Socialist Worker

Arise festival debates way forward for the Labour Party

by Nick Clark
Issue No. 2615

Hundreds of Labour Party activists debated the way forward on Saturday

Hundreds of Labour Party activists debated the way forward on Saturday (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Hundreds of left wing Labour Party activists spent Saturday debating about their party’s relationship to social movements and what campaigns it should be part of.

The Arise festival—organised by the Labour Assembly Against Austerity and other left wing Labour groups—brought together some 400 activists.

It came just over a year after Labour’s shock performance at last year’s general election on a left wing manifesto. Since then right wing attacks on the party's left wing leader Jeremy Corbyn have returned, and Labour remains only slightly ahead of the Tories in the polls.

Speakers at the event’s opening rally on Friday evening grappled with these problems.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell said, “We know the struggle we have to get into government.

“Despite all the attacks in the right wing media we still have that support. But it is just a plateau of support. The discussion we need to have this weekend is how we get that next five, six or seven percent in the polls”.

He added that even though the Tories are in crisis, they will “cling onto office for as long as they possibly can."

Other speakers talked about the importance of mass social movements to Corbyn’s success—and why Labour had to be strongly connected to activity outside parliament.

Politics

Andrew Murray—an adviser to Corbyn—spoke on behalf of the Stop the War coalition. He said one of the “pillars” of Corbyn’s success had been “the mass politics of this century”.

He said they had “kept the flame alive at a time when parliamentary politics looked extremely unproductive”. And he said such campaigning is “essential to winning the next general election.”

“It’s even more essential to keeping a radical government after the general election,” he added.

Labour shadow disabilities minister Marsha de Cordova said, “The struggles of the Labour movement are not just in parliament and at the ballot box. They’re in the workplace and the streets.”

And left wing writer and activist Maya Goodfellow said, “It’s important to make sure that we don’t become demoralised” by right wing attacks on Labour.

“We need to talk about what we can do now to fight Tory austerity,” she added.

A session on Labour, trade unions and social movements carried on the discussion.

Shelly Asquith from the People’s Assembly Against Austerity said Labour had to be connected with the fights against austerity and racism. “It cannot be the Labour Party doing Labour Party things over here, and Stand Up To Racism fighting fascism over there,” she said. “We have to be together”.

And shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon said movements outside parliament were vital “to elect and defend a socialist government”.

Speaking from the floor, Labour activist Tom said his local Labour Party had supported strikes and other campaigns. “It’s not just about offering solutions,” he said. “It helps shape and inform our programme.”

Justice

And Sharon from Bermondsey said one movement Labour had to get involved with is the fight for justice for Grenfell.

That session was smaller than one on democratising the Labour Party. Labour members talked about fighting for the right to have a vote on reselecting sitting MPs, and to change rules to make it easier for left wing candidates to stand in leadership elections.

But even here there was discussion on how Labour can look outwards. One person from the floor said Labour activists had to appeal to ordinary people and show them “what politics is about under Jeremy”.

Momentum founder Jon Lansman agreed that Labour activists had to be “trained” and “encouraged” to campaign in communities, “and not just at election time”.

Becky Boumelha is an activist for Momentum. She said, “We have to change the face if how we do politics and move away from the internal, bureaucratic politicking”.

But the real sign that left wing Labour activists are looking for activity was that sessions on concrete political campaigns got the biggest turnouts. Discussions on speaking out for Palestine, fighting racism, and the housing crisis were all packed.

One speaker in the anti-racism session called for Labour to work in communities against austerity and racism. Another said Labour had to “take up” the fight against far right and fascist street movements.

Paul, a Labour member from Sheffield, said Labour members should be involved in Stand Up To Racism. “There’s no barrier to the Labour Party being involved with Stand Up To Racism,” he said. “Many Labour activists are already involved”.

The event showed that, a year after the election, Labour activists are looking for campaigns and activities—and are often already campaigning. That has to be built into a bigger, joined-up national fight to bring down the Tories.


Standing up for Palestine 

Labour activists defied attempts to silence their right to criticise Israel and speak out for Palestinians at a session at the Arise festival. Speakers said the right had tried to side-line the issue of Palestine—and that the left had to put Palestinians back at the centre of the debate.

The Labour right want to force the party to adopt a definition of antisemitism that says it’s antisemitic to call Israel a racist state. This would deny Palestinians the ability to describe the root of their oppression by Israel.

Yet, as speakers pointed out, Palestinians have barely figured in the debate. Palestinian academic Karma Nabulsi said, “In this debate the Palestinian people have been made invisible. The battle is to make them visible.”

Jenny Manson from Jewish Voice for Labour said recent accusations of antisemitism against the left had made activists “terrified” to speak out against Israel.

Hugh Lanning from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign called for “a network of support for Palestine inside the Labour Party to help people counter the climate of fear”.

He added, “The real issue is freedom of expression on Palestine inside and outside the Labour Party”.


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