The wooden panels that line Conway Hall give the building a cosy vibe. Throughout the years, the venue has played host to various punk gigs and witnessed the ebbs and flows of London’s radical left. Today, the sense of living in revolutionary times also reverberated around the room. Brian Eno, one of the attendees, put it best. “I used to come here in the 60s,” he reminisced, “Back then it also seemed as if everything was changing.”
The previous night, Yanis Varoufakis, Srecko Horvat and Elif Safak had taken part in a Guardian Live event called Brexit: An Unorthodox View where they had discussed the rise of the far-right and the retreat of sections of the left into quasi-nationalism and stricter border controls. The discussion ended with an invitation by Varoufakis, ‘Anyone interested in the issues discussed and wishes to be involved in a progressive movement for change, come tomorrow.’ No one really knew how many people would show up.
It was a cold and wet Saturday morning and forgetting my umbrella I had to run from Holborn station, periodically breaking for cover under the occasional shop awning. I arrived a few minutes before the 10am official start time. The hall was already filled up, people sat on chairs arranged concentrically around an empty space in the middle of the room – an arrangement apparently unknown hitherto to Conway Hall regular attendees. I found a seat near the back and watched as the lower floor soon reached capacity, and people were redirected to the balcony.
The event was advertised as a “three-hour interactive meeting for the purposes of establishing DiEM25 UK as a movement in every British city and town” and chaired by Srecko Horvat. We would hear welcoming speeches by members of the DiEM coordinating collective – Yanis Varoufakis, Elif Safak, Brian Eno and Agnieszka Wisniewska – followed by a clutch of breakout organisational meetings. With a punctuality that belied an event featuring three Mediterranean speakers, we began and ended on time.
Since DiEM25 launched over one year ago, as a pan-European political platform, it has struggled to gain a foothold in the UK despite being able to count high-profile figures such as Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Green MP Caroline Lucas among its membership.
This was partly due to left discomfort and the constant distraction in the UK (London in particular) of the Brexit referendum campaign, which seemed to reach new levels of absurdity with every week. DiEM25 had partnered with the umbrella group Another Europe is Possible to run an enthusiastic Remain campaign based on radical left principles. They lost. We lost. And since then, many on the left in Britain have struggled to come up with a response.
I attended with a degree of trepidation. My (admittedly limited) experience with events like this was of a lot of bluster with no follow-through. What was going to stop DiEM becoming just another manifesto, just another meeting, just another self-congratulatory circle jerk?
Moreover the issue facing us all was quite a monolith. Our failed Brexit campaign.
“The response our radical Remain campaign elicited from many Brits was pity,” began Yanis Varoufakis. “They pitied me for arguing for the very thing which had crushed our Athens spring. They didn’t believe in our principle of constructive disobedience at an EU level. They didn’t believe we would see a progressive government in the UK to be able to enact such a tactic.”
My dystopian vision of another group of introverted leftists, a vampire’s castle of self-congratulatory piety began to recede. Varoufakis made it clear, “We need to reach out to Labour members, Greens, liberals, social democrats and progressive conservatives in the UK and across the continent.”
His comments chimed with the current movement for a “progressive alliance” to fight the Tories on hard Brexit and other policies: “Left wing political parties in the UK are afraid to talk to each other, and it's the Tories who benefit.”
Varoufakis also addressed the Brexit voters, many of whom the left had tout court excluded from their post-referendum plans.
“The majority of people who voted for Brexit are our people. If we don't see that we might as well go home,” said Yanis. “We need to reach out to poor, white Brexit voters and convince them of the necessity of an economic New Deal, both here and in Europe. Involuntary underemployment and involuntary migration are two ills of this country.”
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the meeting was the emphasis on art in the movement. It’s not something I had particularly considered but I was struck by Elif Safak’s contributions on the role of art in building a progressive movement. “We writers need to be less introverted and more political,” she ventured, “The job of the storyteller is to humanise the Other. If we lose the human, then authoritarianism will more easily take hold.” Brian Eno continued the theme: “Governments like fearful populations because they are easier to control. We need creative populations.”
The final introductory speech was by Agnieszka Wisniewska, an activist from Poland. “Why am I here today? Well….because I have a lot of friends in London,” she said, “But also because Brexit has shaken our community.” Emphasising the transnational nature of DiEM she spoke about the situation in Poland. “We are undergoing an extraordinary attack on democracy in Poland. We have an authoritarian government and failed liberals – DiEM is an alternative. We need to democratise the UK to inspire hope that we can do the same in Poland, where the situation is much more severe.” It called to mind one of DiEM’s founding principles: that no European people can be free as long as another's democracy is violated.
Following this, the floor was opened to questions. Many usual suspects proffered questions and criticisms, including Green councillors and veterans of leftwing assemblies. I found a lot of it overfamiliar and slightly self-aggrandising. But nobody had to be asked to shut up: they did it with respect and with hope. However, there were – for me – three memorable and original contributions.
One concerned the coming robotic revolution and the increasing obsolescence of blue collar work. How would we prepare for that? Srecko, as moderator, assured the inquirer that such an issue was very important and being discussed by other DiEM groups abroad.
The second came from an entrepreneur who works in the tech industry. Her contribution, on her experiences in business and how one measures success, was thoughtful and well received. If this movement is going to be successful, it is going to have to embrace and reclaim business and many people who define themselves as capitalists. Or as Elif put it earlier in the day, “We shouldn’t leave patriotism to the nationalists and faith to the priests.”
However, my favourite contribution, and the one which undoubtedly lit up the room, was from a young sixth former called Mauro, born in the UK to Croatian parents. “I’ve never come to this sort of meeting before, but I felt compelled to come today,” he said. “Young people like me feel shut out of the political debate because we are constantly told we don’t have all the facts by smug commentators on TV. But last year the smug commentators with all the facts got everything wrong.” His contribution, which started out meekly but grew in confidence, drew a standing ovation from many assembled.
Following discussion, we split into different groups. One was for volunteers interested in working on the DiEM UK manifesto, one was on media strategy, one organising across the UK, and another on art and its importance. I went to the organising group. It was a friendly mix of different ages, colours, experience and nationalities. The goal was to have people plan for organising different DiEM events in their local communities. Several people volunteered, most of them had no organising experience but felt that their enthusiasm carried through. One woman who volunteered explained that she was a yoga teacher in Southend, and that if she could organise yoga meetings there, then she believed she could organise political meetings too.
Overall, the atmosphere in the room as the meeting was brought to a close and people mingled, exchanged details and shuffled out of the hall was one of optimism and enthusiasm. My cynicism before entering the meeting three hours earlier was tempered and I was struck by the positive energy. Something is changing.