openDemocracyUK

Inside Momentum’s plan to defy the polls and make Corbyn PM

Bogeyman of the right, heroes of the left: but what does Momentum actually do, and why has it been so successful?

Darren Loucaides
10 December 2019
Momentum holds a 'Keep Corbyn' demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament in London, at the same time as the Parliamentary Labour Party is due to meet inside., 27 June 2016
Shouting for Corbyn in 2016
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Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive/PA Images

The polling looks bleak for the Labour Party. An average of the polls has them trailing the Conservatives by around 10 points. Most think that the best Labour can hope for is to deny Boris Johnson a majority government. But Momentum isn’t most.

Young campaigners at the left-wing organisation, which formed around support for Jeremy Corbyn, still believe Labour can defy the polls and win on Thursday. Momentum has built a decentralised, volunteer-based, passionately dedicated operation that has rallied thousands of campaigners around the country. It also convinced more than 100,000 young people in marginal constituencies to register to vote.

“I mean, that could literally swing the election in itself, if we can get the turnout,” Momentum’s head of communications Joe Todd says. “In 2017, most people didn't really think we could win. Whereas this time, we can definitely win.”

This isn’t necessarily wishful thinking. Many credit Momentum with having denied Theresa May a majority in the 2017 election by targeting the youth vote in key marginals. This time the organisation is running a far more sophisticated campaign, combining targeted digital content with thousands of volunteers on the ground in an election that has an unprecedented number of marginal seats – between eighty and ninety. Could the pollsters have missed this?

For many Momentum remains a mystery. Its more hysterical critics see it as a hard-left cult, while others worry it is starting to rival the Labour Party itself, on behalf of which it campaigns and over which it wields increasing influence. What’s undeniable is that Momentum has grown into a powerful new force in British politics.

Corbyn central

This might be hard to believe if you visit Momentum’s dingy HQ, an old building near Finsbury Park station in north London – which happens to be in Jeremy Corbyn’s own constituency of Islington North. The offices’ whitewashed walls are lumpy and the scuffed red carpets need a hoover. Nearly sixty people, mostly in their twenties, are squeezed into three badminton-court-sized rooms: Momentum had to scale up fast ahead of the election, before which there were just fourteen staffers. A whiteboard in the communications team’s middle room has a calendar drawn on it, marking down the days until the election. The 12 December is emblazoned with “POLLING DAY” and “Get out the vote”. On Friday the 13th someone has scrawled the choice: “Socialism? Barbarism?”

Momentum Comms team 2019
Socialism or barbarism on Friday 13th | Darren Loucaides. All rights reserved

Most crammed of all are the digital and video team. Tucked away in the furthermost of the rooms, the team has recently ballooned from four to thirteen people; whenever one of them backs their chair out they’re likely to hit the person behind. There’s a friendly atmosphere, but they’re mostly glued to their screens: some are working on social media memes, some on video clips, others on video montages or graphics-based clips. It may be an unglamorous squeeze, but this is the engine room drawing thousands of new potential supporters every day.

“There are loads of new people, lots of stuff we weren’t doing before, loads of new projects. It’s been amazing, but it’s been a lot to work out,” Emil Charlaff tells me during a visit to the offices in late November. Charlaff heads up the digital and video team with Paul Nicholson. I first met the pair in January, on the day Theresa May held the first meaningful vote on her Brexit deal, back when they were in sole charge of video content. Anticipating May’s defeat, they thought that an election could be imminent and were making preparations. Over the coming months they drew up a comprehensive plan for the election. “It wasn’t a surprise this time, at least,” Charlaff says. “We’ve been on tenterhooks for a while.”

Charlaff’s half of the bargain involves Facebook advertising and overseeing the “persuade strand of our election strategy,” along with Joe Todd. There are two objectives behind this: to get people to vote Labour, of course, but also to convince supporters to get out campaigning. How does this work?

From the many

Grace Kelly, a young woman wearing modish glasses, tells me she is working on a video aimed at “mobilisation”. It’s a to-camera clarion call to members to get out canvassing. Momentum doesn’t just want people to knock on doors and share content: it wants supporters to create their own content.

