Rebecca Coulson is a freelance writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
“It’s a bit flat,” an MP said to me, sadly. “You should come back when we’re in power.” Yes, I’ve spent the last few days in Liverpool. Having been excited to go (I haven’t been before: great city, even in the downpour), ‘flat’ is the best description I’ve heard.
The conference was in the Echo Arena (some might have thought another noun more appropriate) – one of those assortments of Walmart-sized complexes linked by glass-windowed bridges, just like the venues the Conservatives also use nowadays.
That said, I can’t remember such hot little event rooms: large auditoriums partitioned off meanly, with temporary walls. They were, to varying degrees, packed with the stereotype mix of bulky suits (trades unionists), nicer suits (Blairites), cable-knit sweaters (Corbynites), hats (Marxists), and kind-but-tired eyes (social democrats). Factions within factions ignored each other politely, avoiding elephants in every room.
The stalls in the hall
There were two pop-up bookshops in the main hall – one run by Blackwells, one by the Morning Star. The latter didn’t offer much beyond a ‘graphic biography’ of Rosa Luxembourg, and a compendium of the newspaper’s crosswords. The former, however, had a surprisingly wide-ranging selection.
Alongside standard left-wing economics populism were volumes by Niall Ferguson, Robert Trivers, and John Eliot Gardiner. When I asked whether they used the same stock for all the political conferences, the guy admitted that he’d compiled the list for Liverpool himself: “I must’ve been a bit out of it,” he said, seeing my eyes land on Call Me Dave displayed quite prominently behind him.
Aside from booksellers, there were stalls run by various trade unions; action groups (Ban Real Fur were giving out fluffy toy seals) and organisations (the Religious Education Council of England and Wales boasted a leaderboard featuring the two MPs who’d taken part in their RE quiz); an exhibition celebrating 500 years of Royal Mail (beginning with the first ‘Master of the Posts’ – Brian Tuke, knighted by Henry VIII); a booming ‘business lounge’ (one of the few places Seumas Milne wasn’t to be seen, prowling), and a guide dog presentation pen.
I’ll be offended if you pray for me
Returning to questions of religion, Monday morning’s No Prayer Breakfast consisted mostly of Polly Toynbee holding court on why atheists should “regard all religions with equal contempt: we’ve fought against Christianity for decades, so they can’t turn around and say we’re racist if we do the same about Islam”.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, this provoked murmurs of ‘offence’. A smiley chap from the British Humanist Association calmed things down by calling for Labour commitment to opposing religious schooling; an audience member explained that they had to ‘kick the [grammar school] cat into the long grass first’. (Luckily, the seal people weren’t there to join the ranks of offended ones.) A smiley lady from the Labour Humanists told us that we were in her thoughts, but not in her prayers – something she’d definitely never said before.
As widely reported, left-wing economics weren’t merely idling on the bookshelves. John McDonnell set out his long-term economic plan at the conference – a plan so long-term that he started working on it in the 1970s.
And Paul Mason was in high demand: when he finally arrived to speak at a reception put on by CLASS (“countering the status quo since 2012”), the scrum struggled to hand him a drink. His solution for Labour to gain “critical mass” was worth the wait, however: inspired by Grindr, he said: “If only I could know who the five like-minded people in the supermarket were…”
This fitted well with a point made by the other journalist speaking at the event: apparently, Labour needs to “create a movement that looks nice and friendly’. Oh, and my new favourite phrase is “secrecy jurisdiction”. Because secrecy undermines perfect knowledge, and we’re too attracted by “tax havens”, this phrase is going to save the world by allowing us to keep better track of capital than ever before.
The other place
Labour wasn’t the sole organisation to convene in Liverpool this week, of course. Tired of limbo, it made sense to see what was happening at The World Transformed, Momentum’s rival do. Excitement wasn’t on the events card there, either, however (although it was a rather fine card with a blue futurist herringbone pattern). Held in the Black-E – a congregationalist-chapel-turned-cultural-centre – the agenda ranged from the infamous children’s “what’s your doll’s mandate?” activities to Football as a Force for Social Change.
From what I saw on my brief excursion, these seemed – as with the Momentum rally I wrote about several weeks ago – to attract mainly middle-class older people. The one on higher education that I chose to go to felt, I imagined, like the U3A. That feeling was vindicated when the student chairing it informed the cheerful white-haired raincoat wearers that it was a “participatory session”. One of the 22 attendees, spread around the theatre, left at that point; deciding against the fun of a group discussion on how neoliberalism is wrecking British universities, I followed suit.
The main man
Arriving back at the bigger conference, the cab driver dropped me just outside of the turnstiles: “They’ve got all that security because they think the taxi guys are going to assassinate Jeremy,” he said, “He’s a poof.” Others were being much more kind. Indeed, at one reception at which the newly-reappointed leader spoke, a chap standing near me said, “This is the speech I’ve been waiting for years for!” It was about post boxes.
There’s nothing else to say, really. Momentum’s momentum doesn’t need to fizz with punch: they’ve won already. Sure, the ground force isn’t impressive – aside from the man who was going from event to event in order to jump up halfway through and shout at the PLP-ers, that is. In those sticky conference rooms, that level of exertion deserves recognition.
But the takeover is done.