Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press
Boris Johnson made the queen commit a crime.
That’s the explanation I got from the first person I asked to explain what had just happened on Tuesday, as the news broke at the Labour Party conference in Brighton, England, that Britain’s Supreme Court had just ruled the prorogation of Parliament illegal. The news rocked the already hectic pace of the conference into an even higher gear. Parliament would reopen; the prepared-for and discussed-as-inevitable election suddenly felt even closer. And by the end of the day, Labour felt ready for it.
Labour’s annual conference began on Saturday, September 21, in the shadow of a looming general election, as the party prepared for five days of bargaining and preparing resolutions for the floor, long hours of floor speeches and votes, side meetings, parties, and fringe events held by Labour’s members and allies. The Conservative government was in a shambles even before the Court ruling, and the sense of high stakes was everywhere.
The first day or two had an almost grim feeling despite truly gorgeous Brighton weather. The resignation of Corbyn aide Andrew Fisher, the sense that Brexit wrangling could tear the party apart, the abortive attempt by the National Executive Committee to remove deputy leader Tom Watson, and the unions-vs.-activists struggles over the Green New Deal all added to the feeling of intensity. The Corbynistas, who spent their first couple of years in power just fighting for control over the party, tasted near-success in 2017, and are now preparing for a general election where “close” won’t be good enough. They have to win the next election, and they know it.
But the membership came prepared with ideas for how to do it, and a range of “Labour For …” groups had formed in the months leading up to the conference—Labour for a Green New Deal, Labour for a Four-Day Week, Labour for Free Movement, as well as Labour Against Private Schools. They managed to get their policies passed on the conference floor.
Alongside the Labour conference was The World Transformed fringe festival, where many of the ideas now made into party policy had been debuted and workshopped. This year, while the delegates wrangled over Brexit policy in the main conference hall, sex worker activists and prison abolitionists joined anti-fascists and mothers organizing for community child care in workshopping new ideas for a program for Labour that comes directly from the grassroots. While the 2017 manifesto was pulled together on the fly by the leadership team ahead of a snap election, this year’s conference demonstrated a new confidence from the membership—and particularly the left wing of that membership—to push the party leaders on issues where they’d dragged their feet previously, from immigration policy to carbon emissions targets.
“A shorter working week alongside a Green New Deal is what some have referred to as Corbynism 2.0: an economic and social program that attempts to not only undo neoliberalism, but to create and communicate a new vision of socialism fit for the 21st century,” explained Kyle Lewis of Autonomy, one of a spectrum of new think tanks, policy shops, and activist groups that have flourished during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
It took meetings that stretched into the night, battles between trade unions pushing back against aggressive climate targets that might threaten jobs and young activists demanding decarbonization by 2030, and worries that contentious motions would be pushed back to the end of the conference where they would be buried. But by Monday and Tuesday, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Corbyn himself were placing radical policies at the center of their speeches, and a sense of confidence was creeping through even the dank air of the conference center. On Wednesday, when the vote was finally held on the freedom of movement motion, the smaller final-day crowd’s cheers still filled the room.
McDonnell’s highlighting of the four-day week was “a huge step forward,” says James Meadway, former adviser to the Shadow Chancellor and author of an upcoming book on Corbynomics. “Taken together with votes to support a 2030 decarbonization target and freedom of movement for migrants, Labour has a program that will set out the path towards a very different economy and society over the next decade.”
None of the policies voted on at conference, though, will be implemented unless Labour finds a way to be in government. The battles in Brighton were already being fought with the expectation that the flailing Johnson government, deprived of its majority and having improperly resorted to shutting down Parliament to get its way, wouldn’t last much longer and that an election would be imminent. The decision from the Supreme Court that the proroguing of Parliament was illegal and that Labour MPs would have to hustle back to London to be in their offices on Wednesday just heightened that feeling. The Brexit situation continues to teeter, and Labour continues to seek compromise and consensus on the most deeply polarizing of issues.
At conference, it was decided that Labour’s position would be to negotiate the best deal possible and then put it back to the voters in a second referendum against Remain. Yet its best hope for victory in a general election, just as it was in 2017, is to get people talking about something besides Brexit. In that case, Lewis says, “Radical policies such as a four-day week could be an important strategic weapon in moving the framing of the election away from Brexit and onto the economy and society.”
The work that Labour’s community organizing unit has been doing around the country, gathering Labour members and others to discuss the changes they’d like to see Labour make in the country, has been one part of this strategy, and headline-making policy proposals are another. Still a third is the rhetoric, echoed in the speeches from many of the shadow cabinet members, that turns away from a sort of mid-century small-l laborism that simply calls for British jobs for British workers and maybe some more funding for the welfare state.
It looks back to an older, more radical labor movement, as when Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey, calling for a “new era of public luxury” in her speech on the Green Industrial Revolution, closed by quoting American labor radical Bill Haywood’s favorite saying: “Nothing is too good for the working class.” But it looks forward, in an emotional shift away from austerity and away from the nebulous, Obama-style “hope” but toward something else, a world where working people participate in making decisions (and making things) but more importantly have the free time to enjoy the arts and culture and to live, as John McDonnell said in his speech, “a rich and fulfilling life.”
The parties at conference, the games and radical variety shows and yes, the dancing, no less than the endless compositing meetings, are after all where solidarity is built, where a sense of being part of shared struggle is consolidated. The best moments at Labour’s conference were where working people were able to lay out radical political alternatives for themselves, and to celebrate their hard-earned victories as they look ahead to the coming weeks and months of Brexit and likely an election.
And if they win, that’s when the real hard work will begin.