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Seven things Momentum should do now

As Momentum celebrates its first birthday, it can boast of significant victories. But to win the country, it needs an ambitious plan for what next...

Aaron Bastani
11 October 2016
Momentum.jpg

Image: Momentum.

Momentum, the organisation now synonymous with the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, turned one year old on Saturday. Its list of achievements after only twelve months is already impressive, from forming the backbone of the Jeremy for Labour Campaign this year, providing infrastructure and activists to oversee a truly world class operation, to helping a slate of six grassroots activists be elected to the party’s NEC. In addition, it’s organised blocs at numerous demonstrations as well as overseeing ‘The World Transformed’, a four-day event that ran concurrently with last month’s party conference. 

Momentum is one of the most exciting political developments of my lifetime. It currently has over 150 groups across the UK with 20,000 full members – a staggering number given it only became a membership organisation this Spring. As well as that it currently has 170,000 supporters – a number which belies the possibilities the organisation now faces. It’s not impossible that Momentum could have more members than party rivals to Labour in the not-too-distant future.

While, to a large extent, the fate of Momentum is tied with that of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, its aspirations go beyond any single politician. Any potential success will be judged not only by the growth of the left within Labour, but also whether the party can be modernised for the Twenty-First Century. However unlikely it might seem to the naysayers, Momentum will play a key role in that respect. A party machine which has not won a general election since 2005 will be modernised by its left, if it is to be modernised at all. You only need to look at the shambolic Owen Smith campaign this summer to know as much.

During this summer’s leadership election I wrote ‘Eight Ideas for Labour’s New Media Strategy’. Those proposals had an expanded understanding of new media – not only in relation to circumventing broadcast and print, but also in mobilising activists and generating money for grassroots initiatives. It’s in the same spirit that I’ve compiled seven proposals for Momentum and how it can continue to grow, meeting its objectives. This list is by no means exhaustive. What’s more it is done with gratitude and humility to those around both it and this summer’s leadership campaign. The aim here, at the organisation’s one-year mark, is to begin a debate around where it goes next. How it transforms not only the politics of the left, but of Britain. While there is something of a binary debate about whether Momentum can transform the Labour party or build a broader national movement, I believe it can do both. And all ahead of 2020. That takes resources, but also a plan. So let’s create one.

1) Launch a Network of Regional Organisers. This needs to be happening before anything else, with these regional organisers – all of which would be full-time – integrating an increasingly coherent central effort with extant and under-networked local ones. In essence these organisers would be the channels between local groups as much as between London and the regions. Furthermore, they would be the interface between local campaigns beyond both Labour and Momentum – around food poverty, racism, low pay and more besides – and local groups. While connective action allows for large groups of strangers to come together, that needs cement: that’s where regional organisers fit in, bringing together branches, CLPs, regions and external activism. They would also be charged with increasing not only Momentum’s membership, but Labour’s – especially among working class communities and minorities.

2) Launch a Campaigns Team. One of the main ways to bring people into Labour – not only as voters and supporters, but as members – is through campaigns. Initially these would focus on anti-racism, living wage and low pay activism, women’s rights and disability activism. That is not to say that such efforts would seek to overpower already excellent organising, such as that of DPAC, Sisters Uncut, the IWGB and Black Lives Matter UK, but rather reinforce them, with each Momentum campaign looking to be part of a broader coalition around each issue. In the long term, this is fundamental to Labour becoming a campaigning organisation. For now, however, Momentum is the perfect place to start. The campaigns team, which like the regional organisers would be full time, would look to do the following: roll out national campaigns among Momentum locals as well as CLPs and branches; run national ‘days of action’, highlighting issues and facilitating protest across communities; and providing locally specific events, offering skills or legal advice in response to things like planned fracking sites or racist attacks.

3) Launch MomentLab. This would be similar to the previously proposed LabourLab, itself modelled on the Republican Party’s Para Bellum Labs. What specifically would this incubator do? It would take data and figure out how to harness it in order to change outcomes in elections; work on tools that empower local party democracy; upgrade the digital infrastructure of Momentum; and create processes and technologies by which Momentum activists could communicate better among themselves, with other civil society actors and the electorate. It would help create many of the tools and processes necessary to any disruption to British politics, and would be the technological underpinning for Momentum’s campaigning efforts as well as voter registration drives and electoral activism. 

