Blog post

Bristol Transformed 05-07 April

What would a 21st century programme of political education look like? Darran McLaughlin writes about the forthcoming Bristol Transformed - a series of panels and workshops featuring Julian Manley (one of the architects of the Preston Model), Cat Hobbs (We Own It), Aaron Bastani, Dawn Foster, Soweto Kinch, Grace Blakeley, Owen Hatherley, James Meadway, and others.

Darran McLaughlin29 March 2019

Bristol Transformed 05-07 April

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”. Antonio Gramsci 

In the last decade Bristol has become the second fastest growing city in the UK after London. It has a wealth of industry, employment and opportunity including a busy port at Avonmouth, large manufacturers like Airbus and Rolls Royce, major legal and financial services firms, as well as being the leading city in the country for high tech industries. It has a well-deserved reputation for excellent food, great craft breweries, nightlife, street art and live music. It attracts large numbers of young people through two universities, it is very diverse and it has become a city that thousands of Londoners have been drawn to, attracted by the comparatively lower cost of housing, easy access to nature, and laid back atmosphere.

My mental image of Bristol was once a hazy vision of Banksy, Trip Hop, Hippies, skateboarding, Drum & Bass, St Pauls Carnival and lots of weed. I had a vague notion that it was fairly hip, alternative, left leaning and right on. Three years ago I joined the exodus of Londoners moving to Bristol. I found that Bristol lived up to my expectations, but over time I got to see behind the clichés. House prices and rent costs have been skyrocketing in the last few years, partly exacerbated by the influx of ex-Londoners. The Runnymede Trust released a report two years ago illuminating shocking levels of racial inequality in education and employment in the city. Homelessness and addiction are manifestly huge problems. Bristol has some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest and most deprived districts in the UK. Last year it was reported that there is a 10 year disparity in average life expectancy between Clifton and Hartcliffe. The city council have been progressive in their climate policy, becoming the first city in Britain to declare a climate emergency and commit to becoming carbon neutral by 2030, but the air quality regularly breaks legal limits for pollution and there is a strong drive to expand the airport. Bristol West has become the most emblematic Remain voting constituency in the country, but several of the outlying districts of Bristol voted to Leave. All four local MPs are Labour, but Jacob Rees-Mogg’s North East Somerset constituency is just outside the city.

I was pretty apolitical for most of my life. I was left leaning and liberal but I didn’t pay much attention to politics as such. This began to change over the last few years. The Scottish Independence Referendum, the Labour Leadership race, the Brexit Referendum, the Democratic Leadership race, the 2017 General Election and the 2018 American Election; This series of important contests, with all of the debate, analysis and commentary surrounding them, turned me into a Bernie Bro and a Corbynista. It was then that I realised that there were mainstream politicians who were finally saying something different, rather than patting us on the head and telling us there was no alternative to neoliberalism. I joined the Labour Party, started to become more active and travelled up to Liverpool in September last year at the time of the conference to attend the World Transformed.

The World Transformed was established three years ago by members of Momentum to provide a celebration of politics and culture to take place in parallel to the conference, and in contrast to the stale and out-dated fringe festival that had been put on by groups such as Progress. The World Transformed was established to attract and reflect the massive influx of new members who had been drawn to the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn, including young people, BAME people, working class people and people who have been activists outside of the party system and felt able to join since Labour had returned its founding principles. Spread over four days at a cost of just £20 a ticket, this event is a massive success and a shining example of popular political education in action. Some of the world's most interesting, exciting and respected international figures from politics, science, culture, journalism, economics, academia and activism were there, and 16,000 attendees came to learn about some of the most cutting edge and dynamic thinking taking place today. It harks back to the days of popular political education that used to be propagated by working men’s clubs, trade unions and socialist groups, but it is utterly contemporary. It is clearly desperately needed to counterbalance how poor, cynical and disingenuous our major national media have become and it is especially pertinent in the face of the number of political and social crises we are facing.

