Momentum Beyond the Moment

By Tom Munday

Momentum ran a stellar campaign during the general election. Aside from a formidable ground game, they dominated the social media scene. For those of us, myself included, who have occasionally had reservations about the long-term efficacy of the Momentum project, it was a welcome rebuttal. Momentum, as inside sources would confirm, was able to go blow-for-blow with, and then effortlessly best, a goliath Tory funding machine. They created a narrative full of humour and absurdity, which ran rings around flatulent party political broadcasts of the old type.

The question that faces Momentum is “where next?” It's a complex question, critically exposed to the truism that too much success can sometimes be a bad thing. And who could blame the team at Momentum HQ for resting on their laurels, for assuming that they've stumbled across a winning formula in no need of a overhaul? For what it's worth, the Momentum team seem to be quite cognisant of the pitfalls before them. Early indications are that they are already at full tilt for any coming election, having never truly dropped their campaign footing.

It's perhaps better then, to revisit past critiques and reassess them in light of the current standing of the organisation and the Labour Party as a whole. Even before they proved themselves beyond all doubt, few dissenters could have fault with Momentum's capacity for mobilisation. No organisation of the British Left, bar Corbyn's Labour Party itself, could boast of the kind of growth enjoyed by Momentum. Believe me - those of us who once fell behind the Left Unity banner still cringe at the memory of that party's ‘fastest growing party in Britain’ braggadocio (yes comrade, going from 1 member to 100 is technically a 10000% growth rate) . No organisation, including Corbyn's Labour Party, could boast of a comparable ability to get feet on the streets and so effortlessly saturate voters' social media feeds. Momentum's flair in this regard, it seems to me, was never in doubt.

Where some of us have made slightly less flattering assessments would be in Momentum's ability to expressly politicise the struggle. In other words, Momentum still feels as though it is bringing up the rear, rather than leading the development of class-consciousness. It still operates somewhat within the limited remit of being the Jeremy Corbyn fan club. There's a place for that, though my suspicion is that the organisation does not yet fully recognise the urgency and importance of this element of their work: a misapprehension stemming from a political culture learned on the Labour left, which, for its merits, still subscribes to 'broad church' labourist values. The same thinking underpins Corbyn's failure, so far, to successfully bring the Labour right to heel; the man being apparently possessed of bottomless wells of forgiveness and tolerance. Momentum therefore leans heavily on the weakness of the Tory party (which, lest we forget, has not convincingly won an election since the 1980s) and, worryingly, perhaps believes such conditions are here to stay.

Momentum's effectiveness in the general election rather proves the point. The temporary cessation of hostilities (somewhat underpinned by opportunist rightists not wishing to unnecessarily tarnish their reputation before their June 9th takeover bids) gave the organisation the space it needed to do its thing. But, as we are already seeing, such conditions are exceptions, rather than the rule. It is unlikely, I believe, that the Labour right will repeat their mistakes so willingly next time. They are ideologically opposed to a Corbyn government with every fibre of their being (and pay lip service to the ‘broad church’ only inasmuch as it galvanises the left flank of their base), and, should Corbyn stumble, you'd barely see the flash of steel before the knives plunged into his back (or front).

The failure to make significant polling gains, until that ceasefire with the Labour right, should remain a cause for concern. While it would've undoubtedly retained some of the gains made during the election, the potential for poll drops, such as those presented in an outlying Survation poll (although let's not forget Survation called the election with atypical accuracy), remains ever-present, and it is not unreasonable to worry that the inevitable resumption of open war will be every bit as destructive as it was previously - and as it is intended to be. The Tories' behaviour post-election certainly indicates as much. They appear to be digging in for a protracted siege, turning to the last glimmer of hope that they have left: that their water-carriers on the Labour right will tear the party apart; hopefully for long enough that some other solution to their current woes presents itself.

It's easy to forget in a moment of victory the toll only just exacted upon you by the enemy. At the risk of sounding like a terrible melt: Labour didn't win (although Corbyn is, of course, the PM). The damage wrought during the two years of Corbyn’s leadership was not immaterial. This needs to be a key part of Momentum evaluating its performance. For all its successes, it was not able to fully break the stranglehold of traditional media and the bourgeois press over the hearts and minds of the electorate for 22 months of the two years between Corbyn taking the leadership and his barnstorming performance at the ballot.

The only way it can do that, it seems to me, is to develop the self-empowerment and autonomous organisation of the working class. For one, the class must begin to recognise itself as such in order to see the clear divergence of interests between it and the Murdochs of the world. It's very easy, I think, for those born and raised on the left to believe their own views are common sense. All things being equal, they are - but all things are not equal; and you idealise working people at your peril. No, Stella Creasy, Mrs Brown's Boys is not immanent to the class: but let's not kid ourselves, someone is watching it.

