Glastonbury for Leftists: Reflections on The World Transformed

In a workshop in Stratford, a new world is being built. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but behind the doors and up a dusty staircase, a small crew of volunteers is busy sawing, cutting, painting and drilling a utopian vision for a socialist future, and a wry criticism of our present moment. The set will serve as a backdrop to what is surely the main event in any British leftist’s calendar: The World Transformed. 

Beginning in 2016, the festival of politics, art, and music has run counter to the annual Labour party conference. While the conference has always had its own fringe events, The World Transformed is by far the largest, attracting thousands to its many workshops and discussions, which have featured such global stars of the left as Naomi Klein, Yanis Varoufakis, and of course, the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn himself. 

This year’s programme is arguably its most ambitious. Split over ten venues in Brighton, there is not only a wealth of activities available but a great deal of space in which to carry them out, including a park garden in the centre of town. Here the work in Stratford is realised, with a big top, bars and cafe, a museum to neoliberalism, and an unapologetic declaration of left ambition spelled out in big Hollywood letters: SOCIALISM. 

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The line-up of speakers includes established stalwarts like Leo Panitch to rising stars like Faiza Shaheen. There are staffers from Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, anti-fascist activists from both hemispheres, filmmaker Ken Loach, municipal organiser Kali Akuno, as well as (most of) the Labour front benches. There are discussions and workshops on prison abolition, the decriminalisation of sex work, the four day work week, resisting fascism and racism, climate crisis and the Green New Deal, community wealth building, the British constitution, redistributive economics and, yes, Brexit. 

But even with all that, it’s not all about policy and practice. The festival also includes plenty of art and entertainment, from strategy games, sports activities, treasure hunts, collective listening sessions on grime and acid house, theatre shows, cabaret, live podcasts, a pub quiz with former Labour leader Ed Miliband and, naturally, parties. Many fringe events have parties - but very few would think to book grime rappers or DJs in house and bass music. 

A panel on solidarity across borders, featuring Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

A panel on solidarity across borders, featuring Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

One of the more hands-on and interesting elements of the festival is the policy labs. These smaller sessions are designed to provoke discussion, but also to come up with solutions. At the end of the festival, the policies developed in these sessions were written up, and presented to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell as a ‘manifesto for the movement.’ The manifesto developed included commitments on drug decriminalisation, a social model of criminal justice, and an abolition of school testing for under-18s. How much of all this will make it into the next Labour manifesto is anyone’s guess, but as far as democratic exercises in policy-making go, it was pretty empowering. 

Less can be said of the other political event happening in Brighton. Going between sessions to read the news of the Labour party conference, I had the strangest feeling that I was living on another planet. As far as I could tell there seemed to be two conferences going on. One was riven with internal crisis. The other was The World Transformed. 

Which is not to say that things started under the best circumstances. An attempt by Jon Lansman and the National Executive Committee to abolish the position of Deputy Labour Leader (and effectively, Tom Watson from the front bench) certainly soured (or enlivened, depending on your perspective) the proceedings, generating bad headlines but no actual result. There was also Brexit, that great albatross about Labour’s neck, and the source of much of its squabbling both within and without the inner party circles.

Still, looking back at videos from the conference floor, I’m not entirely convinced the other conference I witnessed was so chaotic. Motions on a Green New Deal, a four day week, and freedom of movement (even if the celebrations may be sadly premature) all passed without many sparks flying. Even on Brexit a consensus was reached, despite the usual protestations from the parliamentary Labour party and lobby journalists either unable or unwilling to accept their declining relevance in the analysis and management of political power.

To speak of power, it has been out of the hands of the left for a very long time. The governments of Attlee and Wilson may have created and maintained the welfare state, but no Labour politician has ever come close to achieving actual democratic socialism. Corbyn, despite his critics, is hardly a radical - and much of the social and economic ideas advanced under his leadership would not end capitalism, but rather ameliorate its worst excesses. And yet at The World Transformed, the issue was on everyone’s minds. Can Labour win power? And if it does, what happens next?

Some of the most thought-provoking sessions I attended explored how (and if) a Corbyn government could transform the country. One involved a strategy game, where groups invented scenarios that had to be solved through the use of local resources, from unions and activists to hackers and pay-what-you-can cafes. My group had mixed successes, for while we failed to ally Momentum members and a transport union we did manage to dox far-right terrorists and use a migrant group to establish the Black Panthers. Ultimately, the game encouraged us to consider the precarities of a left-wing government, and how we could build power locally as a means of supporting its aims on a national level.

Former Labour leader Ed Miliband speaking at the launch of the ‘manifesto for the movement’.

Former Labour leader Ed Miliband speaking at the launch of the ‘manifesto for the movement’.

There were some hard truths as well. At the unveiling of the festival’s manifesto, and one for which I was proud to contribute, Faiza Shaheen demanded why it was that she should be the only person of colour to be selected out of 130 constituencies, the only person of colour to be on the panel, and indeed, one of the few people of colour to be in the room. As immigration was pushed to the end of conference, and Labour continues to equivocate on a genuine commitment to free movement of migrants, these issues seemed particularly pressing. As Shaheen pointed out, one in five Labour voters come from Black or minority ethnic backgrounds, and the party, as well as the movement, needs to step up. 