One of the first things MomentLab would work on would be BeRed, a disintermediated platform for financing activism. As I have written previously:

“While rules around party spending are different this side of the Atlantic, crowdfunding has already played a significant role in internal party elections (Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 and 2016, as well as Tom Watson last year and recent NEC elections); paying the costs for a recent legal challenge by five new party members who chose to contest the NEC decision to exclude them – and 126,000 others – from this month’s leadership election; and by Momentum, most recently in paying towards some of the costs for their ‘The World Transformed’ event at Labour party conference. Elsewhere the recent Deliveroo Strike in London saw its strike fund entirely crowdfunded.

 

Just as the Democratic party has ActBlue, Labour now needs BeRed: a crowdfunding and donation platform for Labour party candidates, projects and various efforts undertaken by allied organisations and actors in the party’s orbit. Each party member – in addition to enjoying a membership number – would also automatically get a BeRed number and identity as well as be added to its mailing list. Were the party membership to reach one million before the next general election this would be a huge, instant community for crowdfunding and fundraising. Not only would it pay for various electoral efforts at local, regional and national levels, but it would also help resource the kinds of projects which are now fundamental to Labour becoming a genuine social movement at the local level: food banks, literacy classes and breakfast clubs.”

As with many urgently necessary projects at the moment, Labour HQ – for now mired in organisational inertia and opposition to Corbyn’s leadership – remains unlikely to opt in. That’s why Momentum, specifically MomentLab, needs to do it instead. This project would have potentially massive returns, funding a currently under-resourced organisational architecture as well as the future campaigns team and regional organisers. In an ecology that focuses on locals, and how they engage with CLPs and other activist efforts, BeRed, would be vital. It is the single most important thing Momentum can now pursue in the medium-term. Funding much of what is proposed here, will depend on it. 

4) Launch a National Program of Political Education. Changing how political education works in the Labour party is a major challenge for the medium-term. As James McAsh writes, “Labour needs a programme of political education to empower members to better persuade those around them and to participate more confidently in internal debates on Labour’s policy and direction. It can also contribute towards building more participative and less fractious local parties, where members better understand one another’s perspective.”

Right now every CLP can appoint a ‘political education and training officer’ as additional functional officers. Momentum should provide a national – and free – training program for anyone who holds that position or would like to, regardless of whether or not they are Momentum members. Trainings would not just include teaching around ideology, economics and policy, but also pedagogy – and how political education officers can learn to pass on the skills they have acquired in training. What is key here is not just educating people around the facts and how to persuade members of the public, but how they can teach others to do it as well. Such skills are of particular importance in so much as they comprise meta-learning as well as acquisition of knowledge. 

5) Hold Regular Events Which Bring Together Members, Activists and the Media. Nationally and Locally. The idea here would be to approximate ‘NetRoots’ as it exists in the US. Given the networked politics of Momentum, along with the fantastic success of ‘The World Transformed’, regular events like this should be simple enough. The point? To turn the ‘weak ties’ of online interaction into the stronger ones of offline association. Responsibility for these events would primarily fall across the regional organisers and the campaign team.

6) Build Networks Beyond England and Wales. While it is impossible for more formal actors to do this, given the dynamics of Scottish Labour, Momentum must establish ongoing channels of communication with the Scottish left, particularly around the Radical Independence Campaign, with a joint event planned for Autumn 2017. In addition, Momentum must immediately set up a working group to examine what can be learned from the 2014 referendum campaign, the aim being to apply any findings to the next general election. The basis of the surprisingly close vote in Scotland two years ago was the record-breaking turnout of 84.5%. Ultimately this handed victory to ‘No’, with turnout highest among those who favoured remaining in the UK (in some places it hit 90%). Nevertheless, while turnout was lower in places which voted Yes, like Dundee and Glasgow – large, working-class cities – it still exceeded what anyone expected and was completely at odds with data for recent general elections. According to Ipsos MORI, 65% of those living in one of the 20% most deprived neighbourhoods in Scotland voted Yes, compared with just 36% of those in the one-fifth most affluent. While they didn’t turn out like the middle classes did, such a turnout among Scotland’s poorest voters was genuinely remarkable. For Corbyn to stand a chance in 2020 – or before – something similar would have to transpire in England and Wales.

