McDonnell "We will not tolerate a return to the casino economy"
It was hugely important week for politics and for Labour as Jeremy Corbyn consolidated his position at the helm of new political directions. It’s clear that the newly re-elected leader is riding the aftermath of the recent coup attempt in the most effective and dignified manner open to him and there is a strong sense from all sides that the misjudged and ultimately futile rebellion which led to the unsuccessful challenge by Owen Smith has actually managed to shore up and strengthen the leader's position. After four wasted months which saw the progress Labour had made in matching the Tories in some polls completely undone, we can only hope that a sense of unity now manifests itself in some kind of truce rather than continued sniper-briefing from the back benches.
That the party remains riven is more obvious in observing the behaviour of some more than others and here’s the rub. Nowhere was this more obvious than during Tom Watson’s provocative Deputy Leader speech, in which he goes off on a rant about how important the Blair and Brown years had been, listing their achievements one by one as a tumult grows amongst the more Blairite factions who rise to their feet, but still leave an estimated 40% of the hall unmoved and scratching their heads, puzzled at the reasons for such an unexpected outburst, which concludes with a somewhat snide aside about unity, addressed to Corbyn himself.
You have to wonder how this section of the speech escaped the party’s autocue editors given their manoeuvring with Clive Lewis but the moment brings to mind an admirable manifesto quote from David Miliband “Proud about our record, humble about our mistakes” In its present predicament, Labour would be mindful to balance the achievements against the grave errors that were also made at that time, many of which have set the party back years and ensured that it was non-electable for the last two general elections. The fact that Watson’s speech steam-rollers over those concerns not only manages to prise apart the crevice that has been widening between the sides of the party, but ushers in a whole new level of factionalism at a stroke. Cheers, Tom.
Unite Union leader Len McCluskey doesn't mince his words in a thinly veiled attack on Watson’s controversial outburst. Quoted in The Independent he says “I thought Tom’s speech was extraordinary. It confused me. It seemed to be saying that New Labour and the third way was the way forward again. Now it doesn’t surprise me, because Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are putting forward an alternative. The right wing of the party have got no vision and so they are going back to yesteryear.”
He went on: “During the Blair years, of course they did lots of good things, but we still lost one million manufacturing jobs. The gap between rich and poor continued, the seeds of inequality we're suffering today were watered.”
One of the weekend’s most poignant slogans belongs to McCluskey, quoting that icon of progressive politics, Henry V “If you have no stomach for this fight depart the battlefield”
However, after defeat on one battlefield, many are determined to take the fight elsewhere . Having manoeuvred a majority on the executive through what some regard as a “stitch-up’ (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/sep/27/jeremy-corbyn-expected-to-lose-majority-support-of-labour-nec) the so-called neoliberal wing will now present Corbyn with some challenging work in weeks to come to keep the NEC onside in some major party decisions.
There are events put on to welcome new members at Conference. Angela Rayner talks enthusiastically and effortlessly and naturally embodies the notion of selfless politics, a “we" before “I” worldview and a new humble agenda, amateur attitude for a politician in her mid 30s or maybe just a sign of things to come from left of centre. She makes the point that she is here “to empower others” and in reply to a concerned new member, she promises an enquiry into the ruthless purging of new members in recent months, a series of actions seemingly cooked up as a way of finding any possible spurious reason to deselect new members because they’d dared to tweet support for Caroline Lucas or once voted LibDem. Surely these are exactly the types we should be attempting to bring into the fold. Whilst this behaviour's punishment is expulsion, MPs such as Jess Phillips continue to brief viciously against their own party in the most public way http://www.birminghampost.co.uk/news/regional-affairs/jess-phillips-ill-never-leave-11940260. When she says “there isn’t a sense of unity” in the party, she might be well advised to take a long hard look in the mirror.
Rayner, who supported Andy Burnham in last year’s contest, is just one amongst a number of young, loyal Labour shadow cabinet MPs who have come through in this summer's coup when the whole movement could have been brought down by renegade plotters and it is indeed heartwarming to see her alongside Kat Smith, Clive Lewis and others standing together to loyally support their leader. She has even become a darling of the Daily Telegraph who say "Here is a Corbyn supporter who isn't a Corbynista. A comrade who believes comradeship still leaves room for individuality. A fighter who sees opposition as a means to an end: power. Despite her uncertain start in life, I have a feeling Ms Rayner will go far. Those scoffing Tories overlook her at their peril."
