say that if the organisers’ idea was to come to some kind of reconciliation with the right over the alleged anti-Semitism within the Labour Party, that was quickly dispelled. Newmark had a total lack of sympathy for what Jackie Walker has had to suffer. For example, he stated that some in Momentum thought it was a good thing that only 5.6% of Jewish people supported the Labour Party. Incredibly he continued to insist that Jackie Walker’s original post about the involvement of some Jews in the slave trade was anti-Semitic. He said that we should not sever links with the Israeli Labor Party, as this would only strengthen Netanyahu’s hand. For this writer there is never going to be any reconciliation with the JLM, which has nothing in common with Labour apart from the word.
Back in the main hall the atmosphere was buoyant. There was a constant stream of music, and from the walls hung many banners, including those of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts, Save Our Women’s Hospital, Liverpool dockers and the Justice for Brian Douglas campaign. There was a rich mixture of people of various ages and backgrounds. Since ‘A World Transformed’ had been portrayed as a conference of the ‘hard left’, the media were in attendance too. For example, I saw Newsnight presenter Evan Davis speaking into the camera about the vitality of the Corbynistas. And this was certainly the case.
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, talked at another meeting about beginning to build a mass movement that was separate from the Westminster bubble, and about a thoroughgoing democratisation of the Labour Party that will shift the debate to involve “ordinary people”. This was met with loud cheers. Comrade Wrack said that, while there had been a lot said about deselection, the debate should be about accountability. For me this is all about words. Neither the left nor the right wants to be the one that is accused of launching the next phase of Labour’s inevitable civil war.
Meanwhile, back in one of the coffee bars at the corporate hotel next to the conference centre, the atmosphere was different. That is where the right could be seen relaxing - and avoiding the paper sellers and leafletters of the ‘hard left’, as the mainstream press puts it. But snatches of conversation could be overheard that reflected the sombre mood - if there was laughter, it seemed to result from a kind of gallows humour, as the Labour right prepared for the speech of “our glorious leader”.
Everything about the two sides is different - from the power dressing of those at the Labour First meeting to the casual style of Momentum supporters; from the corporate, PR language of the right to the plain-speaking Ian Hodson of the Bakers Union at the Labour Representation Committee event. The contrast was profound - just as the outlook of the two camps over Labour’s future direction is irreconcilable.
In that sense, the mainstream media are correct: there is no going back and all talk of accommodation is superficial - it is not going to happen. For some this is the death knell of the Labour Party; for the majority of members it is only the beginning.