“One of our big focuses this campaign has been about decentralising,” says Charlaff. “We've always been heavily reliant on volunteers because that's how our movement works. And because spending limits are so tight, there is a limit to what we can do centrally.” So Momentum supporters have been making their own videos as part of a decentralised campaign called Videos By The Many.

To borrow a buzzword from Bernie Sanders’ campaigners, who have helped Momentum, this ‘distributed organising’ is central to the campaign. For the 2017 election, Momentum built a network of creative volunteers to collaborate on content, but there were drawbacks.

“We were a bottleneck, because everything had to go through us,” says Charlaff. This time, supporters are given guidelines and advice and encouraged to publish their own videos, the best of which Momentum then picks up and amplifies, Simple selfie videos have been a particular hit: “Often the stuff that is most effective is just one person's story,” says Charlaff.

This decentralised approach avoids breaking spending limits, and means Momentum’s output isn’t rooted to its London office. “I really want different voices from around the country. We need people talking to each other rather than us broadcasting to them,” explains Charlaff. This also complements Facebook’s policy of favouring videos posted from personal pages.

The team has also followed up with volunteer creators in key spots nationally. A recent video entitled ‘Geordie Mam Slams Boris Johnson’, from a single mother who starved herself to feed her child, came about after Momentum shared her original selfie video. The team then went back to the creator to shoot a higher-quality follow-up, which has gained more than 130,000 views in three days.

Volunteers around the country are also clipping TV interviews en masse. Sam Kalejaiye,a young man wearing a red Momentum T-shirt, sifts through these on a shared drive, and will ‘art up’ the best ones for posting on social media. (I recognise Kalejaiye from a Momentum video in which he’s challenged to explain Labour’s Brexit position in 30 seconds. Spoiler: it takes him seven.)

A clipped video of Nicky Morgan stumbling when trying to explain the government’s promise of 50,000 “more nurses” has reached 8.2 million views. “That one had 22SPM,” Nicholson says proudly – SPM stands for shares per minute, a key measure of how well a video is doing.

While Momentum put out about 150 videos last year, it has already published close to that in this campaign alone. A lot of this is down to Momentum’s expanded coffers. The group equalled the £260,000 it raised in the 2017 election in just the first week of this campaign, and at some points was receiving £1,000 a minute. Apart from providing a bigger Facebook advertising budget, this also means more money for the digital team to pay for actors and props for Momentum’s well-known sketch videos.

Meet Tory Robin Hood

Still from Momentum 'Tory Robin Hood' video
Tory Robin Hood, preaching the virtue of self-reliance | Momentum/Facebook. All rights reserved.

Four medieval peasants are shivering in a damp patch of shaded woodland strewn with autumn leaves. Standing a little above them, illuminated by a shaft of morning light through the branches, is a hooded figure wielding a large bow and arrow. To a casual passer-by it might look like he’s having a rather theatrical conversation with himself. In fact he’s an actor rehearsing his lines – he’ll play Robin Hood, Hampstead Heath is standing in for Sherwood Forest, and this is the shoot for Momentum’s latest sketch video.

There isn’t a huge budget for this one, although the producer and cameraman have been brought on full-time at Momentum since the election was called. The actors earn above the London Living Wage, except for Robin Hood, played by Mark Oosterveen, the star of many of Momentum’s videos, who volunteers his time.

In the scene being shot on a crisp morning just before December, the starving peasants implore Robin Hood to raid one of the Sheriff of Nottingham’s many castles. But on hearing that the peasants are forced to work the Sheriff’s land, Robin Hood retorts that the Sheriff must be a “job creator”.

“Have you thought about blaming each other and taking each other’s food?” Robin Hood suggests. The peasants can’t believe what they’re hearing – isn’t Robin Hood supposed to help the poor? But there’s been a mix-up: “I’m the Tory Robin Hood,” is the big reveal. In the final shot, Tory Robin Hood points his arrow at the camera: “Now, give me everything you’ve got.” When the complete video is published on social media a week later, it reaches 200,000 views in 24 hours.

This kind of novel twist is a common feature of Momentum’s sketch videos. A previous one of Batman and the Joker flipped the hero-villain roles, making the latter a victim of Bruce Wayne’s billionaire tax-dodging; it currently has 700,000 views on Facebook.

