From Momentum to Conundrum

Mark Perryman

It hasn’t been an easy first year under Keir Starmer’s leadership for the party’s left. Jeremy Corbyn was for so long a marginal figure in the party, but those of us who supported him (to varying degrees) found ourselves in 2015 all of a sudden in the party’s mainstream. Not, of course, amongst Labour MPs, and not in the party’s formidable apparatus, but certainly up and down the country in local parties. This provided us with some room for manoeuver and the potential to transform the party. Slowly but surely, the party’s full time staff changed to those of a more sympathetic disposition. Momentum emerged as a formidable electoral machine, winning clean slates in National Executive Committee (NEC) contests voted for by members. The left was never completely dominant, but all this gave the left an unprecedented political platform.

The last twelve months has just about reversed all of this: a left majority has been replaced by one that leans much more towards the centre – or in the modern vocabulary, ‘centrism.’  Keir Starmer and Deputy Leader Angela Rayner both served in Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, yet have done their level best to expunge any residual connection with that particular stage in their political careers. The remainder of the Shadow Cabinet, to a lesser or greater extent, are the antithesis of their Corbyn era predecessors. The NEC has shifted from left to centre-right, with countless local parties doing likewise. Changes in party full-time staff have ensured a ready-made base of Starmer loyalists, in particular his appointee as General Secretary, David Evans. Where dissent and opposition takes shape it is swiftly closed down.  And perhaps most significantly of all, a steady stream of those who joined, rejoined or reignited their enthusiasm because of Corbynism have exited the party leftwards.

Heaven knows

Being on the losing side in politics is a thoroughly miserable existence; to find ourselves in that position inside the party we joined in hope and expectation,  enough to make miserabilists of us all.  Momentum has responded by seeking to reinvent itself from the days when it served not much more than to cement a relationship between Corbyn and his supporters. Now it is becoming instead a Corbyn-less force for the party’s left in its own right.  With the ‘brand recognition’, numbers, youthfulness and intellectual resources that precious few others group on Labour’s Left can match, it is in an unrivalled position to do so, while remaining the one group with sufficient leverage to at least slow down the forward march of Labour centrism.

To this end, Socialist Organising in a New Era 2021-24 sets out Momentum’s strategy for coming to terms with both the changes and the challenges. For those familiar with the ‘new’ Momentum – a heady mix of movementism and the ambition for a party of a new type – it is an impressive read. 

The document offers a self-critical analysis of the left’s tendency to over-estimate levels of popular support for its ideas, suggesting that the reasons for Labour’s defeat in 2019 ‘are complex, but the simple fact is that support for socialist transformation is not as deeply rooted as it needs to be, either in the Labour Party or in the country’. The answers offered are plentiful and ambitious: building what Momentum dubs ‘left power in the Labour Party’, community campaigning, and popularising socialist ideas. It combines a sharp focus on the immediate, 2021 context and the shaping of a post-pandemic politics, with the medium term: a 2024 General Election  with Keir Starmer at the helm.

Much of this is both welcome and at the same time a tad familiar. The language, the examples cited, and the photography – which makes it a positive pleasure to read – have a freshness of approach about them. However, overall the document is very generational.  That’s how it should be: a key cohort of what remains of Labour’s left activists and (for want of a better term) ‘influencers’ is the one shaped by 2010 and the anti-tuition fee protests.  Not the 2003’ers who marched to Stop the Iraq War  (almost twenty years ago now), 84-85 miners’ strike (almost an entire generation ago),  ’81 first wave Bennites (who came into Labour before the 2010 tuition fee protestors were even born) , ’78 RAR Carnival (my lot, fast approaching pensionable age) and ‘68’ers (who have already been drawing pensions for the best part of a decade). But for a victorious coalition of change, in and out of Labour, any revival of Momentum has to connect to all these different cohorts, and more than that, draw lessons and inspiration from what they learnt and were inspired by. And it has to connect, too, with a younger generation for whom 2010 was a lifetime ago and who probably have less in common with the early thirtysomethings of ‘generation left’ than I do. 

This kind of framing of Momentum as the voice of ‘Generation Left’ fosters an underestimation of its role as an organising centre internally for a much broader section of Labour’s left. While Jeremy was in the ascendant, this was really easy: when Momentum went head-to-head with the Labour right it won, hands down, aided by the experienced leadership of Jon Lansman and highly committed Momentum staffers learning on the job.  But now we are in an entirely different situation: the Labour Right are resurgent and it is they who are highly organised, not us.  So do we get sucked in, or vacate? The internal contest is a draining endeavour that drags all but the most resilient down: hour upon hour of tedium, night after night, week after week, largely futile. Being on the losing side has no rewards. What does Momentum have to say to inspire members; to convince them it’s worth getting our hands dirty, whatever the daunting prospect of unlikely victory? Not a lot.

Broad is best

Unless some sort of contestation takes place, the left will find itself increasingly irrelevant to the direction Labour pursues. To reverse this drift a much broader perspective is required. The left cannot simply be footsoldiers for the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs. It must be something bigger, broader, bolder. The key audience is that huge portion of members who voted for Keir not because they were diametrically opposed to everything Jeremy had stood for between 2015 and 2019, but because after such a devastating defeat they wanted Labour to compete seriously to defeat the Tories the next time round.  Keir has made umpteen errors since then which have disappointed the left. But just saying ‘we told you so’ won’t connect with many of those who supported him in the leadership election. Instead, we need a concerted push to build a pluralist left, within and beyond the Labour Party, which fundamentally changes how politics works.    

Central to this is the current party debate on Proportional Representation. To date, Momentum has been virtually silent on this. There may, however, be about to be a welcome change on this front, if the Momentum members’ policy primary votes PR as a priority to campaign for at Labour’s conference.  But even if it does so, such is the variety of other priorities competing for attention, we still can’t be sure it will break through. In a brutal world of hard choices, PR is the terrain on which to contest, and win, the party’s direction: nothing else comes close. PR, more than any single other change, offers the opportunity to fundamentally change our broken political system and to create a context which will allow for a more pluralist politics.

Momentum has had even less to say on working with other parties to defeat the Tories. This is not the same agenda as PR, but it’s the same common sense radicalism that can appeal right across Labour, and beyond. By party conference, and especially if 6 May proves to be as bad for Labour as many fear, there may be serious threats to Starmer’s support in the party. Momentum should be putting pressure on the leadership to support both PR and cross-party co-operation.  

Furthermore, Momentum should be pushing to change how Labour organises. Even under Corbyn, Labour didn’t have a transformative project for how the party might operate differently. For the foreseeable future, it’s clear that such a project won’t come from above, so it must come from below. This should involve changing branches, CLPs, how the party organises and campaigns, its use of premises, and communication with members. Innovations should be shared across the party to create models that can be replicated: models but no one-model-fits-all.

Exit points

There’s an elephant in the room, however, and it’s entirely missing in Momentum’s document. We don’t know the numbers, but we all know that the exit leftwards has been pretty constant ever since the 2019 defeat; it accelerated when it was obvious Keir would become leader, and has continued non-stop ever since.  The brutal truth is that every resignation sets Momentum’s aims and objectives back: the chances of them being fulfilled ever more remote, defeat piled upon defeat. So what’s the message, the appeal, the promise to persuade these, and new audiences too, to join, rejoin, reignite all over again?   

Short of being able to offer that, it is hard to imagine the fine ideas coming to anything like fruition. Yet if they don’t, even partially, the chances of a Left recovery become ever more remote.  From Momentum, to conundrum.  

Mark Perryman is a member of Lewes CLP. His latest book, Corbynism from Below, is available here.