I’ve spoken before of how the difference between Gore losing the 2000 presidential race and Barack Obama sweeping to victory eight years later, was a seven percent increase in turnout. Something similar would have to happen at the next general election for Labour to stand a chance, particularly as it looks to build an Obama-esque coalition of the young, the relatively poor, women and BME voters (three of those tend to have below average turnout). But rather than looking stateside, Labour and Momentum strategists need to be talking to those involved in the Radical Independence Campaign and the likes of Common Weal. What specific strategies were used to mobilise poorer voters who don’t usually turn out? What key frames or messaging were deployed on the doorstep? How did it interact with social and the mainstream media? And, most importantly, what would you change and improve looking back? If Labour wants to get the vote out among poorer voters in England and Wales, it would do much worse than to model its campaign along the lines of left elements within ‘Yes’ two years ago. 

7) Help Establish a think tank. Or three. Staying with the Scottish vibe, campaigning during the referendum saw an outpouring of not only new media – Bella Caledonia, Wings Over Scotland and others – but also new sources for strategic policy interventions, particularly the Jimmy Reid Foundation and, more recently, Common Weal. The latter started as a high profile project within the former, only becoming independent in October 2014. The ambition of Common Weal since then mirrors the scope of the challenges an independent Scotland would face on achieving independence. Its proposals are remarkably strategic, and often capable of implementation ahead of, or after, independence. Some are tailor made to deal with the shortcomings of the defeat of 2014, such as the demand for a national investment bank which could become a protean central bank ahead of any second referendum on independence (a nice fit with Labour policy here). Another one, my personal favourite, is the call for policy academies which would be “centres of excellence of new thinking in key areas of public policy, both to improve national debate and to act as a substantial resource to the civil service and others”. This is a very smart idea and foresees the inevitable: Whitehall trying to make independence as undesirable, slow and intractable as possible. As with an investment bank, it is clear that the thinker behind it – Robin McAlpine – also views it as the embryo of a Scottish civil service when the time comes. Just like that, questions of currency and new bureaucratic institutions – which so plagued independence campaigners last time – would have credible solutions at the doorstep.

There is clearly a pressing need for something similar in relation to Labour under Corbyn, specifically around policy – both in generation and later implementation. One observer at Labour party conference told me how the worst case scenario for the Labour left would be Corbyn winning a general election in the near term with Whitehall and elements of the PLP jointly undermining any radical agenda. Let’s not kid ourselves, as unlikely as any snap election is – and I think it is – that would be inevitable. 

So what can we do in anticipation of that? Well, ahead of time we need a new think tank. Preferably several. These would operate in a number of policy areas. Firstly, the economy, tax justice and financial regulation; secondly, social innovation and public service provision; and finally foreign policy. Their task? To generate concrete, radical policy for the next Labour government, successfully selling it to the electorate and disseminating it within the mainstream media. Equally as important, however, these think tanks would create a cadre of individuals capable of offering significant resources to Labour both in opposition and government. There would be regular secondments from them to not only the leader’s office but across the parliamentary party. These people would not only furnish Labour with serious policy nous but would also, in the event of Labour forming a government, be able to guide it through the inevitably difficult opening skirmishes with Whitehall. For some of Corbyn and McDonnell’s more radical polices – like a National Investment Bank – the mandarinate would in effect go on an industrial go-slow. The wonks from these particular think tanks would be able to help respond to that intransigence. Consequently, these institutions – and the people they will train and employ – will prove crucial in not only advancing and persuading the public of a radical agenda, but, more importantly, implementing it. Liaison with Common Weal about how to get such a process started isn’t just desirable, its entirely necessary. Again, a decent prototype is relatively close to home for Momentum. If they aren’t able to start three organisations of the requisite size, which is unlikely, they should look to incubate them in collaboration with partner organisations in policy and new media, with them later developing externally.

In the last twelve months Momentum has done remarkable work, overseeing what would have seemed impossible before last Summer. Nevertheless, the challenges ahead of it remain monumental. And yet it has to meet them, the renewal not only of the left – but of the Labour party – depends on it.

 

 

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