Some thoughts on Labour’s 2015 conference — with a nod to ‘A Christmas Carol.’
In amongst all the noise, I attended some very different fringe meetings, and a few of them stick out in my mind, in terms of both the content and the different paths that they offer a Labour Party which is, I believe, traversing an especially significant set of crossroads at the moment. Yes, Jeremy Corbyn’s victory does signal a shift to the left — but what kind of left should this be?
Firstly, the ghost of Christmas past. Away from the waterfront and the gaggle of media and politicos, the Socialist Health Association featured two speakers: Richard Wilkinson, co-author of ‘The Spirit Level’, and shadow health spokeswoman Debbie Abrahams. Richard Wilkinson talked about the direct health implications of the post-2008 crash itself, the effect of on families, children, people working in a number of jobs. He tried to put this into historical context — pointing out that up until the 1970s, there was a sense that progress in societal conditions was expected to continually improve. In the absence of an overarching vision of a fair and equal society, these societal aims have been in retreat, with the resulting stark divisions in social outcomes. After this, Debbie Abrahams talked about her experiences in her profession, and then as an MP dealing with those affected by austerity in her constituency. The mood of the meeting, as you may have gathered, was sombre — not defeatist, but a mood which reflected the very real hardships experienced as the welfare state in the UK continued to be confronted by new challenges and intense political pressure. The meeting was a reminder that at its best, Old Labour’s focus on wellbeing could be retooled as a potent critique of late capitalism. The ghost of Christmas past, for all its unreconstructed paternalism back in its heyday, could be benevolent.
The second meeting, or Christmas present, was the LRC fringe meeting, nearer to the epicentre of the conference, packed with optimistic people on the left (or to the Left) of Labour. The meeting was slated as featuring Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell: as it happened, only the latter could make it. The overspill meant that two meetings effectively occurred. A triumphant packed house.
The LRC meeting was all about the fight. The speeches — and there were many — were all about struggling, striking, the fightback against austerity. The speakers were, to a man and woman, upbeat about the challenge, that organising strikes and actions were going to turn the tide against neo-liberalism. There were no questions from the packed audience — no time — but there was also no reflection on what kind of opportunity now presents itself — the specifics of 2015. There was little focus on what life on the sharp end of the 2015 labour market was actually like. Not so much ‘educate, agitate, organise’ but more ‘organise, organise, organise.’ It feels horribly mean-spirited given the efforts which such a meeting must have entailed, but the ghost of Christmas present had a hollow feeling; now a proper opposition, but still so much left unresolved, so many people still struggling and unrepresented, and the bigger economic processes still running rampant. The triumphalism of the Labour left in 2015 felt a bit wrong.
Finally, the ghost of Christmas future — a Young Labour meeting Q&A with Jeremy Corbyn. Once again, a packed meeting, this time in the complex of the conference itself. Young Labour itself seems to be in a transitory phase — historically a neutered version of a youth organisation largely subservient to the clever young piglets of Labour Students — the leadership doesn’t yet reflect the sharp campaigning and activism of the Corbyn campaign. Was this really the Ghost of Christmas to come? The future of Labour was in this room, perhaps… but then again, perhaps it wasn’t. As the Yoof section, student fees were talked about — an easy thing for the left to abolish, really — but one wonders if there are actually distinct sectional interests for the youth, or whether they simply experience a more intense (and potentially dangerous) version of the reality that everyone else does. This might have made it more surprising, maybe, that so many of the questions were so ‘politics seminar’-like, and that so many of the questioners were obviously so middle or upper-class. Everyone seemed to be on Twitter. The Ghost of Christmas Future remains shrouded, as far as Labour is concerned. Young people are perhaps more open to ideas which challenge stale post-Thatcher orthodoxy, yet at the same time, a bitterly competitive labour market breeds a competitive spirit which may manifest itself in the newer organisations on the left — as, I’m reliably informed, it does in the Green Party. Away from the sunny optimism of packed leadership meetings, it isn’t clear that a few bedraggled volunteers manning a stall on a wet Saturday in Sutton High Street would offer the same scope for personal development. Given this, there must surely be a serious risk that a new left organisation will lack both focus and openness.
What we have, then, are these different approaches to organising Labour’s anti-austerity left. Whether Labour succeeds in the next few years may ultimately depend on how these can be fused, or woven together. Jeremy Corbyn’s initial position has — correctly, in my opinion — focused upon the first perspective, on the human consequences of economic practice. But as policy develops, there’s an argument that all Left approaches need this ‘humanisation ’— that ultimately, as in Sweden, trades unions and campaigning organisations will need to do more than offer a fight (which the new movements can do so much to support) but to become a plank in a renewed system of social insurance and solidarity. The question is not one of a reduced state — rather, an enhanced state guaranteed by activist civil society.