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Sat 15 August 2020
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Sam Bright investigates what Jeremy Corbyn’s departure as Labour Leader spells for the movement many believe revolutionised the party on his watch

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Since its foundation in 2015, catalysed by Jeremy Corbyn’s shock election as Labour Party leader, Momentum has been the dominant force in left-wing politics.

Exploiting Facebook’s discrimination towards viral online videos, the group and its advocates crushed social media during the 2017 General Election campaign. Momentum estimated its videos were seen by 30% of all UK Facebook users, as it propelled veteran socialist Corbyn to within spitting distance of Downing Street. 

While Momentum acted as Corbyn’s loudspeaker in the country at large, it was also busy entrenching his power within the Labour Party.

In 2018, Labour held National Executive Committee (NEC) elections, with nine seats up for grabs. On the party’s governing body, Momentum-backed candidates won every single spot. Even Peter Willsman – who was dropped by the group after journalists exposed his claims that anti-Semitism allegations in Labour had been fabricated – won a position on the NEC, due to his association with the group. 

Two years ago, people declared that the ‘Corbyn takeover’ had been completed. Momentum was bulldozing its opponents within the Labour Party, and its figurehead was on the verge of becoming Prime Minister. It was all embarrassingly easy. 

“After 2017, we thought we were going to be in Government,” says Matt Zarb-Cousin, former spokesman for the Labour leader. “Everyone thought Jeremy Corbyn was going to be Prime Minister.”

Yet, now, another period of wilderness looms before the left-wing of the Labour Party. It turns out that 2017 was the high-point of electoral Corbynism. Indecision on Brexit took its toll, as the party slumped to just 13.6% of the vote in the 2019 European Elections, and then recorded its worst General Election result since 1935 just a few months later. 

Under the weight on this electoral disaster, Corbyn initiated a slow-motion resignation, laying out a months-long process for the election of his successor. The heir to Jezza’s throne, however, came up short. Rebecca Long-Bailey, who was backed by Momentum, suffered a humbling at the hands of Keir Starmer. Perhaps more significantly, Momentum’s command of the NEC simultaneously came to an abrupt end, as two ‘moderate’ candidates won a by-election contest. 

So, five years after its creation, Momentum is saddled with several existential dilemmas: how to maintain relevance in a party it no longer controls; how to fill a leadership vacuum left by Jeremy Corbyn; how to engage with increasingly confident rival groups; and how to deal with concerns that it has not lived up to its ideals.  


Thinking Ahead

While the answers to these questions might take years to fully crystallise, the debate is far from dormant.

Momentum will this month elect a new National Coordinating Group (NCG) to lead the organisation – following the resignation of its founding father, Jon Lansman. Signalling the first time that Momentum has formally divided into competing factions, there are two groups (typically known as “slates”) contesting this election. Superficially, their manifestos appear aligned. Both want to reform the democratic structures of the organisation; both want to see more devolution of powers to local groups; both want to defend the radical policies of the Corbyn era. 

Yet, reading between the lines, and speaking to informed members of the Labour movement, there are some marked differences between the two groups. Indeed, in one sense, they are proxies for a war of control between more senior figures on the Labour left.

One of these factions, Momentum Renewal, is seen as the continuity group, with its candidates broadly aligned with Lansman. Meanwhile its rival, Forward Momentum, is more closely associated with the former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who has given his backing to the group.

Corbyn was the most perfect cipher to run for leader, because he’s the perfect character through which you can project your hopes, your aspirations – he is exactly the same as you.

Nathan Yeowell

There are also fundamental policy distinctions between the two factions. Forward Momentum appears to advocate a more member-led structure, with decision-making opened up to ordinary activists. 

“Since joining, I have been disappointed by some the decisions of Momentum,” says Ana Oppenheim, who is standing as a Forward Momentum candidate in London. “Very often it felt like a mailing list, instead of the movement we were promised, where people can discuss ideas, learn from each other and run independent campaigns. It felt like we were given a line to follow from the top.”

