Getting the gang back together: Jeremy Corbyn (L), Barry Gardiner (C), and John McDonnell at Labour Conference. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty

September 30, 2021   6 mins

At the Young Labour rally, in bright lipstick and with shiny hair, they thrill to protest. I think it is Oedipal, and more an emotional than a political imperative, but I am a Social Democrat. The room — called The Empress but no matter — is alive with protest; protest for its own sake. Beyond it there is nothing: certainly not power. Here, at the Empress, they would rather lead the party than have the party lead the country. That is clear. They speak to the voters, but they do not listen to them. Their voters are theoretical. Their analysis of the 2019 defeat is: not enough Corbynism, plus sabotage. The reason for their problems now is:  purge.

They fete themselves, and attack the Labour leadership, which they treat like a pantomime villain, with boos and hisses. Starmer is obviously Sylvia Plath’s Daddy: “Daddy, I have had to kill you”. The leadership named this event “Cancelled” on the conference app, but changed their minds, and this is their revenge. I can hear their narcissism in their cadences, and their applause. It is their Conference. They are Labour. When a trade union leader says her union is not affiliated to the Labour Party, they cheer. The obvious question: so why are they?

We hear Richard Burgon MP, and John McDonnell MP, then Corbyn comes, still denied the Labour whip. I marvel at the vanity of this supposedly humble man, but I never believed in his humility, any more than I believed in his anti-racism. Anti-racism is only meaningful when you extend it to your political enemies, and he never did. He ignored the abuse of live female Jewish MPs but stands in solidarity with dead Jews, who need nothing from him, can’t attack him, and are as theoretical to him as voters. The humble change their minds, and he never does: his humility is performative, in a shy glance at the youthful supporters, in a tender bowing of the head. He looks sorrowful — he lost — then happy: I still have you. To be fair, he does sound like the most sensible man in the room. But that is his job: to sound sane and vexed — Magic Grandpa — while his supporters bully and scream. “In the last leadership election, our members and unions were promised unity, but instead we are given division,” he mourns. He will spend the whole of Conference inciting division, and haunting Conference with his vanity.

He pleads for organisation: “If we want the Labour Party to be a vehicle to win elections to confront the climate emergency and redistribute wealth and power to the many from the few, then we need to come together” for policies “the majority of people actually want, not what the establishment and its media mouthpieces insist they should want. If our leadership won’t champion that path, our movement must and will.”

He speaks for a long time. I watch them as they get bored and shuffle about. I am not surprised by their boredom. Corbyn is a drug to them, and it is preferable to meet your drug on your own terms. Like the Queen, he is more magnificent in their heads. I think they treat him as he treats the voters: as theoretical.

The drama is in opposition here, the fun: and I am guilty of it too. I ignore the real Conference, in which Starmer wins most of the votes, glumly and determinedly securing the machinery of the party, and patiently being stalked by broadcast journalists who copy Paxman but have none of his gifts and so mostly sound like angry shoppers demanding a refund. I look at the edges: for the far-Left in flight. They are, I decide, very like chickens in nature and behaviour: when they feel threatened, they flock together, and they make a lot of noise.

I find Piers Corbyn standing outside Conference, talking into a megaphone. He does not speak to an audience because there isn’t one, beside me. He is talking to the megaphone, to which he seems surgically attached: to himself. “There were massive pterodactyls,” he says. There was a context, but the megaphone failed both of us.

I go to Jewish Voice for Labour [JVL], Corbyn’s ancient Pretorian guard of Jewish anti-Zionists, picketing Conference with a banner showing every one of their leadership scolded, or warned. It fills the page. You would think they might be ashamed, but they aren’t, because, like Corbyn, nothing is ever their fault. They are not as mad as the man with the painting of Keir Starmer segueing into Joseph Stalin, who killed 50 million people, standing just outside the Conference centre. “It is more his attitude to democracy,” he says, when I point out that Starmer has not killed 50 million people, or even one. But they are close behind.

At their event, which is called, hopefully, Labour in Crisis, they talk about the purge with all the self-knowledge of — well, people who don’t know a lot about Russia. I listen to 80 non-Jews enabled in their Jew hate by a clutch of Corbynist Jews. They are paranoiacs. “Maybe we should turn our phones off,” says Leah Levane, who was expelled from the Labour Party the day before, “Who knows who is listening? One of my comrades,” she adds, “suggested that I announce I am taking a big risk by appearing on a platform with myself”. She summarises Conference from the far-Left perspective, and quite well: “This is a shitshow.”