Diane Abbott, over Wednesday breakfast, tells the new members a cautionary tale from older times - Blair’s people taking for granted their core voters with responses such as “those people have nowhere to go”. It's a mistake we're paying for dearly. Once the BBC started treating UKIP as a serious party, the painful truth started to hit home that the attitudes of those years had come home to roost for many and they made no bones about where they wanted to place their protest vote. Labour now have hard work to do to win back those voters, especially in their traditional working class heartlands. Abbott also launches a swipe at career politicians “If you don’t believe in anything, what’s the point of being in politics”
The main conference hall is as vast and corporate as things get, stalls, suits, sponsorship, breakaway panels with dull titles and worthy ambitions, many of these the heart of the neoliberal wing’s apparent belief that they can influence policy from these committee rooms, having deserted the shadow cabinet benches with their ill-conceived coup, and now have the gall to push for for shadow cabinet elections as the ‘democratic’ way to go.
Ten minutes walk away from the corporate seafront that has transformed Liverpool, there is a gathering on the edge of Chinatown which I ended up hanging out at for the majority of my three days. Momentum’s 'The World Transformed' festival is being held at a converted church, The Black-E Community and Arts Centre and is a suitably visionary title for an ambitious event that brings together many stimulating speakers and lively conversations, organised and staffed by around 60 volunteers, nearly all in their 20s and discovering politics for the first time in many cases.
The festival, with its banner-draped and colourful central space strangely reminiscent of The Big Chill's first home at Islington's Union Chapel, (though without the horizontal, zoned-out chillers and with added sense of purpose!) has been designed to promote “a radical positive vision for the future” and pulls in many grass-roots activists, poets, musicians and was also graced by several leading Labour lights, such as Corbyn, Lewis and McDonnell, Jon Trickett, Rachel Maskell as well as Caroline Lucas, Green Party leader, and film director Ken Loach, who welcomes such an oasis “without sponsorship, away from the ideas of ‘no culture without big business’”. Loach delivers an impassioned speech as he makes the salient point that Corbyn is so feared because “he’s the first leader to restrict the power of capital”. Two days later, Paul Mason, talking on the ‘Building a Radical Media’ panel is suitably pumped up too “The last 18 months has shown that we’re in charge now. It’s up to us". In the corner sits a solitary figure who I am introduced to. he is jovial and affable. His name is Piers Corbyn and he gives me his card "Msc, Arcs, FRAS, FRMeIS, Weather Action, the Long Range Forecaster, Founder and Managing Director." It';s not the only time I spot the lesser celebrated Corbyn at the Momentum event.
Hope lives here, but a realistic and well-proportioned sense of hope, not pie-in-the-sky optimism. Many still don't get Momentum but hopefully other scornful commentators are coming around to another view. Even John McTernan, poster boy of the Blairite wing paid a visit to the fringe event and was understood to have been impressed. Robert Peston : "Estranged Labour MPs still don't get it. They regard the Corbyn-loving Momentum movement as leftie thugs and headbangers. There are a few of those in Momentum, but they are outnumbered by creative, well-educated, passionate activists - who Labour's right would do much better to engage with than reject and alienate."
Scheduling Corbyn’s speech for finale is a masterstroke and a measure of its success is that BBC’s Today programme and other mainstream media are almost silent on it the next day. Only Newsnight, with the combined guffawing from Nick Watt and Evan Davies at the word ‘socialism’ being back on the agenda is notable for its cynicism, though to their credit, they did bring in Paul Mason for commentary.
We would all do well to take a lesson from Corbyn’s zen-like approach and particularly the way that this seems to be quietly transforming politics for many. Corbyn’s speech itself was calm, strong and assured, a very different style of presentation from last year’s conference speech. He outlined his manifesto, reaching out to a broad demographic without any dilution of principles. There was a reaffirming of many of the policy pledges from McDonnell’s revelatory speech (“co-operation and collaboration is the future of the economy”) and he struck a sound balance, scoping out his vision for a better world and not holding back on a healthy dose of pragmatism. Alongside Sadiq Khan’s speech - which mentioned the word ‘power’ no less than 38 times, Corbyn sounded positively trancendental and new age.
