The World Transformed, a far-left festival running concurrently with the Labour Party conference, is in full swing this week in Liverpool. Supposedly a cross between policy lab and a Jeremy Corbyn-themed religious experience, it has grown in two years from a fringe event to a major crowd-puller.
Momentum is no longer an unknown entity, Novara Media is mainstream and the politicians on the panels of this socialist jamboree are Labour royalty.
Conference may still draw the media, but this is where the grassroots are. In the midst of a row over antisemitism, with Brexit day fast approaching, there seemed no better time to discover what sort of event it really is.
The epicentre, in the city’s Baltic Triangle district, was located next to a large Peaky Blinders-themed bar and restaurant. Why you’d pick a site next to a tribute to a series that descends into farcical power struggles and paranoia, featuring Jewish stereotypes, Russians and the IRA for a Labour-related event in today’s climate, I don’t know. I can only assume it was arranged by someone who doesn’t get the British sense of irony.
As I queued outside the main entrance, a man with a camera was posing with a little boy, no older than four, holding a sign almost as large as him, proclaiming: “Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit”. After the photoshoot was done, the boy threw the sign to the ground and stamped on it, much to the amusement of the onlookers.
It was a wonderful visual metaphor for Labour’s position. The men handing out the “Hate Brexit” merchandise were at it all day, but many attendees were less diplomatic than the little boy. There were plenty of EU-related spats to be overhead. But the real venom came when the word “antisemitism” was uttered. Among multiple people handing out flyers were some with literature decrying “Blairite smears” against the leadership.
One row featured a young woman angrily asking a man: “Why won’t you admit the party has this problem?”, which was met with the shrugged response: “It’s a problem everywhere,” which, I’m sure we can all agree, is a compelling argument.
“Stand up to the right-wing attacks! Back legitimate criticism of Israel!” cried another vendor to a passing couple. “Get tae f***” came the response.
At one discussion, Dimitris Tzanakopoulos, a representative from the Greek party Syriza, was asked if they were delegitimised by their cooperation with the IDF. Many clapped the questioner, but there were audible groans, too. Tzanakopoulos, visibly furious, responded incredulously that his party had achieved major socialist progress in the face of crippling debts, barely able to believe such a minor point could be used to condemn that work.
These interactions came amid the backdrop of Liverpool Wavertree MP Luciana Berger attending conference with a police escort. In that context, the fact they are taking place at all is positive. There is still no agreement here on where criticism of the Israel topic ends and racism begins – but at least the debate is being had.
The festival was also tackling plenty of other pressing topics, from “Origami for Peace” to “Decolonising Yoga”. At a discussion on the Left across Europe, meanwhile, one panellist was called a “bigot”, “racist”, and “social imperialist” by an angry audience member who, in hindsight, could have done with a few therapy cranes and some deep breathing.
Another talk on immigration ended up being held at the Hilton Hotel, presumably arranged by the same irony-deficient person who secured the location for the main event.
Despite the divides, faith in Corbyn remains resolute. At an event on Sunday evening, hosted by Owen Jones, Corbyn entered like The Rock to a leftist Wrestlemania. He mounted the stage, surveying the crowd.
“Oh Jeremy Cor-byn!” came the inevitable chant. “Jaavier Mascher-aaa-no” a lone voice quipped. This is Liverpool, after all.
But what, exactly, the Corb is cooking, is anyone’s guess. This was not the united forum I thought I would encounter. Like a wrestler in trunks, the hype of the show masks a lack of real substance underneath. For all the posturing and occasional John McDonnell trash-talk, it’s theatre. The members love their champion, but are torn on many issues.
Corbyn’s speech that evening was heavy on solidarity with various communities, from Chile to Turkey, and had plenty about wanting to build a better future. But there was no new policy, no progress. That was the case across the entire conference. The words “we must” were thrown around like confetti. What never seemed to be said, however, was “and this is how”.
Cracks in the tectonic plates of the far left are widening. Will they stretch further, collide, or settle before the next general election? That is something the Corb will have to address. If the chasm between warring Labour stables cannot be bridged, government will remain out of reach – a broken moral compass won’t lead to Downing Street.
That image, of Berger next to a police officer, will have more impact this weekend than any number of workshops about yoga. That’s a reality the Labour world has yet to transform.