Mon, 27 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Alienated Labour Left Say They're Mourning A "Retreat" Of Socialism At Party Conference

Activists from the Labour avoided Starmer's speech in Liverpool (Alamy)

7 min read

A meeting of the Labour left away from the main hub of the party's conference in Liverpool proved a mournful affair as Keir Starmer confidently consolidated his leadership.

Once a powerhouse of Labour conference, this year's The World Transformed (TWT) event – the socialist festival launched during Jeremy Corbyn's leadership – was a muted affair.

Distanced both politically and literally from the main Liverpool conference, members of the party's left met in a community hall 20 minutes away from the official gathering of MPs to discuss their plans for rejuvenating their wing of the party which has been largely dismantled under Starmer's leadership.

On Tuesday, while Starmer hailed a new "Labour moment" in an energised speech that promised to lead the party to power at the next election, Momentum, the left wing campaign group that grew from Jeremy Corbyn's grassroots leadership bid, were meeting at TWT to discuss their approach to gaining influence again in local Labour groups where they had once held power.

Despite serving in Corbyn's shadow cabinet and retaining some planks of those earlier manifestos in his own prospectus to voters, Starmer used his key address to members to put further distance their tenures. He made vocal commitments around supporting Nato, working with business and lauding his own efforts to "rip anti-semitism out by its roots", even if his more prescriptive approach has frustrated those attending the main conference who feel their voices are being ignored.

Speaking at the Momentum event, Labour Councillor Samuel Sweek told attendees that they'd continue pushing to give that voice to members, saying that "no matter how hard things are for us, it's our party and we need to continue fighting for it".

"We are at The World Transformed because that is where the ideas are, where the creativity is, and we need to utilise that hunger and that passion we have," he said.

"While we are in here building ideas for our movement to improve the world, there are people over there cosying up to the Royal Mail who are in an active dispute.

"We are in here building ideas for climate justice, while they're drinking coffee in the Heathrow Airport Lounge in the conference centre. We are fighting for marginalised workers while they're having sponsored events with Deliveroo."

But supporters of Starmer strongly supported the conference pledges to deliver a major package of 'green growth' projects and rebuild their relationship with business as part of a wider attempt to rebuild their economic credibility. 

For those in power in the party, that ability to attract major companies, which included Sainsbury's and Visa, to conference is a welcome vote of support. Meanwhile many members were delighted with a raft of more traditional left wing policies, such as the pledge to create a new state-owned energy fund.

One source on the left of the party, said that more broadly, Starmer's speech had been noted for its adoption of many Corbyn-era policies, around renationalisation, green projects and new tax redistribution plans.

"It also contained a good slug of class-based rhetoric, even referenced the Occupy Wall Street era 1% slogan. Yet, his office has tacitly endorsed the actions of groups like Labour First to actively and aggressively purge the left from the party," they said.

"The left that incubated the vast majority of his policy offer. If he had not purged the left, he would find many willing advocates of these policies, experienced campaigners ready to knock on doors, advocate for them and perhaps crucially, pay their membership dues."

They added: "Now those people just don't believe he will act on any of these things. It's an odd position to be in."

Speaking to PoliticsHome at TWT, Daniel, a party activist who joined during Corbyn's tenure, said despite the healthy attendance at the event, he believed that socialism was "in retreat" across the wider party.

"We need that leadership back on the left, someone who can reignite that fire again. These events are really important but honestly, it's the same people that attended them last year. We aren't seeing that wave of optimism for our ideas that attracted so many people to join us before."

Among attendees of the four day side-event, some expressed a sense of injustice at becoming distanced from the centre of the party's powerbase since Starmer's election, but seemed galvanised by the handful of left-wing MPs who served as a recurring cast on panels that in previous years had attracted dozens of senior party figures.  

Bell Ribeiro-Addy, the Streatham MP who is a member of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs, issued her own warning at a TWT rally on Tuesday, saying the party were "not going to win the next election by shafting our members".

"We're not going to win the next election by alienating trade unions," she said. 

"We're not going to win the next election by clearing out our left-wing MPs."

One member said that while they normally always attended the main conference, they had chosen to stay away because they believed that Starmer's supporters "just want to drag us into a culture war and I'm not interested in taking the bait".

"Next year you will see a much more organised push from the left to get involved in conference debates because it will likely be the last conference before a general election and we will want to make those arguments ahead of any manifesto," they added. 

But one small group of activists, who were broadly supportive of Starmer's leadership, expressed concerns about the continued factionalism, which they claimed was being driven by "sore losers" on the left.

Ali, who had also joined as a result of Corbyn's leadership, said it was "frustrating" to see what he described as an attempt to stoke "division" among members.

"Some of these events are great, and it's definitely worth doing stuff for members that is a bit different from the main conference, which to be fair, has felt super corporate this year. But it's fucking mad to be trying to pick more internal fights while we are blasting ahead of the Tories in the polls," they continued. 

Those on the left had already expressed their own frustrations earlier in the conference over what they described as a "stitch-up" by Starmer's team over selection rules, with some claiming the changes would make it significantly harder for left-wing candidates to be selected.

But Ali added: "They'll never be forgiven if they screw us over by pushing for deselections and causing trouble when we should be uniting behind a leadership that is clearly taking us in the right direction to win an election."They pointed to some of the programme, such as the 'cost of living cabaret', which invited people to spend a day writing poems, performing sketches or "just have a rant about current events", which they said made them "look like a laughing stock".

"This is the kind of rubbish that turned normal people off," Ali added. "Look at what is going on out in the country, and what are Labour members doing? Taking part in a radical knitting circle. It's a complete joke."

In a meeting space on the bottom floor of the community centre where TWT held events, Labour MP Jon Trickett, who was a key member of Corbyn's shadow cabinet, also expressed a sense of loss. He suggests that just one more week of campaigning in the 2017 general election, in which Labour made gains, but ultimately lost, could have seen them emerge victorious.

It's a common theme among panellists and attendees; the current cost of living crisis and chaos in the economy would have been a battleground that Jeremy Corbyn would have dominated. The latest YouGov poll showing Starmer's towering lead over the Conservatives would have been even stronger under the old regime. Certainly, on the left, Corbyn's message is still one they want to hear, and he packs out every TWT event that he attends.

Just four years ago, Corbyn would have received that same reception anywhere across the conference, with crowds of supporters and journalists making his movements through the public parts of the Liverpool centre almost impossible. But this year he was spotted walking alone around the stands, with only the odd request for a selfie or interview.

But despite a 200,000 drop in membership, largely believed to be among supporter's of Corbynism, one activist, who didn't wish to be named, insisted that TWT would continue at future conferences. 

"Of course we will. We can't afford not to, because ordinary working class people are screaming out for change," they said. 

"This is the engine room for Labour policy. A Labour Party that goes into the next election with a manifesto that ignores the need for a radical reshaping of our economy, and our democracy, is not a Labour Party worthy of the support of the people it was created to represent, the working class."

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