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A loss of Momentum?

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13: Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn speaks from the stage at Sobell leisure centre after retaining his parliamentary seat on December 13, 2019 in London, England. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has held the Islington North seat since 1983. The current Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the first UK winter election for nearly a century in an attempt to gain a working majority to break the parliamentary deadlock over Brexit. The election results from across the country are being counted overnight and an overall result is expected in the early hours of Friday morning. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn on 12th December, the night of Labour’s general election defeat

On the evening of the general election, Rachel Godfrey Wood still thought Jeremy Corbyn might form the next government. She and most of her colleagues at Momentum, the left-wing campaign group set up in 2015 to support the Labour leader, had accepted that an outright victory was unlikely – but believed a hung parliament remained within reach. Ahead of the BBC’s unveiling of the exit poll Godfrey Wood, who coordinates Momentum’s regional organisers, joined colleagues to watch the election-night coverage in the group’s offices in an old townhouse in Finsbury Park, north London. There was a tense atmosphere among the 50 or so staffers and volunteers, most of them twenty-somethings. All of their hard work over the past six weeks came down to this.

The clock struck 10pm. Huw Edwards revealed the exit poll – and a huge projected majority for the Conservatives. Labour was predicted to win fewer than 200 seats. The room fell silent.

“It was possibly the worst moment of my life,” Godfrey Wood tells me, sitting at her desk at Momentum HQ in late January 2020. For several minutes, she says, she couldn’t quite believe the forecast. Then the first results from the north-east started to come in, backing up the predicted swing seen in the exit poll. “It was like… everything we’d believed in, everything we’d built, just seeing it smashed,” she says. “It was really devastating.” Godfrey Wood stayed on for several hours. Some people clustered into small groups and tried to make sense of the catastrophe. But eventually they drifted away.

Emil Charlaff, who coordinates Momentum’s digital content and Facebook advertising, describes the reaction at HQ as “shocked disbelief”. There had been reasons for him to feel positive, including the huge engagement Momentum’s massive digital campaign had been getting on social media. “I was in a bit of a bubble in that sense,” he admits. Perceptions of the likely outcome had also been skewed by the experience of the snap election in June 2017 in which Labour had unexpectedly cut down prime minister Theresa May’s parliamentary majority.

Some blamed Momentum for the 2019 defeat.“I want them out of the party, I want Momentum gone. Go back to your student politics,” said former Labour MP and party grandee Alan Johnson on election night. Sitting next to him in the ITV studio, Momentum founder Jon Lansman responded by pointing to the hundreds of thousands of volunteers the organisation had mobilised during the campaign, arguing that they would not take kindly to the blame being laid at their door.

Despite Johnson’s wish, Momentum doesn’t appear to be going anywhere – at least not for now. Three nights after the election defeat, 3,000 members joined Momentum’s biggest ever video conference call. Speaking from a cluttered office at his home, shadow chancellor John McDonnell promised those watching that the movement would continue. Ash Sarkar, an editor at radical left-wing news organisation Novara Media and one of Momentum’s highest-profile supporters, joined in to insist that the movement was only just getting started.

Jeremy Corbyn is announced as the new leader of the Labour party, 12th September 2015

The birth of a movement

Shortly after Corbyn’s unexpected victory in the 2015 Labour leadership contest some of the key figures in his campaign founded Momentum. They included Jon Lansman, a Labour activist who had been close to left-winger Tony Benn, coordinating his 1981 deputy leadership campaign as well as his later bid for the leadership itself. Momentum’s stated goal was to promote socialist policies within Labour and to democratise the party by pushing to give members more power.

Momentum went on to launch an embryonic digital democracy platform and forged links to the crowdfunded 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign in the US. It seemed to be aligned to a newly emerging decentralised way of doing politics, taking inspiration from left-wing party Podemos in Spain, which put policy decisions to online ballots. And its rise coincided with a huge increase in Labour’s membership, from less than 200,000 under Ed Miliband to more than half a million under Corbyn, making it the biggest political party in Europe.

