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The World Transformed represents radical new territory for British Labour

Momentum’s fringe will be much more interesting than the official party conference

The World Tranformed 2016. Image, Steve Easton, some rights reserved.

This will be the third year of The World Transformed, but, according to organiser Hope Worsdale, it’s the first time it’s had space to breathe. The first time that Momentum organised a fringe festival at the Labour conference, in 2016, Corbyn had just seen off the attempt by Owen Smith to unseat him as leader. The second was straight after the 2017 election. Both were celebrations. And parties don’t tend to provide much space for reflection.

This year is different. The event, over four days in Liverpool, will focus on four key themes: governing from the radical left, building power outside the party, a new socialist internationalism and political education.

In different ways, it seems to me, each of these strands represents an attempt to push the Labour party on from where it’s been for about the last hundred years.

Governing from the radical left

The Marxist sociologist and father of two boys Ralph Miliband wrote about how the early Labour party was captured by the bling of the British state. The first Labour MPs were invited to country houses, toured round London clubs and smiled at by dukes. In contrast to the social violence many would have experienced from managers, they discovered that the British ruling class can be charming when it wants to be.

In 1931, after Labour party founder Ramsay MacDonald had led a national government which forced brutal austerity on the country in order to keep the pound on the gold standard, the Tories took a different approach. They simply took the country off the gold standard, and allowed the pound to devalue. Labour party stalwart Sidney Webb is said to have responded by saying “nobody told us we could do that”.

In other words, for more than a century, Labour has made the mistake of thinking that being in government is a bit like playing a football match, where you accept the rules laid down by the referee, and do your best in that context.

But the British state was not established to equitably manage the affairs of our archipelago in the north Atlantic. Its structures were set up to run the biggest empire in human history in the interests of the British ruling class. Fast forward nearly a century and we have a civil service and deep state that have been infiltrated by the Big Four accountancy firms and our growing mercenary industry, Britain has become the world centre for money laundering, we have a ludicrously centralised state with none of the subtlety needed for successful market interventions and the House of Lords is dominated by cronies. Any radical government will need a drastically different state.

As we saw during Scotland’s independence referendum, much of Labour still labours under the delusion, taught to it in those gentleman’s clubs a century ago and their equivalents ever since, that the British state could in some way be a vehicle to deliver democratic socialism.

In this strand of The World Transformed, the left of the party will begin to grapple with this delusion (as Andrew Murray has today). If Corbynism can develop a serious and sustained critique of the British state, it will be taking Labour into new and exciting territory – but it will also be taking it into a direct confrontation with Anglo-British nationalism. How this plays out will be fascinating.

All of this means that perhaps the most interesting session at the conference will be one in which the shadow chancellor John McDonnell himself discusses being “In and Against the State”. Also, I’ll be chatting about similar stuff with other folk at, “What’s happened to the British ruling class” (Tuesday, 19:30-21:15) and at an Unlock Democracy event around the corner, “Radical Solutions to fix Britain” (Monday, 12:30-2pm).

Building power outside the party

This all relates closely to the second theme of the conference, building power outside the party. There’s a famous quote from FDR, often cited by Obama “I agree with everything you say, now make me do it”. It’s an acknowledgement that any party in office, no matter what its intentions, will come under huge pressure from the vested interests of the rich and powerful not to deliver equalising policies, as Paul Mason has described on openDemocracy.

Historically, Labour has often felt like it has a very different understanding of power. So often, whatever political question you ask, the answer you get from Labour activists and politicians is “we just need a Labour government”. The idea that a Corbyn or Corbynite government will only get anywhere if it is propelled forward by a powerful and organised social movement is vital to any future success, but a direct contrast to recent Labour governments which always treated social movements to a sneer of contempt.

More generally, when Corbyn was first elected, I wrote about how his success came on the back of a decade of radical left institution building: he couldn’t have won Labour without the anti-austerity movement and climate movement and the networks of skilled and connected activists they produced. To win an election, this movement will have to stand up to everything that the corporate media and City of London throw at them. And that means Corbynism will need to sit at the centre of a whole raft of institutions which generate their own common sense, their own culture, their own power. Those attending the conference can go to sessions including “communities in the fight against climate change” (Tuesday, 17:30-19:00), or “How do we build a movement led media”, or “Occupy Fleet Street – how to democratise the British media” (Sunday, 11:00-12:30).

A new socialist internationalism

At the core of this need to build new institutions is the messy relationship Corbyn has with the culture and institutions of Anglo-British nationalism. Traditionally, Labour has been almost as much a party of British nationalism as the Conservatives, but Corbyn has always been a bit more complex. On the one hand, it’s his failure to wrap himself in the union flag which has drawn most criticism over his three years at the top, from controversies around poppies to questions about bowing to the Queen to demands that he murder millions with nukes.

