POLITICS
13/04/2018 12:01 BST | Updated 13/04/2018 16:11 BST

Momentum's Laura Parker: 'Deeply Dispiriting' Anti-Semitism Row 'Not Labour's Greatest Moment'

Pro-Jeremy Corbyn campaign group will 'outlive' his leadership, national organiser tells HuffPost.

“Does what we want to do outlive the leader? Yes I think so,” Laura Parker says. “Because let’s imagine Jeremy does two terms as prime minister. At some point he’s going to be allowed to go and tend to his allotment.”

Momentum’s national organiser is celebrating the grassroots leftwing campaign group hitting 40,000 members - an activist base larger than the Green Party or Ukip.

But with Jeremy Corbyn secure as leader and his allies in control of the party machine, what’s the point of Momentum? It has won.

“What’s the point of us?” Parker repeats the question back. “I think there are lots of points to us.”

“The programme that Jeremy and the rest of the shadow cabinet set out and we support is about a fundamental, radical transformation of the country. We are not going to do all that in ten years,” Parker says.

“I think Jeremy’s never thought this is about him. It isn’t. It’s a much bigger moment than one man. It will last much longer than one man.”

In an interview with HuffPost UK, Parker speaks about the “dispiriting” anti-Semitism row, the “relentless pressure” of working in Corbyn’s office, how some Labour staff hurt the general election campaign and the future of the party.

Jane Barlow - PA Images via Getty Images
Allies of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn now control the party machine.

Parker, 47, a former Brussels civil servant who also spent over 15 years working on children’s rights in the charity sector, first joined Labour when Ed Miliband was leader. But she did not remain in the party for long.

“I suppose although I quite liked Ed Miliband. I found my experience of the party fairly uninspiring in many ways,” she recalls.

It was the the 2015 Labour leadership campaign that really excited her. Parker would arrive early for work in order to leave early and volunteer in phone banks for Corbyn.

After his victory, she applied to become Corbyn’s private secretary – a role that placed her at the heart of the leader’s office as the party almost tore itself apart.

“Everybody always says: ‘how did you get it, who did you know?’ I didn’t actually really know anybody. I really didn’t. I just applied,” she laughs.

“It’s to the great credit of Karie Murphy, who became the chief of staff, that she took a punt on somebody who had not necessarily been buried in UK party politics forever.”

Parker worked in Corbyn’s office until the end of last year. And with wry understatement adds: “That was a very interesting period of time”.

In her first three weeks in the job, Jo Cox was killed. “That was the single worst thing that happened in the time I was there,” she says.

“And from thereon in it was quite an intense period. You had the referendum, then there was the, interesting, response of the shadow cabinet and other MPs. Then there was the second leadership election. Then there was party conference. And then people were more or less finding their feet again, things were calming down, and there was a general election.”

Parker says despite the “relentless pressure” Corbyn and his team remained “remarkably good humoured” and “comradely”.

“Jeremy’s an easy person to work for. He is a nice bloke. We came from different political traditions. So there are differences of opinion around some issues, but broadly speaking, we were pretty unified,” she says.

“You can’t expect, shouldn’t expect, Jeremy definitely wouldn’t expect or even want, some sort of North Korean level of discipline where everyone agrees with everything or pretends to.

“We were all drawn to Corbynism. We all had a very explicitly anti-austerity agenda. We all believe we needed a party which took on inequality more head on. We believed we wanted a party that was more vociferous in standing up for the many not the few.

“Obviously there were difficult moments. There was some very disappointing moments where our team would have meetings with other parts of the party and you’d hardly be out the room before you’d see stuff on Twitter.”

PA Archive/PA Images
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a Momentum event at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in central London.

Parker says she had no doubt Corbyn would survive the 2016 attempt by the Parliamentary Labour Party to oust him.

“He was brought into the role on the back of the enthusiasm and support of hundreds of thousands of people with a very principled agenda. And the principles would see him through,” she says.

“People wobble when they forget the line to take, or they wobble because they’ve got themselves in a pickle with spin. When you actually know what you’re talking about you can sort of hang steady really.

“It was so obvious that the moment was right for there to be a radical rethink about politics in the UK.”

Much of the party machine had been schooled in the ways of the defensive campaign strategy

The general election result, which saw Labour vastly outperform most expectations - although not actually win - has given “enormous courage” to the party, Parker says.

“I think a lot of people were nervous about the Corbyn agenda not because they had any inherent opposition to it. But because they had lost their confidence that this more radical programme could be implemented. We had started to sell ourselves this story after 20 or 30 years that this is a very conservative country.

