Around 200 people attended this week’s launch of Haringey Momentum. They were mostly male, mostly white, but quite an age range, from students to pensioners and all inbetween. Listening to the contributions from the floor, I got a sense that one or two present were looking for an 80s style fight, but it felt that most were genuinely people who had been engaged by Jeremy’s victory, in a good way, and were concerned only with getting rid of the Tories.
The speakers were all keen to stress that Momentum was not planning to be divisive. In his opening comments, Haringey UNISON Secretary Gerard McGrath said “I know some of you won’t be happy to hear this, but we have to work with all sections within Labour”. Also Jon Lansman, the man credited with forming Momentum, was quick to dismiss any talk of deselection – answering a young guy who railed against those MPs who dared to disagree with Corbyn, Lansman said “deselection would always be a matter for the local party”. Which I realise is a little open-ended, but the whole thrust of the discussion suggested the top table genuinely don’t want to get embroiled in the kind of internal party politics that kept Labour out of power for so long in the 80s.
Two of the guest speakers, Martha Osamor (new MP Kate’s mum) and Cllr Emine Ibrahim, gave moving speeches about how in the 80s Cllr Corbyn had helped make Haringey a safe borough for ethnic minorities. Sam Tarry, political officer for the Transport Salaried Staff Association, spoke passionately about engaging people in exciting campaigns, while Lansman, once Tony Benn’s fixer, seemed almost circumspect considering the excitement generated around his new organisation.
I was reminded a little of Ed Miliband in the early days of his leadership – the hope and passion around his victory suddenly replaced by a more sombre mood, an understanding that every word spoken was now being analysed for meaning, nuance or lines of attack from those within the party still annoyed that their own candidate had been defeated.
This feeling was to some extent mirrored in the meeting, which began with a passion and raw energy that gradually wilted as the night wore on. The chair asked for questions after each speaker but for ages he didn’t get any, just people getting up explaining how bad things were in their specific worlds (Junior Doctors, TU Health & Safety Awareness Teaching, Student Cuts etc) followed by a desperate call for everyone in the room to join them at their demos/ solidarity marches. Eventually, about three quarters of the way in, one man said, “this is all very well, but what do we do now?” He also asked rather pointedly “what’s the plan, are we all going to go on all these demos and marches?” Another man said: “I haven’t disagreed with a word of what’s been said tonight, but what happens next?”
This is both a strength and a weakness of Momentum. At one point someone asked Jon for a specific answer to a policy question to which he responded “I genuinely don’t know, that’s partly why we’re here now.” Which is great: come 2020 we’ll be needing to completely rebuild the welfare state, the NHS, local government and other areas being dismantled by the Tories, we can’t possibly know at this point what all the solutions are, and this suggests the leadership are open to new ideas.
However, there was no sense of how this opening up is to take place. It’s already happening up and down the country, in Hornsey & Wood Green for instance the CLP has taken the lead and is launching great initiatives across the borough, ward by ward. So why Momentum? Sure enough, when the question was asked “What is Momentum for?”, there wasn’t a satisfactory answer.
It feels to me like an attempt by those at the top to plug in directly to the membership and bypass the machinery of the party, at least until they can win back control. That would be an awful misreading of the situation, feeding in to the myth perpetuated by the leadership election that Labour is a party of two distinct wings, rather than a broad spectrum running from far left to centre right. If Momentum isn’t even looking to win over the sizeable constituency on the left who didn’t vote for Jeremy, how can they hope to build the kind of consensus that the SNP have managed across Scotland?
(Of course this is a two way journey, and those on the right of the party, especially those still involved in undermining the leadership, need to ask themselves how they would prefer to be seen by the membership – as an enemy with a grudge, or a critical friend prepared to meet their party opponents somewhere along the spectrum?)
For me the low point of the evening came when a man prefaced his speech (again, not a question) “I’m not really interested in Labour, I’m a Trade Union man, Labour said they would eradicate poverty and look what happened.”
I could have reminded him it was the Unions who tried to block the Race Relations Act, fearing that black workers would take white mens’ jobs – it took Harold Wilson’s Labour Party to force that act through. I could have pointed him in the direction of survey after survey of child poverty, showing a decrease from 1997 to 2010 and a rise again since. But what really bothered me was the proud way he said he was not really interested in Labour, like we are the real enemy. I thought, why are you here then? Momentum seems to understand it was Labour’s internal battles that kept Thatcher in power for so long, but they need to make sure everyone else gets that message.
Stephen Bush wrote a very good piece about Momentum in the NS, but he only half answers the headline question – should Labour MPs be scared of Momentum? My answer is, they don’t need to be, but they’ve got just under a year to develop a strategy for working with Momentum, rather than sniping from the sidelines. It is something new, it’s not yet a super confident Militant-style movement already holding the levers of power, and until that happens its leaders will be receptive to anyone from outside the Corbyn core who reaches out to them.
No one needs to pretend they agree on everything, but now that the Tories have effectively decided to give up on the state, surely we can all unite to make people aware that Labour is the only major party prepared to be the custodians of our public services.