For the last election, Momentum’s biggest sketch video – ‘Daddy do you hate me?’ – reached 8 million views, despite a total budget of £40 for an actor and stock footage, and the price of a Kinder Surprise egg to thank the video’s child star. “At least now we can pay actors properly,” Nicholson says.

In total, Momentum’s videos have been watched 65 million times, with 16 million unique views. This means that more than a third of UK Facebook users have seen a Momentum video.

The point of all those views, though, is to win votes. In this campaign, Momentum’s viral content – including a sketch video parodying Conservatives encouraging people not to vote – resulted in 125,000 people clicking through to the register-to-vote website. The vast majority of them ended up registering.

But in these last few days, if Momentum is to fulfil Joe Todd’s hopes of victory, it needs to mobilise campaigners on the ground. It has a tool for this: the website My Campaign Map. If it works, Momentum will be hailed as Labour’s saviour.

Given the dynamic role Momentum has played in this campaign, it’s no wonder some think it is taking over the party.

David and Goliath

Labour leader Ed Miliband is greeted by staff as he arrives with his wife Justine at the Labour party central office in Brewer's Green, before delivering his resignation speech at 1 Great George street, London, 8 May 2016
End of the line for Ed | Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.

After Ed Miliband’s bid to become prime minister ended in calamity in 2015, the Labour Party looked moribund. Membership had dwindled to 190,000. Then in the ensuing leadership contest, veteran left-winger Jeremy Corbyn beat odds of 200-1 to win. The group running Corbyn’s campaign for leader formalised soon afterwards, calling itself Momentum.

Although Momentum helped Corbyn win re-election as leader in 2016, the nascent group wasn’t remotely prepared for the 2017 snap election. There were only a handful of staffers, and then-head of digital Harry Hayball had to put a team together at lightning speed. Paul Nicholson and Emil Charlaff were recruited as the campaign began. (Hayball left earlier this year to work on Labour’s digital team, and Nicholson and Charlaff took over.)

“Momentum as an organisation was never put together in a logical way,” Charlaff says. “People just did what was available.” Yet its content was soon outperforming the Conservatives’ – something of a David and Goliath contest, given that the Tories’ £2 million Facebook advertising spend was 1000 times bigger than Momentum’s.

Jeremy Corbyn speaks in Parliament Square, where the Momentum campaign group are holding a "Keep Corbyn" demonstration., 27 June 2016
'Keep Corbyn' demonstration in 2016 | Dominic Lipinski/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Before the 2017 election, no one took Momentum very seriously, including many within Labour, and so the two organisations didn’t coordinate much during the campaign. That all changed when the group helped deny Theresa May a majority. This upset, and Momentum’s role in campaigning in marginals, precipitated a sit-down with Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy and communications director.

“I think after the election they saw us as a more useful tool, but still kind of treated us as a tool rather than as a partner,” Charlaff says. “I'd say this election has been a lot better partly because there are people from our team now running JC's [social media] pages.”

During my visit, the team upload a video of shadow secretary of state Barry Gardiner arguing with Andrew Neil, entitled ‘Andrew Put Back In His Box’, coming days after Corbyn’s mauling by Neil in the BBC leader’s interview. There’s a glitch on Facebook preventing them publishing it, but after it finally goes up, Sam Kalejaiye gets a call – it’s Harry Hayball over at Labour. The video isn’t showing on mobile devices, Hayball tells him, and the team quickly take the video down. This level of communication was lacking in 2017.

Apart from Hayball, several other staffers on Momentum’s digital team have gone to work for Labour. “And so we're working with our team there, basically,” Charlaff grins. “They've taken a lot from here. They've got our current video templates, they've got all our learning from the interim period.”

Labour has been bolder with its digital content this time, especially on Jeremy Corbyn’s social media pages – which Momentum are helping to run. Corbyn has 1.5 million followers on Facebook, twice as many as Boris Johnson – though Charlaff wishes they’d been more playful. He notes some of the “weird stuff” the Tories have trialled such as a 70-minute hip hop chill-wave video of Boris Johnson reading his party’s manifesto, which has had half a million views on YouTube. By contrast Charlaff and co have tried to talk Labour into doing an ASMR reading of the manifesto by Corbyn, to no avail.

