As the party leadership contest creeps towards its conclusion and the likely outcome of a Keir Starmer victory, an oft-heard question from over the last four years is becoming more pertinent for the Labour left once again. What is Momentum for? In many ways, this question has been at the heart of the organisation since it was founded in 2016, and has never quite been answered.
After spending decades marginalised to the fringes of the party, the Labour left was not prepared for the influx of sympathetic new members and the enthusiasm they brought, nor was it ready to secure the leadership of the party in 2015. This meant the debate about how the grassroots left relates to a left Labour leadership was not held, and instead Momentum got on with building itself up in order to strengthen Jeremy Corbyn’s position.
But it now seems probably that the left’s candidate will not win the party leadership, nor will the Labour left determine appointments to the shadow cabinet. It seems unlikely to hold the balance of power on the national executive committee for very long either. This will require a shift in orientation for Momentum and the Labour left more generally within this new environment, and the debate on what it does next is more important than ever.
One challenge for Momentum is that despite having around 40,000 paid-up members, activity on the ground is quite thin except for at election time. In 2016, groups sprung up all over the country with the aim of not only building support inside the Labour Party but also acting as a link to support the labour movement in those areas. They were supposed to act as a conduit between the party and grassroots campaigns around issues such as housing, anti-racism and trade union struggles.
However, in early 2017, Momentum’s steering group imposed a constitution that centralised power to its national coordinating group in a bid to curb the influence of various groups and individuals who wanted to see democratic structures throughout the organisation and a sovereign policy-making conference. The new constitution and the dissolution of regional democratic structures saw many Momentum groups fall into inactivity – with the exception of a number of larger urban-based groups like Manchester and Bristol.
As time went on, and the NCG began ignoring groups over issues such as local candidate endorsements, remaining groups began rebranding themselves as ‘Labour left’ ones rather than as Momentum. The 2017 constitution – combined with wider attacks on Corbyn elsewhere in the party, including within the parliamentary party – also helped to cement a bunker mentality among its supporters. Momentum’s purpose was to protect the ‘Corbyn project’ at any cost.
This mentality saw anyone who questioned the new constitution portrayed as some sort of far-left wrecker, while those with concerns about the organisation’s silence on issues such as Brexit and free movement were supposedly acting in bad faith. Those with dissenting views were kept off the NCG and the Momentum leadership ran their own slates of loyalists for internal elections, who could be trusted not to ask difficult questions about the direction of the leadership or how it dealt with major policy issues or management of the antisemitism crisis.
Although there were some signs of it fulfilling part of its original mission – helping to build a grassroots movement that could build collective power in local communities and usher in a Labour government – Momentum was too frequently focussed on the internal-facing objective of ‘winning for the left’ within Labour. It largely became more like a classic top-down NGO, with its members being passive donors-cum-election canvassers, rather than active participants in building this movement.
For Momentum to find relevance again, it must find a path back to genuine movement-building. This will, first and foremost, require prioritising political education to arm activists with the critical abilities to argue for socialist ideas in their CLPs, workplaces and union branches. Our failure to educate people over a long period of time is widely acknowledged to have been one of the mistakes of 2019. We now have the chance to get that right, and Momentum could play a key role. It will also require building a common purpose for the left and fighting for this in the wider labour movement all year round, not just during NEC elections.
Building this movement means that people with different views or from different political organising traditions will have to work together. The castigation of fellow activists who don’t take Momentum headquarter’s line on key issues must end, and those who couldn’t quite find it in themselves to enthusiastically support Rebecca Long-Bailey’s campaign should be included. It will be vital to reach out, creating a welcoming and democratic left, to ensure that everyone who was enthused by the policies of the 2017 and 2019 manifestos finds a home in this movement. And an effort must be made to win over those who weren’t.
Most importantly, building a movement to sustain the Labour left will mean reaching beyond party structures and becoming part of wider struggles in society at a grassroots level. Key to this mission will be the vision of Momentum groups in 2016: bringing together the various community campaigns and coalitions that create change by building power outside of party politics while working alongside it.
The ‘Hobson’s choice’ given to members in Momentum’s ballot for the Labour leadership elections of Long-Bailey or nobody encapsulated the problem with the organisation. It made clear that members are not seen to serve a fundamental purpose. To survive, treating Momentum activists as merely an army of people who will share a video or donate a few quid to a campaign will no longer cut it.
But I am optimistic that there is still a route back to relevance if Momentum’s NCG decides to embrace democracy and end its ‘we know best’ approach to organising. Given its infrastructure and resources, Momentum has the potential to be a powerful voice of the left in Labour, and potentially has the best chance of keeping the left together after the leadership contest. If it will talk to and listen to its activists, rather than talking at them, it can build on the gains of recent years and ensure that the left is not a marginalised force once again.