“What the public need to see is politicians have got clear positions on issues. I think the general election has given a lot of the Labour Party confidence and so people who are not opposed to the agenda, but were maybe sceptical about whether we could sell it, have now genuinely been won over.”

The election result, Parker says, also showed what was possible despite two years of attacks from the “right wing” press. “And I mean the really right wing press, not The Guardian having a bad day.”

Could Labour have won in 2017? Parker pauses. “With two weeks more of campaign. Or with more resources channeled into the right places at the start of the campaign, possibly,” she says. “There are probably another 10 or 15 seats if we started campaigning there earlier we could have won.

“There was confusion about the strategy,” she adds. “This is about a lack of confidence which obviously was not in the leader’s office, but much of the party machine had been schooled in the ways of the defensive campaign strategy.

PA Wire/PA Images
Jennie Formby at the Labour headquarters in central London with Iain McNicol, after she was appointed as the party's new general secretary.

Labour’s headquarters was seen as deeply hostile to Corbyn. But in the past two months several long serving senior staff, including general secretary Iain McNicol, have walked.

“As a general rule I’m not a conspiracy theory person. I’m just not,” Parker says, but adds: “I think some people were probably not working as hard as they could for the leader. 

“Some people have worked in the party for the last 20 or 30, years. They did enter a different party. It was the Labour Party then and it’s the Labour Party now.

“I would argue it’s in a way more true to Labour values now, but if you joined in 1997 and the approach was uber-managerial and slightly nervous.

“There was a lot of focus on spin and ‘don’t frighten the horses too much’, and ‘we can only win if we take this little bit of Godalming with us’, it’s an adjustment to then embrace a different way of doing things.

I think some people were probably not working as hard as they could for the leader

Parker says Labour staff “shouldn’t have to sign in blood to some kind of 50-point plan” but should be loyal to the leadership.

“I think it’s important that anyone who works for the party is supportive of the party’s policies and broadly supportive of the leadership,” she says.

“Coming from the civil service tradition, I have this slightly old fashioned attachment to the notion that although of course it’s all political, the administration of the party is there to serve the elected leadership of the party and the membership. And not vice versa.

“I think we might have seen some moments when you sort of started to wonder whether tail was wagging dog.”

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Badges and leaflets for Momentum from 2016.

McNicol, who was blamed by pro-Corbyn activists for the so-called purge of party members in the run-up to the second leadership campaign, became general secretary under Ed Miliband. His replacement, former Unite official Jennie Formby, started in the job last week.

“Of course I think it’s important there is a general secretary who can be completely trusted,” Parker says.

“I think she will do a great job. I also don’t expect Jennie Formby is going to be some sort of robot. I don’t think you get to her level of seniority in the union movement, especially a woman, unless you’ve got an ability to think for yourself.

“But you are there to serve the leadership. And the members.”

Parker also rejects the suggestion the general secretary position should be an elected one. “I do believe the general secretary is serving the party. And not vice versa. There is a risk with an elected general secretary of an alternative power base,” she warns.

But adds: “I think we need to have greater accountability. I think the NEC should be holding the general secretary to account more effectively than they have in the past.

Parker also floats the idea of having an elected general secretary of the party during the time Labour is in power “at which point its quite hard to run the country and the party machine”.

Christopher Furlong via Getty Images
Acrtress Maureen Lipman speaks to campaigners from the Campaign Against Antisemitism as they demonstrate outside the Labour Party headquarters on April 8, 2018 in London.

It has not been a good few weeks for Corbyn. A month out from local elections, the Labour leader has been hit by accusations that not only is Labour riven with anti-Semtism, but that he himself has a blind spot when it comes to anti-Jewish racism. 

“I think it’s been very difficult,” Parker acknowledges. “Like anyone else who knows him, I know that he’s not got an anti-Semitic bone in his body. So on a personal level I imagine some of this must have been deeply dispiriting.

“But he has an enormous capacity and resilience to sort of rise above when it’s unfair criticism, and I think he has been very honest himself about the mistakes that he’s made, and areas where the party knows it needs to improve.

“No one could pretend that it was all great headlines and we not should pretend there aren’t some serious issues to deal with.”

It’s not been our greatest moment. But there is every indication the party will really learn at all levels from this and will do better

Parker says the statement issued by Momentum was “a very balanced statement” that “recognised the need to deal with the reality of the problems” while at the same time recognised “the fact that there has been some deliberate attempt to overstate.”

