Flickr/CoventryCiaran, CC BY-NC 2.0
You’ve got to feel for the organisers of Momentum, the new grassroots group which emerged in the weeks following Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership contest. Those at the heart of this volunteer-led organisation must feel like a ten tonne slab has been dropped on their heads.
On their launch in September, they were instantly rounded upon by members of the right of the Parliamentary Labour Party and their acolytes in the commentariat. They were quickly labelled a ‘party within a party’ by Progress supporters with no apparent sense of irony. Comparisons to Militant were soon made. Caroline Flint MP warned the new group could “destroy” Labour. Michael Dugher MP said it was “crazy” of supporters to establish it.
They were quickly labelled a ‘party within a party’ by Progress supporters with no apparent sense of ironySince then, Momentum has suffered a rolling campaign of harassment and denigration. The pattern goes as follows. With the support of some or other maverick Labour MP, Momentum would be accused in the press of having said or planned something considered reprehensible. Demands would then be made that they renounce their alleged view or end their plot. No evidence was ever presented, but then why would it? It was all clearly fabrication.
Yet since parliament debated Syria the shrill chorus of denunciation has reached fever pitch. In that vote, almost all of the MPs of the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats backed more war, abetted by 66 Labour MPs – 30% of the party’s representatives.
Many MPs had been vigorously lobbied before the day of the vote, both online and in person. With the Labour party’s membership overwhelmingly opposed to British military participation in bombing, those Labour MPs who supported the government naturally found themselves outnumbered and isolated. Despite allowing a free vote on the issue, Corbyn emerged from the episode battle-worn but ultimately strengthened. He was supported by a healthy majority of his parliamentary colleagues and was in keeping with the opinion of his party’s grassroots and the wider labour movement. It was Labour’s rebels, led by Hilary Benn, who ended up on the back foot.
Labour’s decisive win in Oldham West and Royton soon followed. The narrative that Corbyn’s failures as leader were harming Labour and driving voters away couldn’t be maintained. The prospect of the current leadership going to the ballot in 2020 looks increasingly real.
It’s in this context that opponents of Labour’s progressive majority, inside the party and out, have again targeted their vitriol on Momentum. Deputy leader Tom Watson dismissed Labour’s eager new activists as ‘a bit of a rabble’. In the Independent on Sunday, Jane Merrick devoted her column to what she diagnoses as the organisation’s “licence to bully and intimidate” in misogynistic abuse online. She did, however, make this strange admission: “No direct link can be proven between Momentum organisers and the keyboard warriors who tweet death threats and graphic pictures. But they are all on the same spectrum of intimidation designed to make last Wednesday’s 'free vote' anything but free.” This is a very unsubtle conflation of democratic rights with vile internet abuse. It is not an isolated example.
"No direct link can be proven between Momentum organisers and the keyboard warriors ... But they are all on the same spectrum"And while not naming Momentum specifically, Nick Cohen in the Observer drew a protracted equivalence between cyber-bullies and Labour’s new membership, claiming that “it has taken the triumph of Jeremy Corbyn’s new politics” to finish off “the myth of left wing decency”.
The reason for all this outpouring of distortion, lies and insults is simple. Momentum is founded on an enthusiasm, felt by hundreds of thousands of people, for a new and genuine left and a rejection of the failed Westminster consensus. It therefore has the potential to pose one of the most serious threats to the British establishment it has ever experienced.
The Syria vote brought that fact into sharp relief. Jeremy Corbyn reached out to the party’s membership in the days ahead of the vote, asking for their views. 76% responded to say they opposed bombing. But this feeling didn’t remain behind the nation’s keyboards. It erupted in town hall meetings and MPs’ ‘listening exercises’, online and in incessant calls to parliamentary offices and surgeries. Combined with Corbyn’s leadership, this enthused and crucially active new membership of Britain’s opposition party could make things very uncomfortable for the 1% and their hangers on. It could upend the rule of neoliberal dogma in the heart of the British state.
It is in the interests of Labour’s right to confine political debate and the expression of political ideas to parliament, where the left is heavily outnumbered. Momentum provides the vehicle by which the will of the mass membership can be voiced and brought to bear.
On his own, or with his effective support limited to the fifteen or so socialist MPs who support him out of conviction, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is fragile. With an engaged and politically sophisticated mass movement outside the gates of the Houses of Parliament, the project is immeasurably stronger. That’s partly why some in the party are holding back and biding their time. They know that what gives their current leader his mandate is his enormous support in the party. They hope that with time, as manufactured scandal follows scandal, that will dissipate and they can move in for the kill. To this faction, too, Momentum is a threat because it can provide the stability to sustain the movement beyond the upheaval of the last six months.
Whether Momentum can fulfil its remarkable potential, of course, we don’t yet know. But we do know that this exciting new movement promises a fundamental challenge to the old and corrupt ruling elite. If that’s not enough to get behind it and its besieged organisers, then what is?
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