Appraising the Labour Party’s annual conference this year, the British press zoomed in on the unabashed socialism stamped all over it—and just how popular socialism had become across the country. One commentator warned of “the growing confidence of socialists.” Another noted the “terrifying truth that Middle England is falling for Corbynomics,” the party’s left economic platform under its leader, Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour’s five-day event brought 13,000 people to Liverpool last week. The city is Britain’s second-most-left-wing city after Glasgow—yes, this really was researched a few years back—and this year, with the Conservative government paralyzed by its bungled Brexit negotiations, Liverpool hosted Labour’s largest and most left-wing conference in decades. The party, now firmly in the hands of Corbyn, rolled out a radical vision to revive the country.
This leftward trajectory has been a few short but tumultuous years in the making. In 2015, the party membership, given more say over its leader by a rule change, backed the hitherto obscure backbencher Corbyn. They did so again, only more forcefully, when he faced a leadership challenge the next year. And in a snap election in 2017, Labour defied expectations and secured a historic 40 percent of the vote, desiccating the Conservative government’s majority. By then, Labour’s membership ranks had swelled to over half a million—the largest in Europe and a formidable campaigning force.
Now, the left of the party is in control—not just at the leadership level, but across the management and grassroots too. While tensions between competing factions of the party have flared during recent conferences, this one was dominated by the faction in charge—a sense reinforced by the popularity and buzz of a parallel festival, The World Transformed, organized by Momentum, the grassroots group supportive of the Labour leadership. According to the New Statesman, one young attendee from the hitherto prominent right of the party lamented: “We’re just not sexy anymore. We need young, good-looking, cool people and we’re just not cool anymore. Conference used to be really fun and raucous for us. Now Momentum have all the best parties.”
At The World Transformed, Labour parliamentarian Emma Dent Coad commented that just a decade ago, there was hesitance to even use the word “socialism” in public. Now, she says, “How the tables have turned.” From the speakers in the main conference hall to the packed fringe events around it, the focus was on a socialist agenda fit for the 21st century, one that could reboot and redistribute the economy and make it work, as the party slogan has it, for the many, not the few. In his speech to the conference, Corbyn rallied the party to take on the “broken economic system” and end a “greed is good” version of capitalism. At The World Transformed, Dent Coad said: “We are not here to manage capitalism”—signaling the party’s break with a neoliberal consensus that has dominated politics for the past 30 years.