“It’s not been our greatest moment. But there is every indication the party will really learn at all levels from this and will do better. Clearly there will be some communities where we are going to have to work really hard to really convince,” she concedes.

“I think for the Jewish members of the party it obviously personally they have had some very difficult moments.”

She adds: “I think some of them will know whilst there are problems, in the right wing press they have been overblown. 

“There is now, it feels to me, like there is a sort of unity of purpose about dealing with this properly. Of course it’s a shame we didn’t get there sooner. Actions will speak louder than words really.”

Jack Taylor via Getty Images
A Momentum rally in support of Corbyn at The Troxy on July 6, 2016 in London.

Momentum activists have gained a reputation of bullying MPs and Labour members who do not fall into line behind Corbyn’s leadership.

But sipping tea in a quiet south London café, the softly spoken Parker asks: “You’ve just spent an hour with me. Hopefully I’m not fulfilling the stereotype?

“I think I am just the very average face of Momentum. I think there is lots of people like me in Momentum. There are lots of people not like me. We are little bit of everything and anything. Of course, yes, we have had our fair share of criticism.”

Parker says the “vast majority” of the criticism aimed at her organisation is “absolutely political manipulation”.

Sajid Javid, the Conservative communities secretary, recently branded Momentum “neo-facist”. Momentum threatened to sue. “It’s completely insensitive and obviously just a palpable nonsense,” Paker says.

“Do we have the odd activists who gets a bit stroppier than they should? Yes. We’ve got 40,000 members. Find me an organiastion of 40,000 that doesn’t have you know, the occasional sort of problematic member.

But Parker adds: “I’ve been to dozens of meetings. Met loads of groups up and down the country. I haven’t been yelled at in meetings. I haven’t been subject to any sort of sexist abuse. That’s just not the organisation I recognise.”

Threats of deselection have frequently been deployed against MPs who are overly critical of Corbyn. And Jon Lansman, Momentum’s founder, recently reiterated his desire for it to be easier for local members to kick out the incumbent MPs ahead of the next election.

And Parker says complaints about handing more power to members are misplaced. “I think it’s a grave mistake to think democracy starts and finishes with elected representatives,” she says.

“There is a discussion which obviously is going to be a very lively one about how MPs are held to account and how long they have their roles for. 

“There are very few jobs that you can just sort of sit in forever without some occasionally giving you a bit of a performance review so I don’t think it’s unreasonable we would do the same for MPs.”

“I think that where MPs are working hard, doing constituency surgeries, turning up to their CLP meetings, answering honestly questions – which doesn’t always mean agreeing with their CLP but at least having a conversation - asking questions in the House, serving on select committees, doing stuff in the press and generally looking like they are busy and fulfilling the varied role, then why would you get rid of them?”

Jane Barlow - PA Images via Getty Images
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during the Scottish Labour conference in Caird Hall, Dundee.

If Momentum and Corbynism will outlive Corbyn, who does Parker see as taking over at the top once he returns to planting vegetables and making jam?

“Now I am going to sound like a politician,” Parker laughs. “Which as a general rule I try to avoid.

“I definitely wouldn’t want to give the kiss of death to any one individual by suggesting I thought they were his successor. I don’t think they would thank me for it.

“It’s a bit like when Michael Owen first appeared on the scene and everyone went ‘oh my god England is going to win the World Cup’ and then the poor sod broke his ankle in the first six weeks.

“I think we’ve got a great leader of the Labour Party. I think we should get him elected as prime minister. And in his and our good time whoever comes next will come next.”

I would obviously like to have a woman leading the party

Labour, of course, has not had a female leader. “I would obviosuly like to have a woman leading the party,” Parker says. “But for me most important thing will be the politics. If you give me a bloke who’s going to continue this political programme, or a woman who wants to return down the crazy path of austerity or bombing countries illegally, I will take the bloke.

The Conservatives never miss the chance to point out that they have two female leaders, to Labour’s zero. “It is an easy attack line for the Tories,” she admits. “Although it’s the greatest hypocrisy. If you look at some of the sexist pigs they’ve got in their midst.

“I don’t think Theresa May is a champion for women any more than Margaret Thatcher was.”

What’s next for Parker, does she fancy becoming an MP? “I think I’ve got quite enough to do at the moment,” she says. “I think for now I want to help grow Momentum. To help support it through this next phase of its development. 

“I am pretty busy right now on all of that I would say, I haven’t really got a ‘what next’ plan.” 

The next election is due in 2022. Is Jeremy Corbyn going to win? “Hopefully before then,” she grins. “Yep.”