It is Sunday morning and an anti-fracking choir of elderly women are singing outside Liverpool’s Black-E community centre on the outskirts of Chinatown. I'm at Momentum’s festival - called “The World Transformed”, about half a mile from Labour’s official conference in the city - on the first day of Labour's gathering of activists, MPs and supporters.
One of the women in the choir of about a dozen – dubbed the granny frackers by one activist – wails “Theresa May is a whore” as she pokes the air with her walking stick. “Guess where she’s an MP for?” another screams.
“Maidenhead.” They howl with laughter.
Inside the main hall, it has the energy and vibrancy missing from the party’s official conference on the Albert Dock, which feels more like a wake. But it is hardly surprising these activists have a bounce in their step: at the entrance victory editions of the Morning Star are handed out the morning after Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as the messiah, with the newspaper declaring “He’s gone and done it again!”. The coffee is also £1.40 cheaper than what the suited delegates are paying to enjoy the vacuous displays of unity 10 minutes down the road.
The leader himself made two appearances at Momentum’s festival. On the first visit he thanked activists for their “significant” contribution to his campaign. Holding a copy of The World Transformed schedule of events, he added: “This event here might be described as some kind of fringe extreme. I see the kind of discussions that are in this programme here absolutely central and mainstream to how people think and what we're trying to do.”
But 69-year-old Maureen, a retiree turned Momentum activist, looks somewhat disappointed at the end of Corbyn’s speech. “I was purged and couldn’t vote for Jeremy,” she says.
On sale at The World Transformed there are T-shirts bearing Corbyn’s face, with one declaring, “I still hate Thatcher” while another adds: “I’m the one the Daily Mail warned you about”. Among the literature one book stands out above the left-wing columnists on display – Poems for Jeremy Corbyn. It includes 50 poets on the “threat to planet earth, war and peace, bullying, Brexit, the age of austerity and Jeremy Cobryn”. One poem, entitled Corbyn Haiku, reads: “Jeremy is not a typical leader – one reason we love him”. Another by Abigail EO Wyatt added: “Someone crept in and lit a candle in our hearts – that someone happened to be him”.
Staffed by a small army of 65 volunteers in their twenties (who I’m told were pelted with eggs as they walked down the road the night before) the festival hosted fringe meetings looking at everything from anti-Semitism in the party’s ranks, producing mock election manifestos and workshops looking at media bias and “how to make the left sexy”.
One evening, back at the gloomy official conference, I am asked by a Labour MP: “How is it over there in cloud cuckoo land with the rainbows and unicorns?”
However, 28-year-old Emma Rees, a former primary school teacher and one of Momentum’s national organisers, dismisses the comment when I put it to her as “a cynical statement”.
“It discredits the very real experiences that lots of people are living through and I don’t think it’s rainbows and unicorns to actually want to discuss how we can do things better – how we can structure society so that it benefits more than just the privileged few. And I actually think that’s the founding principles of the Labour Party and movement, is to empower ordinary people and the decisions that affect their day-to-day lives," she added.
Rees is speaking in the Pullman Hotel lounge – a usual gathering place for inebriated journalists and special advisers – shortly after Corbyn’s speech on the final day of the conference. On the Wednesday, however, the lounge appears to have been used for a gathering of the left. Across the room sits Jeremy Corbyn, deep in conversation with Jon Lansman – the architect of Momentum. Seamus Milne, the leader’s director of communications, appears from the lift with his suitcase. The shadow Health Secretary Diane Abbott is sat a few metres away with her political advisers. A phone on charge next to the bar rings – it’s Len McCluskey. It goes unanswered. If the roof of the hotel would have fallen through, Liz Kendall would be Labour leader in two weeks’ time.
Momentum, as an organisation, describes itself as “existing to build on the energy and enthusiasm from the Jeremy Corbyn for Labour leader campaign to increase participatory democracy, solidarity, and grassroots power and help Labour become the transformative governing party of the 21st century”. But just days before Labour’s annual conference in Liverpool began Neil Kinnock, the former Labour leader, described Momentum to me as a “parasitic” organisation with its own policies and purposes, “leeching” on the party he had led between 1983 and 1992. “Obviously, they have no intention of upholding the wellbeing of Labour – they want to control the party, not advance the party,” Kinnock added.
