If You Want to Change the World, Just Forget Brighton: As Its Conferences Now Show, Labour Has Acquired Focus but Lost Enthusiasm. George Monbiot Wonders If the New Movements on the Left Can Avoid the Same Dilemma

By Monbiot, George | New Statesman (1996), September 27, 2004 | Go to article overview

If You Want to Change the World, Just Forget Brighton: As Its Conferences Now Show, Labour Has Acquired Focus but Lost Enthusiasm. George Monbiot Wonders If the New Movements on the Left Can Avoid the Same Dilemma


Monbiot, George, New Statesman (1996)


There is one good reason for attending the Labour party conference: it offers the last hope of unseating Tony Blair as Prime Minister. It won't happen through composite motions from the constituencies, or any of the other cumbersome and largely defunct mechanics of democratic control. It will happen if the members of the Labour Party do what the Women's Institute attempted at Wembley in 2000, and slow-handclap him off the stage. If Blair is unable to complete his speech at Brighton, he's finished.

Otherwise it's hard to see the point of the Labour party conference. Gone are the days when the conference told the party leaders what to do. Decision-making in the Labour Party today is a closed loop. The Prime Minister appoints the party chairman, who then ensures that the party supports the Prime Minister. The National Policy Forum recycles Downing Street's ideas through a bogus consultation process and back to Downing Street. At the conference, the nobbled National Executive Committee oversees nobbled debates on nobbled motions in front of a partly nobbled audience. The members are required only to show up, so that their presence can be used to validate the decisions made by Blair and his grey men months or years earlier.

All this might be to lerable if the conference was remotely entertaining. But the ancient, tedious procedures, the incomprehensible rituals of the Orthodox Old Labour Mass, once designed to permit believers to commune with God but now almost devoid of meaning, are still in place. The speeches, designed for the media, not the members, are written to elicit obedient responses from obedient delegates. They will surprise only those who haven't been paying attention. And security has become so tight that you'll spend half the conference on the street.

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Sure, there are plenty of stalls and sideshows to wander round. You can attend the session on "gambling and social responsibility", sponsored by Sun International, a big casino company. You can hear PricewaterhouseCoopers explaining how to improve public services (presumably by outsourcing them to PricewaterhouseCoopers). You can watch as the Mobile Operators Association, which has sponsored the session on public consultation, explains why planning permission should not be required for mobile-phone masts. Yet you could do all this at the annual conference of the Confederation of British Industry, where you can also hear the Prime Minister and half the cabinet speaking with rather more candour than they do in front of their own party.

Today, in short, the action is not at the Labour party conference. It has shifted to another place. At the European Social Forum in mid-October you will find everything that the Labour Party has lost: the passion, the ideology, the freedom and the chaos. And this year, for the first time, the forum will be held in the United Kingdom.

The ESF is an offshoot of the World Social Forum, which was launched in Brazil in 2001. It's not a party, it doesn't have a programme or a set of policies, but it now attracts all those who--like the disaffected members of the Labour Party--still want to change the world.

Last year, 51,000 of us turned up in Paris. It was an awful mess. To remind their citizens of their faded left-wing credentials, half the departements of Paris jostled to attract us, with the result that the events were split between the four most distant corners of the city. We spent about two-thirds of every day on the Metro. In future, all such meetings should be held in right-wing areas. At the World Social Forum in Mumbai this year, the city authorities shunted us into a single site--a disused showground in a dusty suburb--with the result that it worked very well.

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