STEVE SWEENEY looks at the political thinking behind the grassroots Momentum movement which played such a decisive role in bringing about the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party
One of the iconic images of the Corbyn campaign was the photograph that captured a group of young people who had climbed up to peer in through a window at Camden Town Hall. This was seen by many as a defining moment in Corbyn’s campaign when, for the first time, he had to address people outside the meeting, delivering a speech from an FBU fire engine. It was then that many began to realise the scale and seriousness of what was happening.
Packed meetings with an overspill then became a feature of those that were held in the many towns and cities across the country throughout the summer.
By September 12 it became apparent that it was not whether Corbyn had won, but the magnitude of the victory. With a stunning 60 per cent of the vote, he won in the first round, marking a significant change in politics as Labour elected a leader who opposed austerity, embraced trade unions and put socialism back on the agenda for the first time in decades.
Not everybody welcomed his election, most notably the bourgeois capitalist press who embarked on a campaign attacking Corbyn for his lack of patriotism, snubbing of the Queen and most bizarrely for not attending a Rugby World Cup match because he was running a surgery helping his constituents. Clearly not the kind of behaviour expected by the Establishment.
The campaign energised and mobilised people in a way not seen in British politics for generations. Over 16,000 volunteers signed up to support Corbyn’s team and the use of social media engaged with millions on Facebook and Twitter.
In early October when Corbyn spoke at a CWU-hosted People’s Post meeting on Monday evening in Manchester, 7,000 people stood outside the cathedral in an overflow waiting to hear him speak. Momentum founder Jon Lansman has described it as “the biggest movement of the organised left for decades.”
Momentum was launched to keep people engaged in politics and to utilise the “army of volunteers” and supporters that had developed throughout the campaign. Groups have been established across the country from Bromsgrove to Blackpool and North Cambridgeshire to Tower Hamlets, with many holding their first campaign meetings this weekend as part of the Democracy SOS voter registration initiative, supported by TSSA.
Lansman envisages Momentum as moving toward becoming a membership organisation at some stage in the future as a logical step as it develops democratic structures. For now Momentum meetings are engaging with supporters to see what they want from the organisation and there is a clear emphasis on grassroots organising.
The local groups will decide the direction of Momentum although Lansman says that it is likely that there will be a conference in the future, perhaps initially on a regional basis.
He explained that: “Momentum is a grassroots campaign to take forward and expand on Corbyn’s election victory.
Thousands of people have joined or rejoined the Labour Party from new members, those involved in single-issue campaigns in their communities or against Trident. They are the people that had been looking for a movement to join and Momentum can help those involved in grassroots campaigning around issues of concern.”
He described “a great thirst” for Momentum, which was seen in the new layers who were involved in the Corbyn campaign.
Lansman said that at this stage the group does not have “policies” and that even when the governance arrangements are established, Momentum will be trying to “keep together a broad alliance.” Momentum will create a “space for debate and creative solutions” and Lansman envisages that policy would be “debated and agreed in a democratic Labour Party.”
He was clear that as Momentum develops, those who want to influence Labour Party policy will ultimately need to be members of the party. “It is only right that members decide policy and that those debates happen inside a democratic Labour Party.”
Lansman acknowledged that the political landscape has changed within the party, saying that “it is now difficult to find anyone who is in favour of austerity,” which is a big shift.
Marsha Jane Thompson, Momentum’s social media organiser and a key member of Corbyn’s campaign team agreed. She sees Momentum as a “stepping stone into the Labour Party, engaging with those who are registered or affiliated members but not yet full members of the party.”
She echoed the sentiment of Lansman in that there is “room for all of us to work together” in Momentum with a bigger reach encapsulating the thousands that supported the Corbyn campaign.
She highlighted some important victories that have already been achieved, citing the scrapping of the Saudi prison deal — an issue which was raised directly by Corbyn — as an example of grassroots campaigning turning into political reality.
It is this grassroots campaigning that sees the first serious campaign launched by the group aimed at voter registration.