He was speaking after Channel 4 aired its exposé documentary into the organisation, set up in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s resounding win in the 2015 leadership contest. The Dispatches programme secretly filmed activists in the organisation during a six-month period and promised to reveal new evidence that Momentum is being influence by “hard-left revolutionaries”. But a fair amount of viewers were offended, not by the one or two Trotskyists shown in the footage, but the daring, flowery shirt worn by Momentum’s architect Jon Lansman. Zac Goldsmith, the Tory MP who ran a widely criticised mayoral contest against Sadiq Khan in London, added the programme “will only reinforce the view that the establishment wants to trash Corbyn. Suspect it’ll have the opposite effect”.
He was certainly right. For the ardent Corbyn supporters at the organisation’s festival, all the programme appeared to do was bolster their belief that the mainstream media – the so-called “MSM” – is a hostile bloc out to undermine the leader. In fact, 29-year-old Oxford graduate James Schneider, one of Momentum’s national organisers, tells me that 1,300 people have joined as members since the Dispatches programme. Momentum now has 19,000 members.
The tenuous link with Militant and Momentum and the idea the movement has been infiltrated by hard-left revolutionaries resonated little at the vibrant festival that was staffed by a small army of volunteers in their twenties. While the organisation undoubtedly has one or two fossils working hard to provide it with negative headlines, it was these young volunteers running the show at The World Transformed. Some of whom were using the sofas on the fourth-floor of the festival as their bed for the weekend – including the ones in the “press room”, which had more resemblance to a London budget student flat; dimly lit, and all amenities in six-foot by six-foot space. “You’ll find one Trot for every three nice people,” one left-wing columnist told me.
On the final day of the festival they close the press room (possibly to allow a volunteer to catch up on some sleep) and I’m seated in Momentum’s makeshift press office. They discuss an article in the Daily Express, which focused on their recent announcement of Momentum Kids – dubbed the “tiny trots” by some. The piece declared “shock” footage of a child who, when asked “what is a Labour politician?” replied with “a lion”.
Corbyn, meanwhile, was described by another child as “the king”.
The press officers seemed unfazed: it was greeted with laughter.
I imagine the reaction was a little different the following day when Jackie Walker, Momentum’s vice-chair, appeared to criticise Holocaust Memorial Day for commemorating only Jewish victims. Filmed at a members’ anti-Semitism training event, she said: “In terms of Holocaust day, wouldn’t it be wonderful if Holocaust day was open to all people who experienced Holocaust?” Momentum sources told me they were “fuming” with her remarks but a decision, at the time of writing, is yet to be made on her position in the organisation.
When I asked Lansman whether Walker's would remain in her position, he said: "I don't know the answer to that."
But one of the biggest issues facing the movement is how, and if ever, it will be able to properly connect members with Labour MPs – in a relationship that doesn’t centre on the paranoia of deselections. Interestingly, over the course of three days I heard more talk of such manoeuvres on the Albert Dock among MPs, rather than activists at The World Transformed.
But that is not to say it doesn’t exist – while those at the top of Momentum have attempted to publicly disassociate the movement with such actions, it is clear that some of the activists hold the view that if an MP dissents against Corbyn, then they face the chop. One elderly activist, wearing a Momentum badge and finishing his cigarette outside the festival on the final day, appeared agitated over Labour MP Jess Phillips. “What I’ll say on the doorstep is ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s not on the ballot’. That’s what I said about Ed Miliband,” Phillips had told a meeting hosted by the Times.
The activist, stamping his cigarette on the floor, lowered his voice and added: “Don’t worry, we’ll get her out”.
But Rees and Schneider are optimistic for Momentum's future. “I think actually there’s an awful lot of consensus within the party,” Rees said. “There is an overwhelming degree of consensus and I think the platform that Jeremy has set up this afternoon is something the vast majority of the party – both members and the PLP – can get behind.
“Momentum’s role within that is about mobilising people, helping people to become active and reaching out to people who haven’t been politically active before.”
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