Is Momentum a Modern Militant? Not Really

13/07/2016 11:48 | Updated 13 July 2016

On the Monday evening after the referendum result, while Jeremy Corbyn was stuck in a brutal meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the Manchester and Trafford branch of the informal organisation Momentum held one of its regular meetings in the Friends' Meeting House behind Manchester Central Library. It had been planned before the current Parliamentary rebellion against Corbyn, but over the previous two days two-thirds of the shadow cabinet had left it and MP after MP was taking to the media to call for his resignation, and inevitably the meeting's agenda would be overshadowed by these events.

Momentum, established nine months ago within the Labour Party to support the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, is paradigmatic of the traditional British Left. Outside every meeting, a middle-aged man hands out copies of the Socialist Worker. You cannot enter without receiving four separate leaflets damning austerity and advertising future meetings. The meetings can swing from tub-thumping rhetoric about Blairites and Tories - not that any distinction need be made between them - to complaints about the manifold flaws of poorly-funded local transport from more self-conscious types, and both will be heard with equal respect. At an early meeting in Cambridge last year, the radical Marxists were present, but (with one exception) were measured and realistic. At every meeting, even one held in the middle of an open civil war that threatens to tear down everything Momentum has worked for, there is an infectious feeling of optimism and enthusiasm.

The speakers on that Monday were eager to contest some of the claims surrounding the challenge to Corbyn. Charlotte Nichols, the National Women's Officer for Young Labour, praised his work during the referendum campaign, pointing out that Labour supporters and the young, to which groups Corbyn has a particular appeal, both voted overwhelmingly for Remain. She cited a Remain event planned for 25 people to which 450 turned up. She then rattled through a string of Corbyn's successes as leader, and argued that the attacks were coming from those who had always been opposed to his leadership.

Leigh Drennan, the chairman of North-West Young Labour, chipped in with similar remarks, arguing that "No-one really believes that Jeremy Corbyn is the reason people voted to leave the European Union" and highlighting a survey of Labour members which found 73% approval of Corbyn's leadership. There was a palpable sense of frustration that these things are not being reported widely, and even more frustration when the discussion turned to the rebellious MPs, who were accused of constructing "a self-fulfilling prophecy" in which their criticisms of Corbyn's leadership only exacerbated his difficulties.

Contrary to the popular perception of Corbynites that they are more interested in bickering with internal opponents than in fighting the government, Momentum will state that its priority is winning elections. It has been condemning the PLP's actions not on grounds of ideological purity, but because they have prevented the party from attacking the Conservatives.

The principal criticism of 'the Blairites' in the Friends' Meeting House was that their strategy, summarised as "trotting out the 1997 manifesto", was not electorally viable in the new political climate, not that they were betraying the principles of the party. This should not necessarily be taken at face value: the description itself, like the term 'Blairites', is evidently reductionist, and of course the words of Momentum's leaders do not necessarily represent the opinions of members.

Nonetheless, there is a definitive incentive now for Corbynites to prioritise electoral success. The Left's hold on the leadership is fundamentally fragile. Corbyn is the only left-wing MP who might be able to avoid being barred from appearing on a leadership ballot by the closed ranks of the PLP. If he loses a general election, the Left will be marginalised in the party again for decades.

Perhaps it is an awareness of this predicament which has led Momentum to warn its members against an exodus in the event of Corbyn's deposition. Instead, it has called upon them to get left-wingers elected to the bewildering plethora of committees and sub-committees that Tony Blair created to establish distance between the membership and the central leadership, presumably so that if Corbyn is forced out, the Left can nonetheless be reconstructed within the party from the bottom up.

This seems to confirm one of the most common criticisms of Momentum, that they are an entryist group taking to flood the party's power structures with extremists. In fact, no-one who has actually attended a Momentum meeting could gain the impression that the group is the successor to Militant. It fosters a diversity of opinion: the introductions at one meeting revealed a spectrum of attendance from revolutionary anarcho-syndicalists to local bus network obsessives, and attendees debated on Monday whether it might be better for Corbyn to step down so that the Left could begin to build its presence in the party from scratch, rather than try to hold on to a leadership isolated by the PLP.

What is more, Momentum activists will argue that their attempts to gain control of mechanisms within the party are only redressing the balance, since the Labour Right currently maintains its grip on most of them. One activist admitted that the Right is much better organised than the Left within the constituency parties, since most of them have been there for years, whereas the Momentum members are often new to party procedures.

Usually, Momentum is not so fixated on internal party struggles. In recent months their agenda has included various national issues, including voter registration and the junior doctors' strike, in which they have been emphatically supportive of the strikers. It seems probable that they will oppose the most recent contract agreed between the BMA and the government. The group has also co-ordinated with the NUT, and will press for a teacher-orientated education policy.

Regardless of its leaders' exhortations, it seems unlikely that the Corbynite membership will remain in the Labour Party if Corbyn himself is removed as leader, which means that Momentum's future, at least its future in the party, is in doubt. While it endures, however, it remains one of the more intriguing elements of Corbyn's Labour: both of Labour and outside it, infinitely passionate about its cause yet in constant tension with others supposedly on its side, condemned as Machiavellian yet at heart amicably amateurish. What will happen to this enthusiasm in the coming months will be fascinating to see.