For the most part, my feeling as both a volunteer and visitor was of the satisfaction that comes from being part of something. The World Transformed, much like the modern Labour party, relies on grassroots support, and it takes a team of specialists and a small army of volunteers to plan and coordinate the four-day festival, from programming, budgeting, logistics, stewarding and administration. There’s even an app. Most (if not all) are required to work long hours and for free, and this year with the added threat of cancellation due to a possible election. Put simply, no one would be doing this if they weren’t down for the cause. 

And that I think is the essence of it. What makes The World Transformed unlike any other festival (especially a political one) is the simple yet powerful sense of purpose - uncorrupted by money and strengthened by shared belief. For those working and in attendance, the idea that another world is possible is not a slogan but a reality, and one that needs to be fought for together, on the streets and in the ballot box, and with unrelenting, irresistible joy.

Language of the Heard: the Impotence of Liberal Protest

“This is a very, very, important point to make…” Rafael Behr

Last Sunday, Guardian columnist Rafael Behr went on the BBC’s Politics Live and outlined just what was wrong with the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. The clip was widely shared on social media, with many applauding Behr for breaking down the ‘essential state of English politics’. Armando Iannucci, arguably one of Britain’s greatest modern satirists, likened it to the Gettysburg address.

Clearly, Behr had spoken a great and terrible truth. The kind of truth that would echo through the annals of history with the sheer force of its right-ness, waking the slumbering masses to the folly of Brexit, the foolishness of their politicians, and to the simple, irrefutable fact that this madness must be stopped.

But had he? Watching the clip again, I was struck, not by the power of Behr’s words but rather their predictability. Behr advanced nothing new, but rather a series of statements so often articulated they barely need repeating: people promised the impossible, people voted for the impossible, politicians are now stuck trying to do the impossible.

Bet they’re happy they never had to negotiate Brexit, eh?

Bet they’re happy they never had to negotiate Brexit, eh?

Behr’s words, however passionately delivered, were neither persuasive nor conciliatory. They certainly didn’t call for any kind of purposeful action. So why were they treated with so much significance, to the extent that otherwise sober commentators could compare them to a speech that declared a new birth of human liberty, the end of American slavery and a cessation of a fraternal conflict that cost over half a million lives?  

‘45 of the funniest signs from the Anti-Brexit march’ - boredpanda.  Source.

‘45 of the funniest signs from the Anti-Brexit march’ - boredpanda. Source.

Brexit was a trauma for bourgeois liberalism. Much like the election of Donald Trump in the United States, the vote to leave the EU was impossible to imagine and, once it happened, continued to be so. Every effort was made to prove the vote’s illegitimacy, from Russian interference to Labour lethargy, and a considerable amount of time and money was (and continues to be) spent on forcing a second vote – regardless of the odds. Liberals want their suffering to end. But they are refusing therapy.

All they can do is protest. But it is a strange, empty kind of protest. The liberal argument for stopping Brexit is about as inspiring as that of the Remain campaign’s original (and only) pitch: the alternative is worse. But if people are already living through the worst, what exactly can you do to convince them otherwise?

Liberals in the political and media class have chosen not to engage with this criticism. They may concede to points about the erosion of industry, public life, and welfare under the existing order of market capitalism, but are unlikely to offer any solutions beyond a little tax and spend. For those still living in the end of history, it’s not the existing order that needs changing. It’s not even people’s minds. It's just Brexit.

Dr Martin Luther King Jr once described riots as ‘the language of the unheard.’ An advocate for non-violent protest, Dr King disagreed with the morality of such actions, but nonetheless endeavoured to place them within their proper context. The riot, he pointed out, is a response of the disempowered to violence – social, political, and economic. It is all a person can do to protest a system that has robbed them of any agency, dignity, and humanity.

Liberals, as far as they are represented in politics and the media, suffer no such oppression. Often white, wealthy, and English, they are insulated by privileges of race, class, and country. Brexit does not pose the same threat to them as to those they like to speak for, such as working people, migrants, and British citizens of colour. It makes sense then, that their protests should be so uninspired and ultimately ineffectual. They don’t want to challenge authority. They are the authority being challenged.  

‘This picture perfectly sums up what Brexit could mean.’ - Metro, June 26, 2016.  Source.

‘This picture perfectly sums up what Brexit could mean.’ - Metro, June 26, 2016. Source.

So you get speeches like that of Rafael Behr. The kind of speech that gets widely shared and then completely forgotten about. From tortured analogies, injury gifs, lengthy Twitter screeds or the ever-so-twee placards you might see at a People’s Vote march, Brexit is a recurring topic that both animates and pacifies. ‘We now go live to Brexit’ a post might read, showing a man hilariously tripping in the street and falling into a bin. People like it, share it, maybe even get a bit angry for a minute or two, and then move on.

If these people are serious about stopping Brexit, it is going to take more than indignance and shit jokes. It will mean accepting that liberal politics has not survived liberal economics. It will mean making a positive, reformist case for the European Union. It will mean, ironically enough, taking their own advice and reaching across the aisle. It will mean winning the argument, and winning the other side over. Otherwise, liberal protest will remain a language of the heard – saying nothing new and doing even less.