As evidence, Oppenheim points to the way Momentum treated its members during the recent Labour leadership contest. The group didn’t allow members an open vote on who it should support, instead presenting the Momentum leadership’s favoured candidates (Long-Bailey and Angela Rayner for deputy leader), with members merely allowed to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

At the time, Oppenheim tweeted to say this was an “insult” to members, and hasn’t changed her mind since. “It felt like Momentum was scared of its members – that it’s scared to give us a voice and see what we want,” she says.

While Momentum Renewal also has policies to improve democracy within the movement – claiming that interactions with members are currently “toothless consultations and rubber-stamping exercises” – it has been noted that Renewal is standing four candidates who currently sit on the NCG and have been, at least in part, responsible for the present approach. 


Democratising the Party

In the context of the Labour Party as a whole, this debate over the supposed anti-democratic tendencies of Momentum is more than slightly ironic.

Since 2015, Momentum has led the charge for what it perceives as greater democracy in the Labour Party. In particular, the group has called for Labour members to have a greater influence over party policy and for Labour MPs to be more accountable to their local members. 

Despite this, Momentum itself doesn’t seem to have lived by these principles.

In late 2016, there was an attempt by the Trotskyist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) to infiltrate Momentum and seize power. In response, Lansman put in place a constitution to cement his power and prevent a coup. Ever since, control of the group has been tightly guarded by Lansman and his acolytes, even when they were arguing for more participatory democracy in the Labour Party.

When Labour’s Deputy Leader Tom Watson warned in August 2016 that Trotskyists were attempting to gain a foothold in the party, this claim was seen as a swipe against Momentum. Yet, Momentum fully appreciated this risk and took action to prevent it – even arguably subverting its own internal democracy to do so.

However, there are some within Labour who think Momentum never sought to be a fully open, democratic movement.

“Momentum was a vehicle to influence the new members who joined Labour after 2015,” says Nathan Yeowell, the director of rival Labour faction Progress – a group that acted as a support network for Tony Blair during his time as Prime Minister. “It was the fan club and shock troop regiment for Jeremy Corbyn and his handlers.”

The current Momentum leadership would doubtless deny this claim, and point to its thousands of supporters as evidence that it has cultivated a healthy sense of democracy and participation. Yet, even those close to the movement are hard pressed to deny its function as the battering-ram of Corbynism.

“I think a legitimate criticism of Momentum is it became too much about supporting the leader’s office, and actually what it should have been doing is mobilising people to support policies,” says Zarb-Cousin. “It became too associated with Corbyn rather than socialism.”

With the Islington rebel now getting accustomed to his old spot on the faded Commons backbenches, Momentum is forced to figure out how to stay relevant without its guiding angel. Counter-intuitively, however, Yeowell claims there hasn’t been the moment of crisis in Momentum that might have been expected.

“There has barely been a ripple from Corbyn’s departure” among left-wing groups, he says. “My argument has always been that Corbyn was the most perfect cipher to run for leader, because he’s the perfect character through which you can project your hopes, your aspirations – he is exactly the same as you.

“He’s been around for a very long time and he’s stuck to his views since the late 1970s, but otherwise in terms of being a top, first-rank politician there’s not an awful lot there, so you can easily project your hopes and aspirations through Corbyn. He’s a prism.”


Policies Not Personalities

Regardless of whether Corbyn is considered to be a captivating leader or merely a projection of his supporters’ political piety, it will be difficult for Momentum to find someone who can score the same victories in the Labour Party.

There are few left-wing Labour MPs with light political baggage – the sort of controversies that turn up on the front page of the Daily Mail – and yet can boast an exhaustive CV of standing up for the oppressed. 

Zarb-Cousin is more aware of this dilemma than most, having led Rebecca Long-Bailey’s communications operation during the recent leadership contest. 