John McDonnell MP is at the back, standing for ease of getaway. He needs it. Because Tony Greenstein, expelled from Labour for anti-Semitism, attacks a journalist from LBC while saying: “I don’t trust you!” He takes his telephone — he says the journalist is recording the vulnerable, meaning himself — and throws it on the floor. The journalist argues, but when he leaves the room, they applaud. Later, when Greenstein speaks — “it was never about anti-Semitism” — he says, meaning mainstream Jewish opposition to JVL, and it was — they cheer again. They love Greenstein because they love failure: he is their dilemma in a man. For them, it is easy to ignore an assault on a journalist if it is a journalist they dislike. It is easy, too, to laugh at Greenstein, who looks more like a child’s scruffy toy than anything else. Except, one day, the Greenstein will be bigger, and the journalist will be smaller.

It goes on all week: the Defend the Left rally, the Tribune rally, Labour against the Witchhunt [LAW], where Jackie Walker and Chris Williamson, both expelled from Labour, appear. At LAW, where Greenstein is again self-appointed security, a speaker says: “We would normally be full, but people are afraid to come.” I hope they don’t tell themselves that about the electorate. But they still believe in false consciousness: in the theoretical voter.

The night before Conference closes, the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs meet in the circus tent at The World Transformed – the parallel far-Left conference. It features many of Corbyn’s allies. It is the shadow Shadow Cabinet. There is a banner in the corner that says, “Take Back Control”. It may be a joke. They stand out into the night in monstrous rain and, because Corbynism is a religion, they chant a creed: “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn.” Corbyn speaks last, but is here from the beginning, which surprises me — does he not have better things to do? Of course not: he only speaks to his supporters, because he is a god in tiny rooms.

Barry Gardiner MP calls the crowd, “the people who give us all hope” and he has never needed hope more. “There is no meat on the shelves,” he cries, as evidence of catastrophe. He stops himself and says, “Sorry about the vegans.” A man shouts: “Fuck Starmer, fuck Starmer!” They veer between defiance and despair: “All the dreams and optimism have been sucked out of us”. I notice someone is playing patience on their iPhone. They will need it.

“Despair will get us nowhere,” says Nadia Whittome MP. “Don’t leave. What would have happened if Jeremy Corbyn had left?” John McDonnell MP agrees: “You cannot win the fight if you are not in the struggle.”

Richard Burgon MP, who depends on repetition for all his oratory, and manages to sound both stupid and convinced, shouts: “The Labour left is alive! The Labour left is winning on the Conference floor! The Labour left is winning in the streets, and it will one day win a leadership election!” Lloyd Russell-Moyle MP makes the mistake of calling Starmer, “a nice man”. There are jeers: “Keir Out!” Then: “Keith, Keith, Keith!” It sounds quite chilling when they shout it in unison; I have never been afraid anywhere as a journalist except with the far-Left. Again, they must not leave: “When the phoenix rises again,” says Russell-Moyle, “we will be here, and we will win the General Election.” But they won’t – not by screaming, “Keith” in circus tents. Do they know that? They go back to shouting, “Keith! Keith! Keith!” which I believe is the real purpose of this rally. I do not know why they think this taunt is so deadly, but it does expose their classism and ageism: taunting the lower-middle class Boomer who really is called Keith.

Starmer’s strategy is to ignore them, while taunting them with policy: during his speech to Conference — calm, appropriate, and thrillingly Blairite — he speaks through them. Still, they heckle and hold red cards up — it’s a football metaphor, which they planned: Show Starmer the Red Card. Except they aren’t the referee, not this time. They shout, “It was your fault!” during a Brexit section and “£15 an hour!” — which is the minimum wage they seek. One holds up a sign that says, “No purge”. Another shouts, “Free Julian Assange,” as if Starmer has Assange in his possession, and can hand him over. Mostly they seem confused: when another shouts, “Where is Peter Mandelson?” he sounds as if he genuinely wants to know.

Then — calmly, appropriately, thrillingly – Starmer says words to give them pain, all of which are a warm bath to the Red Wall voters Corbyn lost: police; patriots: NATO; patriots; NATO; police. I wished he had kissed a model of a nuclear submarine; or put a judge’s black cap on his head; or toasted The Queen.

The far-Left hated it. But the far-Left has lost. When it recovers, perhaps it will come to love it. Because the struggle is everything, and the struggle lives on.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.