On that subject, taking a wider view of the political landscape one of the main shifts I’m picking up on is that the vernacular is changing, the plates are shifting, not just in amongst the nitty-gritty of boilerplate political policy-making and but in the way that a wider demographic is engaging with a vision for change, away from free market neoliberalism, elites towards networks and bottom-up co-operative politics. The language of politics is shifting - away from emphasis on Punch and Judy knockouts, cheap point scoring, bandwagon jumping and weather vane suggestibility. Dare I say it, a more inclusive approach to solving our global issues, our home affairs and our inter-dependence needs to manifest itself in more inclusive language and the time has never been more right.
A future built around hope and unity is being mapped and there’s no one better than Corbyn to lead it. What we once regarded as the desirable qualities of leadership - based around those who win the argument by crushing their opponent, who install fear and division - is receding. Leadership for today's agenda is about integrity, calmness, an ability to listen and retain a rational mind and this there is a fast growing realisation that Corbyn’s pledge to do things differently actually possesses the qualities to win hearts and minds.
Whilst love hasn't been a word regularly deployed in politics, that's about to change. A sense of love, of dignity and a realisation that our future property - indeed very existence - depends on a sense that we truly around in this together as a human family - will ultimately will out. Love melts barriers, fighting makes them stronger. Our world view must gravitate towards the former if we're at all serious about clearing up the mess we've made of the planet. Ignoring that and being pre-occupied with faction politics, the minutae of political division and winning at all costs will surely result in us all paying the price.
As Corbyn says, this movement is the voice of progressive change, from the bottom up. More than that, it’s a movement that can bring back a sense of much-needed humanistic values into the political arena, a measure of a world in transition from a market economy to something still to be fully shaped, but one which aims to be much more inclusive and altruistic in its scope and reach. And this conference has started to put the meat on the bones, a pragmatism in place with spells out policy detail and starts to draw more distinct lines in the sand. It will be a tough few years but there are some exciting and groundbreaking months ahead on the road to a new socialist vision for 2020.
Exit stage left on the big screen we’ve been watching Corbyn on - the first time ever that an overspill theatre has been needed for a Labour leader’s speech. And before we know it, the man himself has come in to talk to us in person in the second auditorium, just minutes after his standing ovation in front of the cameras. Another ovation soon ensues, to thundering applause. This shorter speech is more personal and more muted in delivery, but every bit as heartfelt. Here is a man who is enjoying this rollercoaster and he wants us to be on it with him.
Cornyn is not perfect, not polished in any way, but very real and very passionate about his vision and his party. He’ll face many more battles and no shortage of them close to home but one can’t help but sense that Corbyn’s time has truly come. Were he to retire or step aside now, it would be safe in the knowledge that this isn't about personality politics and many are waiting in the wings to take this movement forward.
Main policies at conference:
- Oppose austerity, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and tackle poverty in the UK.
- Everyone will earn enough to live on - £10 ‘real living wage’
- End the scourge of poverty pay and zero hours contracts
- Ban fracking
- Fight for the "best possible" Brexit deal for the UK
- A wave of extra council borrowing against housing stock to fund up to 12,000 more council homes a year.
- Work with like-minded parties to create a ‘new Europe’, protecting jobs, workers rights and dealing with immigration issues
- End the social scourge of tax avoidance" by doubling the number of HMRC staff working in this area and banning "tax-dodging companies" from winning public sector contracts
- Ban companies taking on excessive debt to pay shareholder dividends
- Repeal the Trade Union Act
- Work with wealth creators and entrepreneurs
- £250bn National investment bank backed by regional development banks to stimulate local economies
- Re-write takeover code - options for more worker-owned businesses
- Help for self employed via finance from regional development banks and a welfare system that supports them
- Capital for new businesses
- Create 200 local energy companies and 1000 energy co-operatives giving power back to local communities and breaking ‘big 6’ monopoly
- A new special 'pupil premium' for the arts and committed to spending 3% of Britain's GDP on research.
Key Pledges to rebuild and transform Britain
- Full employment
- A secure homes guarantee
- Security at work
- A strong public NHS and social care
- A National Education service for all
- Action on Climate Change
- Public ownership and control of our services
- A cut in inequality of income and wealth
- Action to secure an equal society
- Peace and justice at the heart of foreign policy
Quoted by Jeremy Corbyn, the legendary football icon Bill Shankly: "The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That's how I see football, that's how I see life."
Quoted by Jeremy Corbyn from Langston Hughes "I see that my own hands can make the world that's in my mind"