Young upstarts?

Although there is much more linked-up thinking between Labour and Momentum, Charlaff notes that Southside, Labour’s official HQ, is still a bit set in its ways and resistant: “I think maybe we’re a little bit threatening to them,” he says. “They think we’re trying to take over or something.” Charlaff insists that they are not.

Some of the media have put it differently – that Momentum has hijacked the Labour Party. When I ask Joe Todd about this, he has a practised answer. “You're only hijacking something if you're a tiny minority who's blocking the will of the majority,” he argues. “Momentum represents mainstream opinion in the party… You can see that at conference – the stuff we back is the stuff that gets passed, broadly. You can see that in the NEC elections.”

And, he adds, the vast majority of members agree with Momentum. “If you were going to properly portray it, the party has been hijacked for decades by a tiny minority who have exercised incredible power. And Momentum and the movement is putting that right.” A glint appears in Todd’s eye. “It’s very fun,” he admits, laughing.

Jeremy Corbyn speaks at the The World Transformed (TWT) opening rally at the Old Steine Gardens during the Labour Party Conference in Brighton, 21 Sep 2019
The World Transformed this year | Victoria Jones/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Todd and I are chatting over mugs of tea in a greasy spoon across the street from Momentum’s HQ. Tomorrow will be his first day off in three weeks. The former teacher used to work at The World Transformed, a fringe event at the Labour conference, before coming to Momentum three days after the election was called in 2017 – a whole new comms team was needed to replace the staff swept up into the leader’s office – and Todd has been there ever since. “It’s definitely aged me,” Todd sighs. He’s 27.

It may be an exaggeration to say Momentum has taken over Labour – for now, anyway – but it has certainly helped see Corbynites embedded throughout the party. Even those formerly hostile to the group value its power to mobilise huge numbers of people.

While constituency Labour parties used to be overwhelmed by the numbers turning up to canvass thanks to Momentum – the group drove Labour’s membership up to half a million – they’re now used to it. Floods of activists have been turning up to canvass at marginal constituencies during the campaign in part thanks to Momentum’s efforts. And, says Todd, there’s much less infighting: “The factional wars aren't raging so fiercely!”

Things have certainly moved on in the past two years. “2017 was chaos. This is absolutely not chaos,” Todd says. “I wouldn't quite go as far as ‘well-oiled machine’. But it’s pretty close.” It is now relatively well funded, too, mostly via small donations. In this campaign, Momentum has received over half a million pounds and might get over a million by the end of the campaign, according to Todd. “To put that into context, our optimistic target for the entire election was half a million,” he says. And this was at the high end of estimates. “We budgeted for less than that. We've had to radically rewrite budgets.”

Volunteer army

Focusing fundraising drives around specific causes has been an important tactical change from 2017. Rather than trying to raise money by talking abstractly about fighting the Tories, Momentum’s callouts specify a concrete aim, such as the voter registration drive, and explain how donations will be used.

While there are limits on what Momentum can spend promoting Labour, there aren’t limits on ads encouraging people to vote. There are also no limits on spending aimed at Momentum’s membership. The overall approach, again, revolves around the logic of distributed organising. “A dominant logic is that we want to employ staff not to do things, but to enable volunteers to do them,” as Todd puts it. Momentum has also made its strategy completely open online. On the first day of the election campaign, it published a detailed ‘Plan to Win’. The thinking, Todd explains, is that if activists understand the plan, they will step up and give up more time.

At the start of the campaign Momentum launched Labour Legends, asking supporters to commit to a week off work to help campaigning. Todd wondered how people would react to this ‘big ask’, but more than a thousand signed up on the first day. So many offered their time that Momentum had to hire more staff to coordinate them. These people are being sent to key marginals all around the country and strategically placed for the final days of the campaign. This has also cascaded from Momentum to Labour, with the party now asking people to take polling day and the days leading up to the election off work – something Labour hasn’t done before.

Momentum has built different feedback loops to coordinate the large number of people it has mobilised. On My Campaign Map, a live chat staffed by volunteers feeds regular data about key marginals back to Momentum HQ, while regional organisers in contact with local constituency Labour parties also feed back info. Momentum has invited people to be digital canvassers if they’re unable to go door knocking: posting on local community groups online and “having the argument with people below the line, because actually those spaces are super influential,” Todd says.