On the other hand, it’s on the totems of Britishness that he’s been quickest to triangulate – most notably, the party’s decision to back £200 billion expenditure on technologically redundant trident missiles, in order to make Anglo-Britain feel better about losing its empire.  

Despite this triangulation, Corbyn is cutting new internationalist turf in a Labour party that’s always had an awkward relationship with empire. The left of Labour often talks about Clement Attlee in beatific terms. And he did, of course, do lots of wonderful things – his government founded the NHS and the modern welfare state. His global record, though, is a little more contentious, from the debate around his role in the partition of India to the fact that he brought nuclear weapons to Britain to the fact that that one of the ways his government funded the post-war reconstruction was by forcing famine-struck Malaysia to continue to export rubber and tin, triggering the “Malayan Emergency”, during which British forces put half a million people in concentration camps.

The early Labour party had arguments about its attitude to Empire, with George Bernard Shaw writing in defence of imperialism in “Fabianism and the Empire”, and Ramsay MacDonald leaving the Fabians over their refusal to condemn the Boer war. However, in practice, for most of its history, the Labour party’s role has been securing for the British working class a greater share of the proceeds of imperial plunder.

To this day, Britain’s biggest firms – HSBC, Shell and BP – are all companies that were built directly on the back of this plunder – respectively of China through the Opium Wars, Sumatra, and Iran. All still play highly controversial roles in global geopolitics, and sit at the heart of British capitalism.

Any truly progressive government therefore will have to grapple with the difficult question of how the people of these islands can thrive without using the two skills which made Britain rich in the first place: killing people of colour and stealing their stuff, and laundering the proceeds for other people who’ve done the same thing. Internationalism in Britain has historically been about shouting nice slogans of solidarity with those we approve of in the rest of the world, whilst doing little about an economic model built on exploiting them. The fact that the leading faction within Labour appears to be grappling seriously with some of these questions is very important, with sessions at the World Transformed encouraging members to “come and discuss the history of Labour’s relationship to empire” (Saturday 15:00-16:30); War on Want’s discussion of Empire 2.0 (Monday, 15:00 – 16:30) or, more positively; Global Justice Now’s discussion of A Global NHS at 11:00 on Tuesday.

And any conversation about global justice in the modern era has to consider the question of climate breakdown and climate justice. Again, Labour has often been a long way behind where it needs to be on this, and to this day, still merrily calls for ever more oil to be extracted from the North Sea. In this context, it’s reassuring to see some discussion of this epoch defining question, such as “Sacrifice Zones – Colonialism, Neoliberalism and Climate Change” (Sunday, 13:00 – 14:30).

Political education

The final strand of the event will be political education, with organiser Hope Worsdale saying that, not only is it “one of the biggest arenas of political education in the UK”, but that this year, there will be some direct discussion of political education, including in the opening panel of the event “Making the case for political education”, the blurb of which asks “who’s educating who anyway?” – which feels like a tacit reference to the Brazilian socialist educator and theorist Paulo Freire, whose iconic book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” emphasizes the two-way relationship between “student teachers and teacher students”.

Other sessions include “Education Education Education (in the Labour party)” (Saturday, 13:00-14:30), and “Popular Education Forum, Let’s Build a Network” (Sunday, 15:00-16:30), and this strand could perhaps be extended to a series of reading group sessions, hosted by regular openDemocracy contributor Jeremy Gilbert each morning.

It often seems to me that the simplest way to understand the various different strands of the left is to look at their pedagogy. The Socialist Workers are disciplined centralists, who like men standing on stages and giving lengthy lectures to an audience sat in neat rows, whose job is to listen and applaud raucously. They organize conferences with interminable speeches and panels with ten people on them, followed by a couple of rants from the floor. Anarchists, at the other end of the spectrum, organize book fairs, where people sit in circles and discuss their reading. Usually, these discussions are also dominated by some white men, too, unless they’re well facilitated. But they are, on the whole, much less awful.

In that context, we will be able to learn a lot about Corbynism not just from the content of the discussions at the World Transformed, but also from the style of the events: how much time will there be for discussion, audience participation and collective learning, and how much will people be asked to sit and listen? We’ll see.

Overall, the conference tells us a lot about the biggest faction in Britain’s opposition party. It’s reflecting on the mistakes of the Labour party in the past and it’s asking genuinely radical questions. It is, of course, not the Labour party, and it’s not clear how it will answer those questions. The event itself is, however, significant, and it’ll be exciting to see how it turns out.

One final plug: today, openDemocracy has launched “New Thinking for the British Economy”, which outlines an alternative to neoliberalism. Each of the chapters has been turned into a pamphlet, which will be for sale at The World Transformed on the Democracy Collaborative stall. Don’t miss out! (or you can download the ebook here).

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