Momentum: Meeting the grassroots political movement that grew out of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign

Charlie Cooper speaks to insiders of Momentum, the new vehicle for the activists who elected Corbyn as leader

Charlie Cooper
Whitehall Correspondent
Monday 07 December 2015 23:29
The Corbynite movement Momentum was set up to build on the surge that swept Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership
The Corbynite movement Momentum was set up to build on the surge that swept Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership

Depending on which Labour member you speak to, Momentum – the grassroots political movement that grew out of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign – is either the future of the party, or the likely cause of its demise.

Amid accusations that the group was responsible for threatening emails and messages sent to Labour MPs who backed airstrikes against Syria last week, there is increasing concern about Momentum among the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Many have drawn uncomfortable parallels with the Militant tendency of the 1980s and warn the group has become a vehicle for far-left “entryists” with more interest in ideological purity than Labour party unity. There are fears it may coordinate deselection attempts against MPs seen to be on the right of the party.

Jon Lansman, founder and director of Momentum

For many of Momentum’s supporters, the anger directed at it has been met with a mix of bemusement and weary frustration.

“I am really surprised by the negative press we’ve received,” says Samira Raj, a 31-year-old employee at a social enterprise who helped set up Momentum’s Lambeth branch a month ago.

“Nobody’s talking about deselections. We know party infighting is bad for Labour. Most just want to meet people like them and find something that contributes, one day a week, or once a fortnight.”

Her account of the group’s first two meetings – “we split people up into workshop groups, use flipcharts and Post-its to get people to think about issues that are of interest to them that they’d want to work on” – certainly doesn’t sound like the actions of a group plotting to end the careers of Labour MPs.

Momentum, founded by Jon Lansman, a former aide to Tony Benn who was heavily involved in Mr Corbyn’s leadership campaign, now has 95 branches throughout the country. In the tradition of grassroots political movements, it has no formal leader, and when The Independent spoke to one of its main organisers, they asked to be referred to only as a spokesperson. The exact number of supporters is not known but is, he said, in the “tens of thousands”.

There is no official membership structure, only, for the time being, supporters on a mailing list. The spokesman said that Momentum has not received any evidence that any of the threatening emails to MPs were from the group itself or any of its local branches. Momentum did send out a template text for supporters to send to their MPs, urging against airstrikes – and asked supporters to “emulate Jeremy and keep your messages about the issues and refrain from any personal attacks”.

However, reports from several MPs that threatening messages had been sent by individuals who had previously sent the Momentum email, suggest that some Momentum supporters did not heed the advice. The group is set to shift to a more formal membership structure in the coming weeks, the spokesman said.

Within the next six months, a permanent democratic structure is planned, with a handful of paid staff, and elected local and national bodies. Anyone holding a formal position within Momentum will have to be a Labour member, but ordinary members won’t have to join the Labour Party. Organisers hope to attract funding streams from crowd-sourcing, Trade Union support and voluntary direct debits from supporters.

“It has been assumed that our real focus is on changing personnel within the Labour Party,” the spokesman said. “This is fundamentally not the case. We are interested in fulfilling on some of the promises of the Corbyn campaign: to build popular mobilisation and participatory democracy. We want to build those things in the country at large and in the Labour party. We do want to change the party – to change its culture and practices, to make it more open and more participatory, more campaigning oriented and more embedded in communities.”

If there was a General Election tomorrow, the spokesman said, Momentum would “absolutely” campaign for all sitting Labour MPs to be re-elected. Momentum, the spokesman said, is explicitly Labour-supporting.

For its part, the leader’s office states, despite being the product of his leadership campaign, Momentum now has “nothing to do with Jeremy Corbyn”.

“There’s no relationship between the leader’s office and Momentum…it’s not part of the Labour Party nor will it be. There’s no question of affiliation,” Mr Corbyn’s spokesman said.

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