As recently as a year ago, the hard Left had a pulse. They heckled Keir Starmer on the floor of the last conference, and they troubled his attempts to change Labour party rules. This year they didn’t even bother to boo the national anthem when it was sung on Saturday morning. None of Momentum’s topics made the priorities ballot.
Leading Corbynites write books that question whether socialism can ever even exist in a country like Britain. Or they vaguely tell the Guardian that they will change what “common sense is in the country”, before they attempt to change the Labour Party again. Momentum, joked Blairite poster boy Wes Streeting on Saturday, should change its name to Inertia. Momentum was supposed to be the spearhead of a millennial revolution, one that would permanently alter British politics. Yesterday’s winners are today’s punch lines.
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But they are still here, just. They incubate in a discoloured ex-church building that looks like an ossuary, 15 minutes’ walk from the official conference. This is the World Transformed, the hard Left’s political festival and refuge, taking place for the seventh time, wobbling on its last legs. “There was a real energy before,” says a man selling Stuart Hall essay collections, “and now…”
I’m told it used to be different. I’m told there was an energy at this festival in the ancient days when Corbyn was Labour leader. Soft Left MPs like Ed Miliband used to be drawn to The World Transformed. Moths flapping to the light. “This was the cool place to be,” a council worker tells me wistfully one night. “But Miliband and the rest were pretending to be more Left-wing than they actually were.” That energy peaked in 2018, he reckoned. Then came 2019, and the Left was shredded. Their failure was historical. Overnight, Corbyn became the new Michael Foot, the new George Lansbury.
So, those who remain are not pretend Left-wingers. They are the diehards, and they come to the festival to fantasise. Penny Grennan is not pretending. She stood as a Parliamentary candidate for Hexham in 2019 and lost by 10,000 votes to the Tories.
This afternoon she is selling raffle tickets (first prize: Jeremy Corbyn allotment jam) and t-shirts that call Keir Starmer a wet wipe in a room that smells like vegetable soup. She teaches protest songs to the next generation. There are several decades of fruitless canvassing written all over her face. “We are a family here,” she says. Up the road, “the Labour party machine is voracious. It is about control and obedience.” I feel like I am talking to a particularly sweet old nun. It’s an ignoble feeling: pity. Penny has wasted years on something that doesn’t exist.
Fantasy blots out everything. I read a pamphlet that says Corbyn failed because he was not… Left-wing enough. I go down to a studio where the “youth are rising for a green new deal” — a ropey American policy idea that is older than most of the youth. Rather than rising, the youth are sitting on metal fold-out chairs in circles, drawing lines on A3 paper with felt tip pens. I am back in school.
On a panel to discuss abolishing the monarchy, Mish Rahman, a member of Momentum’s National Coordinating Group, says: “Five white people, wearing black, with a Union Jack behind them — it’s intimidating, like a far-Right rally.” This is the only room in the country where that is an applause line. We are in a parallel reality.
They discuss the myth of nationality, and the myth of social peace in Britain. “For a thousand years the English have been ruled by families that aren’t English,” one says. One headed by “a clan of parasites”. Well, it’s not Huw Edwards in a black tie. “The Queen was in the thick of imperialist violence,” says the Momentum guy.
The only revelation is that they don’t understand the country they live in at all. Like every event at this festival, they speak, cleverly, to themselves. This is utterly irrelevant to what they are supposed to be doing, which is making people vote for them.
Other countries, ones the British Left will never have to win votes in, are preferred. For a political tribe so diminished in Britain, all that remains is a fantasy of over there. An afternoon panel about South America. The auditorium is full, because Jeremy Corbyn has shown up. He is accompanied by a Bolivian Trade Unionist, a Brazilian journalist, a Colombian senator, and a documentary filmmaker from Chile.
“What can we learn from Colombia?” Bone-rattling stories are told. Unlike in Macclesfield, there is scope in Bogotá for heroic revolutionary action. The struggle there is so beautiful. The struggle here is so banal.
Corbyn listens. He looks happy, and cocoon-safe in his happiness. He is introduced as a “revolutionary leader who shows solidarity with Latin America every single day”.
Corbyn tells the room about Allende. The room shivers. Corbyn tells the room about the torture chambers he visited in Villa Grimaldi, Santiago. The room brrrrs. There is some glee in his description of these places. There, we can see, says Corbyn “that wonderful golden thread… the survival of the human spirit against all the odds.”
What kind of intellectual life is this? To look to Bolivia for patterns to mimic. To simplify the whole world into classes and struggles. To offer people, in a democracy, not straightforward, easily explained improvements to their lives, only the deus ex machina of a “more egalitarian socialist future”. It is the intellectual world of the fantasist.
This festival doesn’t care. It is either these fantasies, or the Westminster cynicism and business-as-usual politics being offered on the Albert Docks by Starmer. They choose the debilitating fantasy, and they choose Jeremy.
The future of Corbynism is supposed to be Zarah Sultana, MP for Coventry South. Sultana has more TikTok followers than anyone else in Westminster. On Monday night she hosts a pub quiz in the auditorium. She is late.
When Sultana arrives, she is deadpan and mock-surly with the audience, who treat her like she’s Jeremy Corbyn, or Taylor Swift. She announces that she is here to “chat shit and build socialism”. One is much easier than the other. I try to see what this audience sees in her. Sultana has a majority of just 401 in Coventry. The future of the Left is already endangered.
They still sing for the past, as he walks up the stairs. Oh, Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn touched them so closely. In his otherworldliness, any one of them, any Penny Grennan, so otherworldly themselves, might have been him.
It was not Brexit, or anti-Semitism that destroyed this movement. It was Corbyn, and the people who still flock to him this week, and their consuming fantasy of politics as a struggle, that the public rejected. In his very person — and he represented his followers so well — he exposed this movement’s flaws and showed them to be without remedy.
The image he created in the minds of the country was so different to the image in the minds of his supporters. The pictures never matched. “There is no such thing as Corbynism,” he said on the day he blew it in 2019. Corbyn was wrong then — of course there was — but he is right now.
I approach the “absolute boy”, who is sitting on a sofa. I ask him if he felt like he had been released from a burden he was never up to shouldering.
“No. No. Not at all,” says Corbyn. He seems sad. “I wanted to make changes in the Labour party, and the Labour movement. I wanted to see changes in this country. Economic policy that put food in children’s stomachs, that put them in schools, that gave them nurseries, that ended food banks…”
Corbyn talks in the past tense, and trails off. He knows he failed. All he and his movement have now is the past. The present belongs entirely to Starmer.
Marxism taught the people at this festival that this moment ought to be seized by revolutionaries. Instead, they are marooned on the far side of power, eating vegetable soup and singing songs to a faded messiah. When they call Keir Starmer a wet wipe, or say that they hate him, they are only expressing their own impotence.
At the official conference Labour thinks it is back. There is not a soul anywhere in the ACC who thinks the party will lose the next election. Starmer finds himself with a 17-point lead over Truss, and he’s barely had to campaign. The confidence is expressed in sterile ways engineered to disgust the hard Left.
Blue chip lobbyists who avoided party gatherings when Corbyn was in charge are back. Big ticket donors are back. The canapés are better than they have been in years — and the better the canapés, the more electable the party is. Blathering on about Palestine is out, Rachel Reeves’ fiscal prudence is in. Goodbye John McDonnell, hello Peter Mandelson. The revenge of the centrist Dads is complete. Let’s party like it’s 1997.
“But,” a woman clutching a champagne flute asks me one night, “what about the Left? What are they even doing now?”
What are the Left doing? Nothing that relevant any more.
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