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Rebuilding from Defeat

Next month's Bristol Transformed festival will aim to pick the socialist movement up from defeat – and begin the political education that can chart a way back.

Those of us on the Left won’t forget where we were when the 2019 exit poll dropped. That feeling hangs over all of us. It informs our thoughts and action going forwards. 

By December 14th, I had spent the last few days with many other members of Bristol Momentum calling hundreds of activists who’d agreed to be part of our ‘get out the vote’ operation. Before that, I had spent weeks in the pouring rain and battering winds campaigning for inspiring candidates who failed to win seats, and others who it seemed resented the hundreds of left-wingers canvassing for them – but still won with the help of our hard work.

We organised a Bristol Transformed election watch party. Minutes before the exit poll, I got myself a couple of drinks – I had done as much as I could. I grabbed a confetti cannon and tried to figure out how to set it off. While fumbling around I could hear in the background “the Conservatives on 368 seats and Labour way down on 191.” A very tough night.

It’s that much tougher after all the hard work, all the organising not just of canvassing sessions but of events over years. As organisers we had to have serious conversations about whether it was possible for us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and organise Bristol Transformed this year. It seemed a pretty daunting task.

This year’s Bristol Transformed cannot help but be held in the shadow of the election. But that is why it had to go ahead. It would be wrong for us to do anything else. Now is the time for the movement to pick itself up from the defeat, try to understand why it happened and chart a path forward. We want to make sure that we are connected to those discussions – and preparing people to fight back and win. 

We have tried to centre our organising around what the election has taught us. It wasn’t the radical policies that were the problem, it was the fact that people didn’t believe we could deliver them. Years of politicians letting them down, and the weight of decades of austerity, had crushed the belief that politics could improve people’s lives. 

We will continue to fight for the policies in the manifesto that inspired us and keep pushing for those we felt were missing. At this year’s Bristol Transformed festival, we’ll be having panels on Bristol and Empire, on the future of work, on how to start a co-operative. We’ll have grassroots campaigners from Labour for a Green New Deal discussing where we go next in the climate fight, the artist Lowkey discussing migration as well as a talk from one of the real bright spots of the election, Zarah Sultana MP.

We’ll be looking to the future exploring what a Left utopia could look like but we’ll also be looking back at the history of socialism, and our movement’s defeats, in an attempt to learn how we can rebuild. 

The election showed us that there are communities across the country who have been persuaded to fear or even hate socialists. To win, we must tackle this problem head on. We have to be present, visible and fighting for people up and down the country. The mighty tenants’ union Acorn will be doing a workshop showing how they organise in working-class communities. Their approach is successful because they get regular victories for their members and their model is scalable. Our movement must learn from them if we are to move forward. 

Our headline panel on the Saturday will be “why we need the trade unions to win.” We want to make sure that no one leaves the festival without being a member of a trade union and ready to take action. We want to help make sure that socialists cannot be demonised by the media. We can do this by organising in our workplaces and communities.

We want socialists to be the ones helping people win material gains across the country. Helping people to feed their kids, resist cutbacks, earn higher wages. We want to inspire people to take the fight to their bosses and their landlords. But we need to do more than inspire people, we need to give them the tools and networks they need to win.

We’re not saying there won’t be plenty of fun to be had; a little bit of camaraderie can mean so much. The election campaign, in its own way, demonstrated that. That pint next to a radiator after a long day of persuading people that Jeremy Corbyn isn’t the antichrist. Sharing your snacks with someone you met that morning, while hiding from the rain in a shop front and trying to stop your data sheet from disintegrating.

We’ll be partying with the Daybreak Audio Soundsystem crew and a host of local DJs and performers. We’ll be joined by Trashfuture for a comedy podcast and we will be closing the festival with a communal meal by the National Food Service. Because if our movement is going to win, we need to build a socialist culture which focuses not only on education but on social nourishment. We need to make sure that we aren’t just Marx-quoting automatons, but the kind of people who can be trusted with the future. 

The Sunday of the festival will be falling on International Women’s Day. We will be using the opportunity to explore the pressing feminist issues of our time and to celebrate the knowledge and expertise of the women in our movement. Every panel and session that day will be made up of women and non-binary people, a first for a transformed festival. There will be session on everything from feminist fighting skills to organising women in undervalued work. To mark the 35th anniversary of the end of the miners’ strike earlier in the week, we’ll be showing the film Women of the Rhondda which explores the role that women in the Welsh valleys played in the strike.

This year’s Bristol Transformed will be a big two fingers up to the people who want the hundreds of thousands of us that were inspired into action by the Corbyn project to shut up or go away. If that sounds appealing to you – book a ticket. It’s important that the people who aim to make us feel stupid for wanting a better world know we are not dissuaded. We want to keep building, keep growing and keep learning – because that’s the only way we can win.