What this boils down to is a voluntarist culture taking hold at the heart of Momentum. There are volunteers at every level of the organisation, including in the office running major projects. “So it’s almost like you can't escape the movement,” Todd says. This leads to a natural seepage upwards of feedback on how messages are going down or how the ground effort is running. Many of the volunteer teams are now themselves run by volunteers, and a total of more than 1,400 volunteers are now coordinating via Slack.

Much has been made of the technological tools Momentum has developed, such as My Campaign Map, or Univotes, which advises supporters whether to vote at their home or university address. But Todd believes the organisation thrives at the intersection of digital and people.

“Most of our digital apps or our use of digital technology, is to mobilise people,” Todd says. “It's always that intersection – between digital app and actually doing something off in the real world.”

It’s not focused on microtargeting or using technological superiority to swing an election result, Todd insists. Although Momentum is determined to get the youth vote out in key marginals ahead of polling day, it will not be spending its inflated advertising budget on hundreds of different targeted messages. “I’m personally dubious about how effective that is,” he says.

“I always say, all this very clever technology that we set up to mobilise volunteers in various ways would not work if there weren't loads of volunteers who believed in the manifesto and the ideas that we put forward,” he adds. Momentum’s digital content wouldn’t get the traction it does if the support out there wasn’t real.

Whether Momentum can translate that support into votes come polling day is the big question. Among the young voters Momentum is depending on, turnout tends to be low. The opinion polls are therefore weighted against them. So Momentum has an ambitious plan to reach every young marginal-seat voter with its digital content by election day. Time will tell if this does the trick, and causes a massive political upset to rival Brexit.

Endgame

It’s Friday 6 December, less than a week before polling day, and Paul Nicholson is more serious than the last time I visited Momentum HQ. There are a few minutes to go before the BBC debate between Johnson and Corbyn, and Nicholson is getting the computers ready for clipping.

How does he think the campaign has gone? “I don’t even know any more,” he admits, looking tired. “The thing is, you go home to rest, but it’s hard to sleep… You end up in a sort of stream of consciousness.”

Nicholson sets up a projector to screen the debate, and Momentum’s staffers start to fill the room to watch – it’s 8.30pm, but most are still working. They sit on the floor, or the few spare chairs. Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar walks in too – she’ll be tweeting her thoughts on the debate from here.

The strain of the campaign is beginning to tell – Momentum HQ is getting nervier as polling day nears. The previous week, I watched Channel 4’s climate debate here, and the atmosphere was decidedly cheerier. Nevertheless, as the debate kicks off, there are whoops for Corbyn. The UK will end up in a “relationship with nobody” he fires at Johnson over his Brexit policy, to the delight of everyone here.

There are several people on the digital team recording the footage on their computers and preparing art in case the decision comes to post clips while the debate is live. Several times the team asks Nicholson excitedly if they should post a clip of a Corbyn zinger. But he’s never quite convinced that it’ll be snappy enough to gain serious traction online.

As the debate wears on, although the media consensus is that Corbyn is giving a solid performance, frustration mounts in Momentum HQ that he isn’t landing any knockout punches against Johnson. “Call him a liar!” Sarkar shouts at one point.

Afterwards, Nicholson feels the debate was a bit flat. “There weren’t many snappy comebacks,” he tells Joe Todd, who is keen for them to post a clip anyway. Nicholson relents, though he wishes he had something with more fire to work with. “I’m just thinking of my social media likes!” he says, joking. He opts for a clip of Corbyn attacking Johnson over US trade talks: “Why did the talks go on for two years? It doesn’t take two years to say ‘no’ to privatisation of the NHS,” Corbyn declares. The clip goes up, reaching 50,000 views.

Corbyn’s leadership has been inextricably linked to Momentum’s rise from the start. But at the rate the movement is evolving, Momentum may ultimately outgrow the seventy-year-old veteran socialist. And if Labour manages to stop a Conservative majority on 12 December, it will be as much about this group’s distributed campaigning as Corbyn’s leadership.

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