Democracy SOS, a month-long campaign in conjunction with transport union TSSA, launches today with meetings in constituencies across the country. According to Momentum “changes to the electoral system will wipe an estimated 1.9 million people off the electoral register this December and 8 million are not on the register at all.”
Thompson agrees that voter registration is an important issue and something that people “wouldn’t necessarily think of.”
She spoke of the potential effect on young people “who stand to be the most affected by the changes and these are the people that most engaged with the Corbyn campaign.”
It is estimated that 20 per cent of eligible voters are not on the register.
Lansman shares concerns about the impact this may have on the 2020 general election and local elections, saying that it “reduces the representation of poorer areas and of young people, students, people in temporary or shared housing, people who are new to this country.” He criticised “Tory plans to gerrymander the boundaries” by bringing forward the “individual electoral registration” date, slamming the move as “wholly political and anti-democractic” with fewer Labour MPs as a result.
The energy of the campaign has even reached into the Tory heartlands. The speech by South Cambridgeshire Tory MP Heidi Allen attacking Osborne’s plans to cut tax credits shows that there are potential divisions to exploit and the pressure MPs are finding themselves under now that people are starting to realise that there is an alternative to austerity.
Lansman criticises the Tories’ claims to be the party of working people while at the same time voting to cut tax credits. He described this as a “work penalty” and the cut as an “attack on the working poor.” Campaigning against the tax credit cuts is another key grassroots campaign for Momentum and an issue that can unite broad layers of supporters.
Unison regional organiser Jo Rust was the Labour candidate for North West Norfolk at the general election in May and a supporter of Momentum. She says that the launch of Momentum will benefit local organising.
Rust is a believer in Momentum’s aim to“bring together individuals and groups in our communities and workplaces to campaign and organise on the issues that matter to us.” Grassroots organising is something she stresses as important in building opposition to the Tories but also in giving people ownership of campaigns and engaging people in the political process.
This is something she says is “so important in areas such as my locality. In Norfolk there are huge distances between villages and we need to drill down into them and ensure that they are part of the movement. The issues may be different depending on the area from rural transport services to NHS facilities. We know we have supporters there and Momentum can help link those people together.”
Rust sees Momentum as part of the process outlined by Corbyn and Tom Watson as “giving the party back to the people” with “no more top-down dictat.” She added that this helps to “give ordinary members the opportunity to get what they want from the party and for it to be more inclusive.”
She highlighted the campaign in King’s Lynn to defend the Purfleet Trust, a local organisation under threat of closure which offers practical support those in financial difficulty. “Demand for their services increases at times when benefit cuts such as this are made.”
Rust explained that there are people in King’s Lynn engaging in politics for the first time, many of them young people including a 14-year-old who has recently joined the Labour Party. She went on to say: “It is not just traditional Labour voters. There are people who are joining trade unions and attending marches who say they have never been political in the past. They are now feeling the effects of Tory policies and have been inspired by the Corbyn campaign and the ‘new way of doing politics’ that he represents.”
As a trade unionist, she feels that “trade union members have felt distant from the Labour Party and Momentum will help the process of bringing them closer.” And she would like to see: “Momentum helping by bringing affiliated members into the party as full members.”
This was echoed by Lansman who sees Momentum’s relationship with trade unions as symbiotic. “We want to take issues to the workplaces and a Labour Party that unequivocally supports unions, encouraging workers to join and build grassroots organising.” He emphasised that while the trade union link is important, it is not only about party funding but “it is about the collective voice in the party.”
While only in the early stages of its development, the relationship to the Labour Party is clearly central to Momentum. The aim is to draw more people into the party which the organisers see as strengthening the fight against austerity and public sector cuts.
Although Momentum will build broad alliances with those fighting in various campaigns on a local, regional and national level, its aims are linked with the Labour Party. “In order to influence the Labour Party and be involved in the Labour Party it stands to reason that people should be members of the Labour Party,” Lansman said.
The early signs are encouraging and Momentum has the potential to bring people together in political campaigning, boosted by a resurgent Corbyn-led Labour Party. There is much to be optimistic about. In the words of Thompson: “We have a world to win.”