I suspect that going to The World Transformed has become analogous to seeing the Sex Pistols at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1976. Attended by all the hip young people in Manchester in the time, it inspired the formation of Joy Division, The Buzzcocks, The Smiths, The Fall and the whole subsequent explosion of the local music scene. I found it hugely exciting and inspiring. I attended a workshop called ‘Bringing TWT to Your Community’ and I went back home to Bristol determined to put on an event like this. I have since heard that Transformed events are being planned in Nottingham, Southampton, Birmingham, Bradford and I’m sure more are being planned. In my rush of enthusiasm I reached out to the local Labour membership and managed to connect with a number of people who were of the same mind. We met for the first time in October and since then a core group of about a dozen of us have been working as volunteers, meeting every week to plan and execute the event. The volunteer committee are a group of people with a variety of backgrounds and experiences, which means we each have skills, ideas and connections we have been able to bring with us. We have academics, teachers, trade unionists, city councillors and activists, including an American woman who worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign before moving to the UK, whilst I have a background in the book industry and events in the craft beer sector. We are very lucky to have been sponsored by a number of CLP’s, trade unions and adult education trusts for which we are enormously grateful, and we are delighted to have formed a number of media partnerships.

We have faced a number of difficulties and disagreements, but we have managed to work to overcome them. The renaissance of the Left in the West has come at a time in which it has been moribund for years and many of us are having to re-learn lessons that were once well known. I personally had some concerns about the viability of planning a large-scale event on a democratic, collaborative basis. I have worked in commercial enterprises throughout my life, and I have heard and absorbed all the conventional wisdom about the ineffectiveness of the Left. I suspected that things wouldn’t be done properly without a top down structure in which someone was ultimately responsible for making decisions. Shortly before our event there was another festival being planned in Bristol that shared some of our themes. I was signed up to volunteer there to get some hands on experience, but it was cancelled at the last minute after months of planning and marketing. The festival organiser very kindly agreed to meet me for a coffee so I could explain what our festival was, and see if I could learn any lessons about the trials and pitfalls we might face. He was friendly, supportive and helpful, but he was very sceptical about the potential for us to organise an event this big and complex, especially in this horizontal, democratic fashion. Now that I can look back on five months of planning I am very pleased to realise that operating in this fashion has helped rather than hindered us. We have learned to operate successfully in a democratic socialist fashion, and it has strengthened and improved our work rather than hindering it. It can be frustrating when ideas that you are strongly attached to are voted down, but as we get closer to the finish line I am generally able to look back and say that our collective decision making has made us stronger.

Bristol has a strong history and tradition of political radicalism and activism, from the Bristol Riots of 1831 to the Bristol Bus Boycott of 1963, and the great Tony Benn represented the constituency of Bristol South East for 30 years. Our theme is People Powered Communities, as we want to pay homage to, and reinvigorate this tradition. There is a lot happening in Bristol including a strong environmental activist scene, a strong anti racist movement, a strong class struggle movement and a strong grass roots political campaigning scene. What we hope is that people from all these different groups and movements will come together, meet and get to know each other and realise we are working towards common goals.

We are hosting a series of panels and workshops, featuring a mixture of people from Bristol and others who are travelling in from out of town. On Friday the 5th of April we will launch with a guided tour by the Bristol Radical History Group followed by a live podcast recording by the comic political podcast Trashfuture. On Saturday we will have a full program of events throughout the day across three venues around St Paul’s and Stokes Croft. Some of our guest speakers include Julian Manley (one of the architects of the Preston Model), Cat Hobbs (We Own It), Aaron Bastani, Dawn Foster, Soweto Kinch, Grace Blakeley, Owen Hatherley, James Meadway and Kerry McCarthy MP. We are hosting workshops with groups like ACORN, Cato Press and Unite. In the evening we will have a pub quiz hosted by Michael Walker (Novara Media), a spoken word and performance poetry event and then a club night. We have done everything we can to make it accessible to all, so the tickets are a mere £10 (£5 concessions), and we are putting on a creche so that parents with young children are able to come. We will have books on sale from great publishers like Verso. We’re going to have Somali food from the fabulous (Observer Food Monthly endorsed) Arawelo Eats. On Sunday we will be holding a mass mobilisation to get people campaigning in our neighbouring marginal constituencies Kingswood and Filton and Bradley Stoke for their local elections in May.

Please come and join us and what is sure to be an interesting and exciting event. If it’s even half as good as the World Transformed I promise you won’t won’t regret it.