“What I think the left underestimated after 2015, me included, was how much Jeremy Corbyn winning the first and then the second leadership contest, was down to Jeremy Corbyn,” he says. “It would be unfair for me to say that Rebecca wasn’t a good candidate, because she was… Very good media performer, ability to hold a line, very good people person, decent on the stump. And she stood for pretty much everything that Jeremy stood for. But the politics will only take you so far. You have to also resonate with the membership and, for whatever reason – perhaps the context more than anything – she wasn’t able to resonate as much as Jeremy did.”

So while, in Zarb-Cousin’s book, Momentum must start to campaign on policies, not just personalities, it must still find leaders with a gravitational pull on Labour members. Newly elected MPs Zara Sultana, Sam Tarry and Charlotte Nichols are all ones to watch, he says.

As for the next generation of candidates who are vying for control of Momentum, there seems to be a consensus that attention must turn towards policy-based campaigns.

“What I would like to see Momentum do is to have a number of priority campaigns that we organise around, both within the Labour Party and also speaking to the wider country,” says Oppenheim. “So, for example, around the Green New Deal, talking in detail about what a radical Green New Deal should look like and the policy that Labour should be adopting. By focusing on issues that a lot of the left can unite around, I think we can move the party towards our direction.”

Yet within this vision – of a decentralised group that campaigns on issues that members care about – there is a contradiction. Namely, what happens when members want to campaign on something that leaders in Momentum don’t agree with, or that might damage its candidates in an internal Labour election?

This is the same bind that Corbyn’s Labour experienced after 2017.

The Labour leader argued passionately for the empowerment of members and call for them to shape the party’s policies. Yet, when polls showed that 90% of Labour members were clamouring for Corbyn to back a second Brexit referendum, these pillars of democracy came crashing down on his electoral plan. Not agreeing with the policy of a ‘people’s vote’, and believing it would cost Labour in an election, Corbyn nevertheless followed his democratic instincts and tentatively moved the party’s policy towards a second referendum. In the end, Corbyn’s stance was a baffling fudge, for which he was punished at the ballot box. 

There is a sense that Momentum still hasn’t fully grasped how to reconcile grassroots socialism with the pragmatic, often ruthless decisions that parties and factions need to take in order to win power.


Chance for a Comeback

What of the vexed question of unity in the Labour Party?

The past five years have been marked by an acrimonious battle between Labour factions that can only be described as a civil war. With a new leader in place – someone who doesn’t boast a lineage in any particular faction – will there be a cessation of hostilities?

Perhaps, when both sides acknowledge culpability for the present climate, which they currently, largely, ascribe to their opponents.

“I would be the last one to say that the progressive and mainstream wings of the Labour Party have been blameless in the way in which we’ve dealt with conflicting opinions or people with different opinions to us over the past couple of years,” says Yeowell. “But the full extent of the anger and the aggression that was coming out of Momentum at times, or out of sort of Corbyn-sponsored media outlets, was quite overwhelming.”

Zarb-Cousin’s analysis is the same, just in reverse.

“To be honest, I found working for Jeremy and the time after, there’s a huge, visceral hatred and I’d say pathological hatred towards the left,” he says. “And, yes, it cuts both ways. Yes, there is hate towards the Blairites, but there are people in the party who have this pathological hatred towards other factions, and they’re the problem in my opinion.”

With COVID-19, Boris Johnson is clearly out of his depth and people are starting to see through the Prime Minister’s bluster. Every time he writhes and tantrums in response to legitimate, level-headed questions from Keir Starmer, his public approval rating plummets further. Johnson’s Titanic premiership has hit its iceberg, and Labour has a chance to gain ground – as long as it doesn’t compulsively hit the self-destruct button. 

If Momentum helps to unite a principled opposition under the leadership of Starmer, it might ironically find that its greatest achievements arrive after the era of Jeremy Corbyn.

Momentum Renewal was approached for this piece, but did not respond. Momentum has been approached for comment. 


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