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.