Labour MPs must not prevent party members from choosing Jeremy Corbyn’s successor, a senior Momentum leader says.
In an interview with The Huffington Post UK, Adam Klug, the grassroots leftwing campaign group’s national organiser, says while Corbyn is not about to step down as leader “soon”, it is “important to think about the succession”.
He denies accusations this week from Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson that Momentum is engaged with the Unite union in a “hard left” plot to take over the party.
And ahead of Momentum’s first national conference this weekend, Klug says there is a “significant way to go” to ensure Corbyn’s message is delivered to voters effectively.
The period of, relative, calm within Labour ended on Monday when Watson accused Momentum’s founder, Jon Lansman, of plotting with Len McCluskey to use funding from the Unite union to stage a leftwing takeover the party.
McCluskey, who is seeking re-election as the union’s general secretary, hit back in a blog on The Huffington Post UK blasting Labour’s deputy leader for engaging in “skulduggery, smears and secret plots”.
Watson’s accusation was made after The Observer published a recording of Lansman speaking to Momentum activists in Richmond, south west London.
Klug denies there is a plot, saying “it’s a non-story really,”, “manufactured”.
“Momentum aims have been clear from the beginning,” he argues. “The main aim of Momentum is to build on that energy and enthusiasm from Jeremy Corbyn getting elected in 2015. To build a base for Labour to win a general election, to bring in people newly enthused by politics into the Labour Party.”
Unite is a major funder of Labour. And Watson said any move by the union to also bankroll Momentum could “destroy” the party.
But Klug says it is “perfectly natural” for Unite to affiliate to Momentum. “The concept of that happening, that’s not a threat. That’s a perfectly natural thing to happen in the future if that’s what Unite’s executive committee agreed,” he says.
Lansman was being “aspirational in what he was saying”, Klug says of the Richmond recording. “He was saying what he was hoping would happen. It obviously wasn’t a secret plot. If so, he would have said it secret.”
He adds: “It’s not some hard left plot to take over the party. It would be very foolish to try and take over the party in one...”
Corbyn is not about to quit this week. But thoughts in the party are already turned towards his successor. The main barrier to a left-winger becoming leader is not the party members, but the MPs. Under current party rules, leadership candidates need to secure support of 15% of Labour MPs and MEPs to stand.
At Labour’s conference this year, the party will vote on lowering that threshold to 5%.
“It’s necessary because there is unfortunately a bit of a clash between the PLP and members,” Klug says.
“If you’ve got the leadership and the members largely supporting a similar vision and the PLP as a whole not in keeping with that, I don’t think it’s right if the PLP could prevent the members voting for who they want as leader.
“I think there is something undemocratic about that. We saw this last time around that Jeremy only just got on the ballot paper, but once he did, he won. And he won with a huge majority. And then he was was re-elected with an even bigger one.
“I don’t see MPs as custodians. I don’t think it’s right they are custodians of keeping the membership away from shaping the direction of their own party. Maybe it’s reasonable to trust members to choose a leader of out of the PLP. To choose the next leader.”
Klug says Labour MPs and members opposed to Momentum’s involvement need to calm down. It is not, he says, “a resurgence of the 1980s politics”, or Militant coming back. “The idea there are half a million Trots in Britain is a funny concept,” he says.
Members, Klug says, should not be seen as “scary out of touch, detached, radical people” by MPs, when they are the people who “live within society’.
But Klug makes clear he is not thinking about the “immediate” future. “Jeremy’s currently leader of the party, he was elected six months ago with a bigger share of the vote,” he says.
“But naturally this is far bigger than a movement behind one individual. It’s a new opportunity to transform politics. Whatever time Jeremy eventually moves on, then it is important to think about the succession. It doesn’t mean that’s going to happen soon.”
Names are already flying about of course. Clive Lewis, Angela Rayner, Keir Starmer, Rebecca Long-Bailey are all in the Westminster gossip mix. But Klug does not play ball when asked to name names “there is no one I could pick out partiality, there are lots”.
For many Labour MPs, Momentum is nothing more than a ragtag band of clicktivists who would not know a doorstep if they dropped their MacBook on it. But Klug rejects this view. “Momentum is able to mobilise active people who are serious about putting in the work,” he says. “Every door was knocked in Stoke Central the weekend before polls closed.”
Momentum organised for the Stoke by-election, which Labour retained and saw off a challenge from Ukip leader Paul Nuttall. During the by-elections in Stoke and Copeland, Momentum ran screenings of Ken Loach’s film about the benefits system, I, Daniel Blake.
“It wasn’t just a crowds of lefties coming along to watch,” Klug says. “It was people who lived in those estates, coming along, watching a film, and then having a conversation with Ken Loach. Those sort of things that really help Labour win.”
What about Copeland though? Labour had held the seat in Cumbria since its creation in 1983 but it lost it to the Conservatives. The first by-election gain by a governing party in 35 years.
“I think the decline in the Labour vote in that area has been going on for a long time,” Klug argues. “The culture of Labour had lost touch, in many ways, with its roots.”
“There is a perception of mainstream politics, all the main parties, of their politics being done on behalf of other people, for Westminster politicians in suits out of touch with communities. I know that the previous MP in Copeland [Jamie Reed] had a very low contact rate with his constituents. I think there were issues with the way a lot of people felt about the MP who resigned.
