On Saturday, my local Momentum group came together with Wandsworth Young Labour to hold the first ever Wandsworth Transformed event in Putney. Inspired by The World Transformed, the political education festival that has been hosted by left-wing activists alongside Labour conference since 2016, we spent the day discussing issues such as the hostile environment, a radical future for education, housing, the climate crisis and the economy. Workshops taught activists practical skills to get their own community campaigns off the ground.
With politics and society as polarised as they are today, it was refreshing to be part of an event that aimed to unite people behind ideas and work towards a better future. And we certainly hit a nerve: over 200 tickets were sold in the run-up to the event, with many more purchased on the door. Our audience included experienced local activists and councillors from across the party, but also plenty of new faces. We also offered free entry to a group of local sixth-form students to ensure everyone who wanted to attend could do so regardless of financial circumstances.
Wandsworth Transformed is not the first independently organised TWT-style event. Over the last few months, activists who went to the main event at conference have been bringing local versions to their communities. Darby and Bristol Transformed are just two recent examples, with Southampton Transformed coming up this weekend and many more being planned for the rest of the year. The World Transformed has the potential to become a hugely successful franchise of political education and training events. It represents the best of the Corbyn movement.
Skills-sharing and support will be vital for TWT to succeed in communities. It’s easier for London-based groups to book good headline speakers as most MPs, commentators and think-tankers live and work in the capital. Most of us who are active on the left in London can tap into networks and get access to high-profile individuals. It is much more difficult for organising groups further afar to get speakers on board. Financial constraints also mean it might be impossible to reimburse them for expensive train tickets if travel is required.
Wandsworth Transformed was completely funded through donations and ticket sales but upfront costs can be intimidating for local groups. Unless there are people within the organising group who can afford to put down a venue deposit and offer money for leaflet-printing, it can be a struggle to get the basic logistics sorted before even getting to money for speakers or designers. It is hugely encouraging that the World Transformed team is currently working on support materials for local groups who wish to put on their own events. Their guidance will be vital.
Political education, active participation and skills training are fundamental to nurturing a successful left culture. But these events are just the first step. Once we have familiarised ourselves with ideas and learned new techniques, we must encourage critical thinking and intellectual curiosity. Only critical thinking can improve and advance the left’s cause.
At Wandsworth Transformed, unity and harmony were the main driving forces behind our choice of panels and speakers. We purposefully did not wade into topics that had caused arguments and rupture among our activists, such as Labour’s Brexit position. This is fine as a short-term strategy to unite for the day. In the long term, however, it would create a fake unity, glossing over the fact that there are issues brewing under the surface about which the left heavily disagrees.
Laura Parker, Momentum’s national organiser, alluded to this in her closing speech at our event. Although it can feel demoralising to argue among ourselves, we must cultivate an environment in which these arguments can be had in a comradely fashion and where disagreement is not seen as a form of betrayal. We can only grow – as individual activists and as a movement – if we challenge each other and find a way to move forward.
The question we have to ask ourselves is: presenting different theories and approaches to economics is a good thing, but how can we present these debates so that activists take away the most from them? Critical questions from the floor, perhaps even speakers challenging each other on their work, will do more to put in motion critical thinking than just listening to speakers agreeing with each other.
There must also be room for people to change their minds. We often talk about the importance of political education but ironically, in the context of factionalism, we rarely accept that someone can genuinely have changed their mind on past Labour-internal voting choices. Are we offering genuine education when the movement is not ready to accept anyone that is not ‘pure’?
We hope to organise Wandsworth Transformed again for next year. As we live in turbulent times, it is hard to predict today what this country might look like then. But no matter what happens with Brexit, the Conservative leadership contest and possibly a snap election, it’s certain we live in a defining moment of political and societal change. The left must get ready for the storms ahead and seize the opportunities that uncertainty and rupture can bring to shift the consensus in society away from neoliberalism and towards socialism.
The left will face an ideological fight on a scale probably not seen since Thatcherites shifted the dial in British society, which suppressed support for common ownership and collectivism to promoted worship of individualism. We must be prepared. I hope The World Transformed will play an instrumental role in doing just that.