11 October 2019

Building Radical Solidarities: Soundings at The World Transformed in Brighton

Jeremy Corbyn was elected on a wave of hope for a ‘new politics’: for a more humane, equal, democratic, anti-racist and sustainable society. It was against this background that The World Transformed (TWT) emerged; a festival of politics, culture and ideas that has run in parallel to the annual Labour Party Conference for the past four years. TWT aims to bring people together to help imagine and achieve radical change. The festival has grown year on year, with more than 6,000 people now taking part.

This year, Soundings journal organised a lively participatory session at the festival, on ‘Building Radical Solidarities’. On Sunday morning, in a packed-out tent, TWT attendees gathered to discuss how to develop and strengthen the collective solidarities that the left will need in the crucial weeks, months and years ahead. The session was chaired by Dr Jo Littler (Reader at City University and member of Soundings editorial collective), and together our speakers offered some brilliant reflections on hard-won lessons from the real-world solidarity-building initiatives they’ve been involved with.

From left to right: Jo Littler, Faiza Shaheen, Lynne Segal and Christina Paine. 

Dr Faiza Shaheen (Director of the Centre for Social and Labour Studies (CLASS) and parliamentary candidate) reflected on what she has learnt from her work in Chingford and Woodford Green, where she’s been leading community campaigns and door-knocking sessions, and working with local groups to build involvement and support for Labour.

‘Look local… People coalesce when they care. Find the thing in your community that’s really making people angry… Find those local assets that we need to fight for.’ 
- Faiza Shaheen

Danny Millum (University of London branch secretary of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB)) and Christine Paine (lecturer in music technology at London Metropolitan University and University and College Union (UCU) activist) explained how the UCU and the IWGB – one of the newer ‘gig’ unions and a more established union – have worked together on a boycott campaign to improve conditions for low-paid outsourced workers at the University of London’s Senate House.

‘The universities… are privileged structures built on the work of the many, from which the few benefit. They’re built on structures of sexism and institutional racism, and we want to break this down.’
- Christina Paine

Tom Wadsworth, an activist for Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants, an organisation inspired by the 1980s movement Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners, spoke about his involvement in the ‘Dear BA’ campaign to stop British Airways facilitating Home Office deportations on charter flights, and about LGSMigrants’ other migrant solidarity projects.

‘Are we just building movements where we hear our own stories, we hear the stories that we’re often told… or are we building solidarities that lift up voices from other communities, that diversify these stories that are told?’ 
- Tom Wadsworth

Socialist feminist academic, activist and author Lynne Segal reflected on her experiences of solidarity-building as part of feminist and local community-based activism in the 1970s, and the relevance of this activism today.

‘We ought to be able to address the pluralism and complexity of identities, to stop lining up against each other. We need a certain politics of uncertainty… When we’re thinking of solidarities, we always need to be open and flexible, and to see that we will have certain disagreements with people, but if we’re thinking of the broader structures of global capital and so on which we’re against, then we ought to be able to find ways of uniting.’ 
- Lynne Segal

Tom Wadsworth of LGSMigrants. 

Rich and wide-ranging discussions followed the speakers, as event participants shared their own experiences and insights.

Some key themes that emerged:

There was a clear feeling in the room that more needs to be done to recognise the diversity of contexts, stories and experiences of solidarity-building today. In order to learn from these, the UK left should try harder to guard against not only sectarianism, but also overly top-down forms of organising. These, several participants said, can not only close down the left imagination, but also take the focus away from the full diversity of solidarity struggles that will be needed to build the strength of the left. A radical and pluralistic understanding of solidarity is required to build the hope, collective capacity and support networks on the ground that are needed across different contemporary contexts, issues and groups.

There was also a palpable resurgence of support for face-to-face interaction. Without denying the value of online social networks, several speakers and participants reaffirmed the importance of the simple conversation and the intimacy that such encounters can provide. Face-to-face encounters were seen a medium that can uniquely foster radical listening, interpersonal understanding and collective care. As such, they were seen as key to building the kinds of radical solidarity the left in the UK so urgently needs today – especially now, when it seems increasingly likely that we are moving towards another general election.

Danny Millum (IWGB).