“The whole Corbyn project is a long-term thing and obviously there is a long way to go and that hadn’t turned around in Copeland,” Klug adds.
“Given the geography of the UK, Stoke was a lot of easier for people to get to from around the country.”
He says while Momentum did get activists from nearby Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle to campaign in Copeland, the rural seat is “a lot harder to get about” in than Stoke. “The constituency is enormous.
“It may be the nuclear issue was a big thing there, because it is a big employer.
“I suppose also you’ve got a hostile media, or large elements of the media being very hostile to Jeremy’s project.”
He adds: “Clearly there is a long way to go. Clearly Jeremy Corbyn’s vision for the Labour Party and society wasn’t communicated effectively enough in Copeland. If you look at the policies, a lot of it is very popular with the public.
Klug says ideas like public ownership of the railways, investment in industry and infrastructure and regional investment banks all have public support and would “benefit people in Copeland”.
It is of course not just in Copeland where Labour is struggling. National polls show the party trailing Theresa May’s government by a substantial margin. An ICM poll earlier this week gave the Tories a 19-point lead - despite Philip Hammond’s Budget disaster.
“It’s not that people don’t like the message,” Klug argues. “They say the message is not being communicated effectively, not being got across well enough.”
“And of course there is room for improvement in the whole operation of the Labour Party and Jeremy’s ability to communicate.
“I think Jeremy inspired a lot of people with his honesty and integrity and I also think he’s gained lots of victories in terms of PIP payments and holding Theresa May to account on grammar schools - I think it does resonate with a lot of people.
“But clearly there is still significant way to go.
“Constant attacks from day one from large sections of the media doesn’t help. The internal fighting doesn’t help. From day one this opposition from a small but vocal minority of MPs trying to undermine and get rid of Jeremy hasn’t helped.”
In June last year, Labour MPs passed motion of no confidence in Corbyn by a vote of 172 to 40 - ahead of the PLP’s doomed move against the leadership.
“Over time,” Klug says, all the new activists who have signed on to the party will have an impact in delivering Corbyn’s “common sense” message.
We need to start seeing a shift in the polls.Adam Klug
“All of us involved in this project are serious about Labour winning again. We need to start seeing a shift in the polls. There is no point looking backwards, but if you look around May [before the leadership challenge], it was much closer between Labour and the Tories. It was neck-and-neck. Some polls suggested Labour were ahead, that whole process of that leadership challenge and all the internal wrangling and infighting and the navel-gazing set us back quite a long way.
“Now it’s everyone’s duty, it’s Jeremy Corbyn’s duty, people like Tom Watson’s duty, to communicate an effective message of a united party with a vision for Labour government.”
A persistent fear among many Labour MPs is that Momentum activists are angling to deselect them in favour of more Corbyn-friendly leftwing candidates.
But Klug says Momentum “wants to support Labour MPs who are in post to get elected”.
But in the future he wants to see a” more diverse range of people ending up as councillors and MPs”.
“In terms of the selection of MPs, that’s down to Labour Party members, that’s down to local parties to determine. It’s completely fair and representative and understandable and democratic that local MPs should be accountable to their constituents. And also to the local Labour parties. That’s a completely legitimate thing. But that relationship should be one of mutual trust and respect and a healthy one. We don’t want that sort of pure clash.”
Klug says the focus from Labour MPs on Momentum as the “bogeyman” trying to oust them or from “adversarial” elements within Momentum who want to replace sitting MPs is not helpful.
This weekend, Momentum proper holds its inaugural conference in Birmingham. But earlier this month, the splinter group known as Grassroots Momentum held its own gathering.
Momentum, which grew out of Corbyn’s insurgent 2015 leadership campaign, has had a rocky few months.
The split came after Lansman, moved to expel what was branded the hard-left sections of the movement by pushing through a constitutional change that would require all activists to be Labour Party members. The changes, agreed over email one evening, were decried as a “coup” by those opposed to the new rules.
There was very little solidarity as factional infighting consumed the movement. “Within any political organisation there are going to be different strands,” Klug diplomatically explains.
Labour’s membership has surged to over 500,000 under Corbyn. But recent reports suggest members are either quitting or failing to pay their dues. “It’s definitely nowhere near as notable as the rise,” Klug says of the drop. “I mean, who knows, all sorts of different reasons, one of them maybe it’s that Labour is in a really difficult situation around Brexit. Possibly that could account for some of it.”
“Also the Labour Party is quite an inaccessible beast to navigate. That’s part of Momentum’s role is to try enable the Labour Party to be more accessible. People might go into their first meeting and not really understand the culture and practices and how it works and when you can speak.”
Training activists how to find their way around the party as well as campaign is a key part of the conference agenda. And Klug says it’s a “massive asset” that Labour have such a big membership “even if there is a slight drop off in recent weeks or months”.
“What I think has been a really unhelpful, unfair and misguided approach by some people within the Labour Party is seeing as members as some sort of threat.
Klug says: “Momentum wasn’t some long term pre-planned strategic goal to build an organisation like this, in this context, it happened because at a certain time Jeremy Corbyn stood to be leader of the Labour Party and that lit a match.
“It burst on to the scene and developed organically, it grew the size and the potential of it was far greater than the capacity it had at any stage. We are now in a position to be looking longer term.”