When I was elected chair of Leeds Momentum in 2018, myself and others on the new committee inherited nothing but a moribund structure that had fallen into inactivity and had organised very little in a very long time. In the years since, we turned this around. The new committee I was elected alongside made Leeds Momentum a thriving hub of socialist activity.
We led regional campaigning during the 2019 general election, organised for picket lines, policy, and political education, and hugely increased our presence across the local party. Out of this work, meaningful links were forged with people across the wider movement. In helping swell the picket lines for striking RMT and Unite members, building grassroots anti-fascist politics, and throwing our lot in with Leeds’ burgeoning tenants’ movement, we found many friends the Labour left didn’t previously know we had.
As a proud Leeds man, it stings me to say this, but a lot of our work was inspired by Momentum in Manchester. Their situation was initially similar to ours: a very small group that hadn’t captured the enthusiasm of the new membership, but happened to be good at holding on to control of things. This changed when a new committee was elected in 2016. Since then, Manchester Momentum grew by about seven times its previous strength. Its political education seminars, canvassing sessions, gigs, Tribune reading groups, Northern Soul and Italo Disco nights have become nationally known.
Manchester Momentum have shown that an inviting, interesting left is possible. And nearly none of it was reinventing the wheel: it was merely renewing the northern socialist counterculture that built and sustained our movement in working-class communities for over a century, but diminished as we suffered defeat after defeat. Despite being used as a talking point, however, the poor treatment that Manchester Momentum received from Momentum’s London office was an open secret. “With honourable exceptions,” one former leader of the group told me, “staff in London were often unresponsive to our requests.” This is an all too familiar story for us in Leeds.
In Manchester, activists have reported that they waited for several years (!) for graphics and branding packs to arrive – but they never did. Momentum merchandise for mass rallies repeatedly failed to materialise – to the point where they started making their own. Events were organised in Manchester by the London office without local members knowing about them, and one member even claimed they were misled by a senior office figure over local funding. Another Manchester Momentum member tells me how “shocked” they were that despite northern Momentum members going hard at organising a Liverpool edition of The World Transformed, the London office staff immediately arrived to assume control and lock local activists out of the activity.
Though the daytime events were excellent, social events were incredibly exclusive, and a private party at the TWT venue contained almost entirely London-based staff and volunteers from the Jeremy campaign, operating a door policy in which people ‘they didn’t recognise’ found it hard to get in. This sort of nepotism is rife in Momentum. It creates unhealthy, unnecessary divides, where local knowledge is not utilised. It breeds cliqueyness, it makes hard-working people feel unappreciated, and it creates bad blood.
It creates bad politics, too. I can’t have been the only Momentum member annoyed at the group’s social media presence, where socialism seems to be whatever the government does, and the police, the motorways and everything else the state has touched is socialist. Why did we have to accept that sort of ‘politics’ coming out from our national platform, when we knew how to build real, popular socialist politics in Leeds and Manchester? And for every off-beat meme or Jason Manford status that Momentum releases, why couldn’t it have been hammering home praise for my fellow Renewal candidate Matt Brown’s work on Preston Council? Or mayor Paul Dennett’s pioneering work building council houses in Salford for the first time in four decades? Or the Socialist Clothing and Food Banks operating out of the former Durham coalfield?
The truth is that Momentum has, just like any other political grouping, relied far too long on London-centric political circles. And if elected to the national coordinating group, I would immediately start fighting so that Momentum’s entire office would be brought to the North. This isn’t an attack on Londoners. No honest socialist could look at the poverty and inequality that exists in London’s vast working-class districts and say that “the South” is the problem. But the problem is sociological. By and large, it isn’t working-class Londoners who could afford to do unpaid work, in central London, for months at a time. As my fellow Renewal candidate Max Shanly recently argued: “If we’re honest, these are people who got into their positions only because they had the financial means that afforded them the opportunity to devote endless unpaid hours to a project based in central London.”
This cannot be the way to build a socialist project. It also won’t be the way to rebuild trust in Labour in post-industrial areas where people feel that our politics is very, very far away from their lives. As the December election showed us, we are now in this situation across broad swathes of the North. In this moment, we socialists in the party have an opportunity and a duty to rebuild and renew the socialist culture that meant that people gave their life’s loyalty to our party. If we are to rebuild Labour’s fortunes – let alone gain a socialist government – we need a united socialist movement that will renew and rebuild that cultural and political faith in Labour. Change won’t come from condescending saviours or well-meaning liberals. Change will come from a movement of people doing long-term work. If we, as socialists, are serious about this work rebuilding our ‘Red Wall’, then what better reason for Momentum – the largest socialist bloc in Labour – to set the example?