Momentum's excellent video, featuring a saccharine scene of father and daughter reminiscing about the good ol' days, pre-40-pupil classrooms and a privatised NHS, punctuated by a stinging shot of unexpected humour at the end, is exemplar. The video works because it talks to an audience which exists in abundance: people who hate the Tories. This is perhaps where Momentum is currently at. In a lighting conflict (or a snap election) the most important thing to know is who your enemy is: you can worry about the ruptures in your own lines once the smoke has cleared. In a war of attrition the integrity of your own side is far more important. The struggle we presently face is of the latter type. Momentum somewhat functions at present on an 'enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend' mentality. As long as the guns are pointed in the right direction, we're not especially worried about who is carrying them.

This is, of course, unsustainable. Eventually the Tories will find the right magic money tree and the handouts will begin, if not now, then in the immediate aftermath of a sabotaged Corbyn premiership. It's not too much of a stretch to imagine unscrupulous individuals thinking 12 steps ahead and already salivating at the prospect of a fire sale of any industry Corbyn would nationalise (and if they don't exist now they soon will). And the force of will necessary for a person, struggling to feed their kids and keep a roof over their heads, to turn away the hand offering to feed, even if it's the hand of some mendacious Tory bastard, is beyond most normal people. Case in point: while door-knocking with Momentum, I spoke to a woman under the impression the Tories would give her her council house. How exactly she came to that conclusion was beyond me, but it was literally the difference between a vote for the Tories and a 'natural' inclination toward Labour for her (don't worry, readers - I have a good feeling she voted Labour).

It is therefore not enough to accrue the support of Tory-haters. We need to raise them to class-conscious Labour-lovers: people who identify with the party, not because it is the party that stands against the Tories, but because it is the party of the working class; the party that will enshrine their interests through rain and shine. Labour, riven with civil war, is clearly not capable of this task alone. The infrastructure of the party is still controlled by the right, and they have no intention of letting it go just because of a piffling little thing called party democracy. Momentum must therefore step into the void, as indeed it has in the case of mobilisations and media outreach. But it must extend its remit to education and propaganda. Propaganda mustn't be a dirty word.

Momentum must popularise the causes of the Left broadly and in their totality. It must reach out to those alienated by our turgid political system and empower them to speak their minds. Build in them the determination and grit not to be swayed by plastic-faced stooges of the ruling class: sad, no-mark parasites who tell them, over and over, that they are racist and war-hungry; that people living on the fringe of society under threat of eviction and destitution should care more about blowing some even poorer Syrian to smithereens more than they do about hospitals and education.

Why do we need unions? I've lost count of the times I've had to patiently explain to an otherwise intelligent person that the reason their kids aren't fishing loose bolts out a moving thresher machine is because of union struggle and union organisation. Momentum must begin doing this on a mass scale. And Momentum must begin to actively connect our experience with experiences of the international working class: to offer direct solidarity in particular to our comrades throughout Europe and to explain why the present beggar-my-neighbour attitude, which prevails throughout popular discourse, leads us precisely nowhere.

It must learn, not just to make these arguments, but to embed them in the hearts of the working class: actively fight to break false dichotomies that separate the relatively well-paid plumber (working class because he's got dirty hands, you see) from the minimum wage data entry gremlin (middle class, practically landed gentry). Just as the universal provision of healthcare saved the NHS from the worst neoliberal predations from the Thatcher era to now - rooted it in the 'common sense' of the people (look at the US for comparison; our collective attachment to the NHS is far from 'natural') - we must take other broad socialist ideas and intractably intermesh them with the lived-experience of the working class. That way, the working class must be equipped with the tools it needs to carry on the struggle long after Corbyn, or even Momentum itself, has ceased to exist.

Momentum needs to teach people to instinctively bite that mendacious Tory bastard’s hand when he tries to offer them a 'free' council house. Momentum must put pressure on Labour, Corbyn et al, not necessarily through attack, but simply by tempting them into decisiveness, showing them the abundant raw materials available to them to transform society. Do you think we'd be have to deal with the Chris Leslies and Chuka Umunnas of the world if we could build from a working class fully aware of their vital and historic role? Umunna would still be some nobody DJing in his mum's living room, rather than some nobody trying to lob bombs across Corbyn's shoulder every five seconds.

So this is the task in front of Momentum as we head into the coming period. It's given the ruling class a bloody nose - how does it work to lay them out completely? It must not only strike down the Tories, but salt the earth too; stop them from growing back. That can only come from diversifying its role. It needs to do more than pick up Labour's slack- it needs to actively create a culture around itself that is not only capable of winning the next election, but the one after that, and then after that, and so on. We should look to hold power indefinitely (and I hope that pisses off the slugs), in as far as democracy allows. Momentum needs to build a culture of socialism where never again can some oh-so-knowing slime in a suit descend from on high to patronise us with tales of the inherent bigotry and hate of working people. It needs to make the Tories’ ‘real party of the working class' line so utterly risible as to be pitiably unprintable. It's no easy task, of course, but we should embrace the challenge.

*Photo: [Wikimedia Commons]


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