POLITICS

Momentum Celebrates Jeremy Corbyn's Election Surprise And A Labour Party Transformed

A week in Brighton with Corbyn's grassroots.

27/09/2017 07:11 BST | Updated 27/09/2017 14:18 BST
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Jeremy Corbyn addresses supporters during a momentum rally on the first day of the Labour Party conference

No-one can remember a time when the queues at Labour party conference were longer. Buoyed by record party membership, they snake around the conference buildings and overflow outside the conference hall. At the registration desk this week the queue was made longer by activists getting confused about which conference they were supposed to be at: the official Labour party conference or the parallel Momentum conference “The World Transformed”.

More of a festival by the Brighton seaside, “The World Transformed” (TWT) is running alongside the official Labour party conference this week. Momentum activists have gathered in their thousands to celebrate Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected election performance with seminars and speakers, parties and choruses of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn”.

Which conference constitutes the party’s true power base is now an open question. Frequently derided as an army of ‘clicktivists’ who did not know how to campaign and could not be bothered to door-knock, vindicated Momentum members feel they have the right to enjoy a bit of backslapping.

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Delegates ask to speak during during the Labour Party conference in Brighton

Having helped secure Corbyn at the top of the party, Momentum is moving to efficiently extend its influence over the Labour as a whole.

Its organisational prowess was on show on the very first day of the conference. Harnessing the power of its phone app which alerts its campaigners to key votes, where to be and when, Momentum helped block a vote on the conference floor over Labour’s position on Brexit – saving Corbyn from a damaging row over Europe.

In the run-up to this weekend, one moderate Labour MP worried Momentum was trying to “storm” the party’s conference. But the evidence in Brighton suggests that the Left is already inside the gates and the drawbridge has been lowered.

Behind the scenes, Momentum figures have moved into influential positions in the party. Two of the group’s press officers have made the switch to work for the Labour press office in party HQ. And earlier this month, Momentum backed candidates, Seema Chandwani and Billy Hay, swept the board in elections to the Conference Arrangements Committee, the unglamorous but crucial body that decides what the party debates at its annual conference.

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The Momentum conference in Brighton is more of a festival by the Brighton seaside

At the main venue for this year’s TWT, MPs and activists are invited to sit and tell stories about the election campaign in their local constituency.

Sarah Jones, the newly elected MP for Croydon, did not vote for Corbyn to be Labour leader. But she concedes “he won me the election”.

Chris Williamson, the MP for Derby North who is perhaps even more of a Corbynista than Corbyn himself, says Momentum was “absolutely pivotal” to him wining his seat. “They mobilised literally hundreds of people to come,” he said. “We were struggling to cope with the number of people and struggling to give people useful things to do.”

Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who was elected as Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown in June, says: “I have never seen so many people door knock.” And he credits Momentum.

Corbyn addressed the festival on Sunday evening as a thank you to his core support for their “street campaign” during the election. 

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Artwork at The World Transformed festival during the Labour Party conference in Brighton

On one wall, a projector cycles through a series of political internet memes taking aim at the Tories and others. “Seize the memes of production,” reads a painting. A “collaborative quilt” hangs nearby. 

At the back of the room, pages from the 2017 Labour manifesto are plastered to a white wall covered in praise, scrawled artistically in coloured pen, or suggestions for improvements. An “artist for Corbyn” banner hangs along the entrance hall. A message written in chalk on a blackboard wall encourages voters to “make wealth history”.

At seminars, Momentum activists hear from Corbyn allies such as right-hand man John McDonnell and Clive Lewis, the Labour MP and former shadow cabinet minister.  But there are signs of how the group is now more intertwined with Labour figureheads from other eras. John Prescott has given a talk, and Ed Miliband is hosting a quiz.

Talks range from internal organisation such as ‘how to run a Momentum group’, to ‘how to make a viral video’, as well as discussion on ‘radical democracy and 21st Century socialism’.

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Corbyn speaks at a rally in Brighton ahead of his party's annual conference

For many it is the Momentum gathering that is the reason to be in town. Lewis says Momentum can now push on from being Corbyn’s defensive “praetorian guard” against internal coup attempts. It is time for “phase two”.

“That means more than just winning the election within the bubble over there,” he says, pointing to the Labour conference. “It means fundamentally changing and shifting how our country runs and who it is run for.”

Jon Lansman, the chair and godfather of Momentum, agrees that his project is not yet done. His mission to “transform the party” in to a member-led organistion free form the “command and control” of the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years is “still a work in progress”.

“The Left, people like Jeremy Corbyn, we were placed in a sealed tomb,” he says of the New Labour era. “We might have been in (a) sealed tomb for a couple of decades but resurrection is possible.”

Talk of Corbyn being replaced vanished the second the general election exit poll was announced. But Momentum activists are being warned that does not mean the fight for the party in the country is over.

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The audience during a Governing From The Radical Left event at the Momentum festival

Sam Tarry, who ran Corbyn’s second leadership campaign, says there is “an orchestrated attack to block and to stop left-wing candidates” from becoming councillors in next year’s local elections. “We are going to see less trade unionists. We are going to see fewer left-wing councillors being selected and elected,” he says. “The fight for a true democratic and socialist party is only really in its first phase.”

Tarry, the national political officer for the TSSA transport union, was instrumental in setting up Momentum. His union hosts the campaign organisation in its HQ. But he is stepping down as a local councillor in Barking because he is “so fed up with the direction” it is taking.

“I know the difference between having a left-wing council leadership and a right-wing council leadership,” he adds of the Labour-run council. “The difficultly I now have is the council leadership is taking a fundamentally different direction, obsessed with gentrification, looking down their noses at the working class.

“In local government, across the country, there are lots of Labour councils that are certainly not in the direction of a Corbyn-led government.”

In the sweeping battles between the Left and Right of the Labour Party, people think long-term. Another Momentum foot soldier says he and his friends are looking forward to a Corbyn government that will last the “next couple of decades”.

Adam Klugg, a former Momentum national organiser, says for everyone in the Corbyn movement the election was “make or break” for the movement. “If we couldn’t define what we were about then, then the project wouldn’t have legs. Look at where we are now.” The Left of the party is not going to let this go to waste.