How Momentum is working to transform British politics
When Jeremy Corbyn was first elected to the leadership of the Labour Party in September 2015, the left of the party - the anti-austerity, anti-interventionist and overtly democratic socialist wing of the party - had already experienced a dramatic decline. The Left of the party, which had once made up a huge swathe of MPs, had declined to a small bloc of MPs and a plethora of disparate grassroots organisations such as Labour Assembly Against Austerity, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and the Labour Representation Committee (whose members included John McDonnell, Corbyn and Owen Jones). Of the 36 MPs who had nominated Corbyn for the leadership of the party, only just under half actually backed Corbyn as their choice for leader - with the remainder lending their nominations in order to have a broader debate.
Momentum was a reaction both to the excitement and enthusiasm of Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign and the slow, decades-long marginalisation of the Labour left which had peaked during the New Labour years. Those who had campaigned for Corbyn as leader in the summer of 2015 had renewed the debate, placing a real living wage for all, the possibility of a wealth tax, public ownership of energy, and mass building of social housing on the political agenda.
Having done so, many from the campaign wished to channel this energy and dynamism into a new project, one which unequivocally backed the Labour Party but which also sought to avoid the bureaucracy of modern political parties, avoided centralised structures and which sought to to give Labour Party members a greater say in the running of the party. Since the mid-90s, the Labour Party had slowly reduced the extent to which its grassroots decided party policy, and in turn had reduced accountability over key decisions. There was a strong feeling that, even prior to Corbyn, Labour’s members had never supported the involvement of private companies in the NHS, or the cuts to single-parent benefits under the last Labour government, let alone the Iraq War.
Among us, there is still a strong feeling that these mistakes could have been averted if the party’s decision making had been more democratic and decentralised. This is why we are seeking to move Labour in a direction that is more democratic and grassroots-oriented. We want to see Labour’s policies debated at party conference where thousands of local delegates representing constituencies across the country can debate and discuss the direction of the party. Likewise, many of us want to see Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) better reflect the views and interests of the grassroots. Key to this was the campaign last year to ensure all six of the elected positions on the NEC were won by activists who backed a more grassroots-oriented party. Ultimately, all six positions went to supporters of this vision of giving members a greater say and of the ideas which ended up in Labour’s 2017 manifesto.
But, we are not just seeking to change the Labour Party, instead, we are working to mobilise activists for a Labour victory, develop more efficient campaigning methods, and organise within communities. We are not just working to change the workings of a political party, but instead to have a tangible effect on the landscape of British politics. In 21 months we have successfully mobilised tens of thousands of activists to canvass for Labour candidates. In 2015, we bussed activists both from London and from across the North-West into Oldham for a by-election in which there had been widespread talk of a UKIP resurgence - the Labour candidate won with an increased majority. Similarly, we mobilised all of our resources for Sadiq Khan’s Mayoral campaign, playing a part in helping Sadiq win against one of the most boldly Islamophobic campaigns in recent memory. In these campaigns we faced scepticism from within our own ranks about candidates who were no doubt progressive but nonetheless didn’t share our political vision, yet each time we mobilised for the Labour candidate - even for those who had denounced us in the press.
The 2017 General Election took us all by surprise, yet ultimately, the election proved to be our biggest success story to date. Our social media didn’t just reach more voters than ever before, our campaign videos reached millions of people on Facebook, with our most successful video getting over six million views. Our ‘Election Day Pledge’ project which asked people to take the day off and canvass for Labour on polling day, led to activists knocking on over 1.2 million doors. In constituencies like Battersea, Crewe and Nantwich, Derby North and Sheffield Hallam this significantly bolstered turnout and ensured victory in seats we were overwhelmingly predicted to lose in. On June the 9th, Britain woke up to 34 more Labour MPs. Among them were several Momentum backers - namely Jared O’Mara who replaced Nick Clegg and Marsha de Cordova who won Battersea, which had been widely reported as an ‘unwinnable’ seat.
Given the tumult of two leadership elections, a General Election and the EU referendum, Momentum has at times struggled to focus on grassroots campaigns outside of electoral politics. Yet local groups have established food banks, hosted politics and arts festivals and taken on a multiple local campaigns against cuts. Our membership, which currently sits at 27,000, is arguably small - but we have grown to become one of the most effective political organisations in contemporary politics. Our desire to be a social movement is, I believe, currently an aspiration rather than a reality. But in spite of this, in just 21 months Momentum has successfully changed Labour for the better and become a crucial campaigning force for a Labour victory.