Labour Conference 2017: A new sense of freedom to be radical

The dominant memory many of us can recall from the 2014 Labour Party conference was that of the media hysteria around Ed Miliband forgetting to mention the deficit in his speech. So catastrophic was that mistake, it was said, that it robbed the party of a conference bounce and heralded the beginning of the end of our election chances.

Immediately following the speech, the Conservative media machine went into overdrive. Their Twitter feed grew full of gifs and graphics of the economic chaos that would happen if the British public let a man who stumbled while speaking for an hour without notes become Prime Minister. They took to the airwaves to denounce a supposedly economically incompetent team, made up of economists, who apparently couldn’t rival a History graduate whose essay writing skills had obviously made him fantastic at telling the story that Labour caused a global financial crash.

Since 2010, every move made by Labour had been one of caution, carefully considered so as not to scare a public we presumed to be austere by their very nature, rather than by manufacturing. A public that could not, would not, be moved away from an Osbornomics that harmed every corner of public life and finance.

The reverence for ‘the deficit’ led to a stagnating economic decline that pushed hundreds of thousands into poverty and a recovery far slower – and incomplete- than if we had pushed for stimulus and investing in the population. Our ideas and intellect as a party were boxed into a genuinely narrow Overton window that meant that a party that, at the time, had a radical and intellectually curious leadership could really not explore neither. Or, it never let itself do so.

It turned out, though, that the altar upon which ‘the deficit’ was perched was far shakier than we dared to imagine. Austerity ate itself, and it’s clear now that you cannot drag the entire bottom half of the British classes into miserable living standards decline and not face consequences. When the Conservatives announced that they would be adding their core vote – over 65s- – to that list, the party was over.

And that spectacular end to the reverence of ‘the deficit’ – alongside presumptions about electability combusting post-election that made 2015 and 16 feel unable to shake off a shadow of dread- made for a conference in 2017 that was more festival than ever before. The freedom to hope beyond the constraints of austerity, to not have to add an asterisk with a note about the deficit to all that was promised made for a daring, radical, intellectually freer conference with fascinating debate and discussion right across the seafront.

A poisonous mix of austerity and stagnation, a disastrous election, an embarrassing Brexit negotiations, has meant that the Conservatives’ reactions in the press have been slow, disjointed, illegitimate and hypocritical – there would be no hysteria about the absence of the deficit in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech.

Labour conference has led, rather than cautiously followed, the debate. Daring to put forward ambitious new ideas to a public we now see as hungry for a change we can deliver. Ideas like rent control, an end to social cleansing, and a cap on credit card debt; but also ideas cultivated at the fringes and at The World Transformed just down the road.

Unlike Liverpool last year, where it felt considerably more in parallel, TWT existed this time side by side and within Conference, ideas being shared back and forth and speakers travelling between the two; again, a new found freedom for exploring new ideas.

Speakers spoke about the need to boldly defend migrants and freedom of movement, at a conference that was once again far more ambitious than before, this time on migration, not feeling the need to pander to presumptions that a tough line on immigration was all we could muster.

Speakers from trade unions were ambitious about collectivising and organising after successfully forcing the hands of Uber. Speakers with innovative backgrounds spoke of the dangers and necessities of AI and technology, a need to invest in skills for the future. Looking long-term, in direct contrast to the past commitment to the short.

None of these ideas had to come with a ‘but’. The idea that austerity and the deficit would always be in the terms and conditions, that we must not borrow to invest, was gone. The intellectually inept made way for creativity and legitimate ideas on a new economy we could grow rather than cut.

It is a tragedy, however, that conference was not freer for all. Within the fringes and in the hall, there was a strain of anti-Semitism that left many Jewish members reeling, distraught, and afraid to join in. If we are to be freer and open to new ideas, we must ensure all are free to debate and enjoy their party; and that those that threaten that with hostility and bigotry, endangering free speech so much that people fear for entering the room face the consequences. It is good conference voted to support JLM’s amendment – we should all work to ensure its implementation.

It is also essential that there is free debate for members surrounding Brexit, something that unfortunately did not come to pass at conference –  but Brexit is too vast an issue for us to ignore if we have genuine intent on implementing our radical ideas in post-Brexit Britain.

This is where we must be going forward. Open, intellectually confident, ambitious, bold and tolerant. To continue to, and improve upon, a new future where so much more seems possible than it has done for nearly a decade.

And there are so many new ideas to invent and explore. Universal Basic Income, workers on boards, new and ambitious council housing, new means of education, being confident enough to end the injustices of private schools, unfettered executive pay, and owning multiple unused properties – nothing should be off the menu going forward. 2017 conference should be the start of that newfound confidence in who we could be and what we can do.

Jade Azim is Co-Editor of Open Labour

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