If you’ve ever been to a party conference – maybe any conference actually – you’ll have experienced that disconcerting feeling you get when you walk out of the building it’s being held in and re-enter the real world.
Sometimes the contrast can be alarmingly stark: I particularly recall the discombobulation I felt as I emerged blinking from wherever it was that the last Conservative Party conference was staged in Blackpool to streets that could easily have served as the backdrop for a supposedly gritty drama about “left-behind Britain”. Who knows, maybe that’s why the Tories don’t go there any more?
But Brighton and the new model Labour party: that’s a different story. As long as you avoid the buses, betting shops and arcades of West Street, you can slip out of the Brighton Centre, or any of the various venues in which events are being held, and find yourself in the Laines, where you quickly discover that, in this city, there’s not really that big a difference between the delegates and the denizens.
That’s not just because the Laines are chock-full of folk who’ve decided to eschew the main hall and the official fringe for the delights of Momentum’s World Transformed events, which really are, it should be said, every bit as packed and as popular as the organisation (many of whose key people are Sussex University graduates, incidentally) claims.
It’s also because so many of those who’ve chosen to attend #Lab17 – a lot of them for the first time – look and sound like the kind of people who anybody familiar with the studenty/boho bits of Brighton (as opposed to, say, the city’s Whitehawk estate) will have seen in their coffee bars and retro shops. They’re caring; they’re concerned; they’re outraged; they believe another world is possible – and many of them are already living in it.
Little wonder, perhaps, that a grumpy Blairite friend of mine who’s been coming to conference for decades tells me he hardly recognises it (or indeed anyone) anymore – apart, that is, from a handful of hard-left activists he thought he’d seen off in the 1980s.
Speaking as someone who’s been to a few Green Party conferences, he’s stretching it when he says this is like one of them. Contrary to what you might read in the right-wing tabloids, there are a fair few quote-unquote “normal” folk around. And there are still a few young thrusters roaming around in suits, even if most of them are lobbyists and journos – oh, and trade unionists, who are still very much a moving presence here.
But that Blairite friend is right when he says – as columnists including Owen Jones (very much up for it) and Marie Le Conte (not quite so sure) have noted – that, even if he still belongs to the party, the party no longer belongs to him.
It’s going to stay like that for a while. The left currently controls many of the big unions. Moreover, unlike the early eighties, they can boast about a general election result which convinces many in the party that Labour can win it next time round.
And after this conference, the Corbynistas have control of the leadership, the rulebook, the machine and the membership. Yes, the leadership has fudged Brexit – but its followers, who are overwhelmingly Remainers and want to stay in the single market and the customs union, don’t seem, to me anyway, to be prepared to make that much of a fuss about it. Cognitive dissonance? Not so much.
“Is it a cult?”, some ask – especially if they were sitting in the hall as the party leader approached the platform for his closing speech. That’s when adoring delegates, fresh from clapping along to an LGBT choir’s acapella version of “Something Inside So Strong”, stamped their feet as they belted out the now obligatory “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn”. Ironically, perhaps, we’ve not seen the like of it since Margaret Thatcher (the mention of whose name by Corbyn was, naturally, booed and hissed like a panto villain’s) took the Tory conferences of the mid-1980s by storm.
But I’d say no, not a cult. It’s now too big for that. The main hall in Brighton resembled nothing so much as an American mega-church with a congregation of wildly enthusiastic true believers. Whether some of the more agnostic folk going about their daily business outside it – or the voters in constituencies that look nothing like this city and never will do – can be made to share that enthusiasm remains, of course, to be seen.