Where next for the Labour left? The reorientation of Momentum

Earlier this year, I wrote for LabourList about the existential questions faced by Momentum now that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has come to an end. Although Momentum was conceived as an organisation that aimed to bridge the gap between social movements and the Labour Party, it quickly became absorbed in internal battles to hang on to institutional control of the party.

Political education, democratic discussions around policy priorities and extra-parliamentary activism dropped off the agenda. Constitutional reforms within the organisation meant that leadership was heavily centralised with office staff and the national coordinating group (NCG), rather than led from the grassroots via a vibrant network of local groups.

Now that Keir Starmer has taken the helm of the party, the Labour left seems remarkably keener to reform its own structures again. Forward Momentum, a campaign group demanding that Momentum turns its democratic structures “back on”, was launched to organise members around this goal and to form a slate for the upcoming NCG elections on this basis.

Attempts to address structural problems within Momentum are welcome, of course. But a focus on “operational” questions alone will most likely not be sufficient to secure Momentum’s future. Beneath the surface, there are political and strategic tensions that require a much broader discussion than what is currently offered.

In the wake of Rebecca Long-Bailey’s failed leadership bid, different parts of the Labour left have set out their own diagnosis of what went wrong for the movement. Coded assumptions around what “real leadership” (read: white, male, wearing a nice suit) looks like, after a heavy general election defeat, will have benefitted a candidate like Starmer.

But the Long-Bailey campaign also brought into sharp focus a key political failure of the Labour left – it never cohered its collective politics. This void was filled with a focus on a vague set of values (such as “fairness” or “kindness”), which can easily be attributed to a wide range of Labour politicians. Members who have supported Corbyn for these reasons will not see the contradictions in now backing Starmer.

As the Labour left regroups, it must strive to identify the root of this political failure. On the surface, for most Labour left activists, there is overlap on two strategic issues: firstly, that socialists should stay in Labour despite the left losing the leadership; secondly, that Momentum should be recaptured and transformed into a more effective tool to promote socialist politics within Labour and eventually in wider society.

Tribune (whose line, if we are borrowing Jeremy Gilbert’s terms, falls into the “orthodox left” camp) recently used an editorial to rightly point out that Momentum’s short-term strategic focus of defending Corbyn’s leadership meant that it developed into a mighty factional tool. But it fell short of building a more effective socialist organisation for the working class. Although the work of Momentum and aligned organisations such as The World Transformed are acknowledged positively, a perceived reliance on young people and students – able to volunteer countless hours for these projects – is considered a weakness.

The solution hinted at by the Tribune editors is a reorientation towards organising working-class Northern communities and Leave-voting former Labour seats, rather than too much of a focus on metropolitan areas like London and university towns.

In a piece for Novara Media, Forward Momentum supporter Keir Milburn strikes a similarly complimentary tone when speaking about TWT and Momentum’s political education effort, whilst acknowledging it did not reach far enough. Building on these successes, Forward Momentum suggests that Momentum should focus on offering training and support to activists so that they can “build power in communities”, set up new socialist campaigns and link up with existing ones. Generally speaking, Forward Momentum can be considered as an expression of the newly emerged “radical left” that Gilbert describes as more interested in democratic grassroots campaigns than “traditional Labourism”.

These approaches look similar on the surface, but how they will be interpreted and translated into action could differ significantly. The whole Labour left believes in empowering communities and building a consensus for socialist politics. But what do we mean by “socialist politics”? Who are these communities we aim to speak to and organise? And who is leading this organising?

As we are still in the early stages of the debate over Momentum’s future, there is not yet a substantial body of work from different camps to draw upon to answer these questions. The clustering of some well-known activists around the campaigns gives a hint as to how these questions could be addressed in the future. But as the end of Corbynism erodes the basis for former unity, new alliances across the Labour left will emerge.

One thing there appears to be agreement on is that Momentum was not fit for purpose. But why is it that when these concerns were raised over the last couple of years, there was little appetite to alter the course? This shows that most people from across the Labour left who had influence over the direction of the movement concluded that a united front to protect the Labour leadership was strategically the most important goal. If one identifies the maintenance of power within Labour as the main objective, this informs how an organisation such as Momentum acts and where it sets its priorities.

Similarly, whether we believe Momentum’s key task going forward should be to regain power in Labour, or whether we should focus on building power outside the party political realm, will set the foundations for the future. The question that needs working through is whether both of these things can be done by the same organisation at the same time.

The experience of the Corbyn leadership shows that the responsibility that comes with leading the Labour Party – a broad electoral coalition made up of multiple political stakeholders – lends itself to triangulation. Even politicians like Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, who can look back on decades of activism, fell victim of the impulse to compromise on their politics to satisfy the demands of the institutions of the party.

Should Momentum focus its efforts on organising a political space in society for a future Labour leadership to step into? Throwing everything at maintaining a left leadership that is constrained by the contradictions of the party risks trapping us in a vicious circle of defeat. If a shift in the political narrative in society has already started to take place, the electoral pressure might not be as severe. This would give the left more room for manoeuvre and allow a left leadership to emerge again.

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