Even MPs who ended up becoming staunch critics of Jeremy Corbyn believed he had tapped in to something. “Corbyn in 2015 was the only candidate who gave a message of hope that things could be different,” Margaret Hodge, MP for Barking and Dagenham, tells me in February 2020.

From the start, however, there were concerns about Momentum, particularly that it was being infiltrated by far-left groups like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), a Trotskyist organisation. Some compared Momentum to the Militant group, which was seen as having tried to hijack Labour in the 1980s. Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow, who was runner-up in the 2015 deputy leadership contest, said in a speech in March 2016 that some in Momentum seemed more concerned with “controlling the levers of power” than speaking to voters. Some MPs also complained of being intimidated by Momentum members. This included Ian Murray, who is currently Labour’s only Westminster MP representing a Scottish constituency.

“You are never going to please everyone but when you are leading a political organisation, you do sometimes have to lead”

When he arrived at the Labour manifesto launch for the Scottish parliamentary election in Edinburgh in April 2016, Murray noticed people handing out Momentum leaflets. As he walked past the leafletters, Murray says, they collectively hissed at him. At first he didn’t think much of it. “Scottish politics is pretty poisonous,” he tells me. “But when I realised that they were then sitting in the same room as Labour party members and that the person who was orchestrating the hissing had stood for a different political party [Left Unity, formed by filmmaker Ken Loach] just a few months before, against Labour, I was pretty shocked.”

Only a year into the Corbyn project, Momentum was forced to rally around its icon after a leadership contest was launched against him, following a vote of no-confidence by Labour MPs within a week of the EU referendum. Momentum ran a dynamic campaign, expanding its digital outreach on social media platforms and helping Corbyn sweep to an easy victory against Owen Smith.

Shortly after his re-election, Corbyn addressed the crowds at The World Transformed, Momentum’s parallel event to the official party conference in Liverpool. He thanked Momentum members for their “significant” efforts in his victory. Corbyn’s re-election put paid to hopes among his critics of dislodging him any time soon – and cemented Momentum’s status as a significant new political force.

Asserting control

Momentum has never officially been part of the Labour party – it is a completely independent campaign group. But there has been a continual procession of key Momentum staffers going to work for Labour and the leader’s office, and this would become one of the main feedback loops between Labour and Momentum. The other was Jon Lansman himself, who remained close to the leadership.

While it had been crucial in revitalising Labour’s grassroots and strongly backed Corbyn, Momentum began to spread its own influence through the party. It provided support to left-wingers standing for the National Executive Committee, the party’s governing body, as well as backing its own favoured candidates for parliament, councils and other party positions. Some MPs and commentators accused it of becoming a party within a party. Momentum’s head of communications, Joe Todd, rejects this analysis, insisting that it represents mainstream opinion in Labour: “You can see that because we’re by far and away the best-resourced faction, and all that money, or 99 percent of it, comes from small contributions.” The real clique, he says, were those centrists who had dominated the party for years without consulting members.

“Momentum wasn’t set up to get the Labour party into government. Momentum was set up to take over the Labour party”

The criticism of Momentum’s attempts to assert control became focused around the issue of deselection, the process by which local party members can reject existing MPs as candidates in future elections. Although Momentum HQ repeatedly disavowed attempts to deselect MPs, Momentum members belonging to local Labour constituency parties were blamed for threatening MPs opposed to Corbyn’s leadership. Angela Eagle faced a deselection challenge after she stood in the leadership challenge against Corbyn, before dropping out and backing Owen Smith. Rumours of deselection also circled around Stella Creasy.

Ian Murray says that the issue has long been high on the agenda for his local branch of Momentum. He accepts that the ability to select local MPs is part of the Labour party’s democracy. “But that process was being used to purge the party,” he says. “It wasn’t being used so that local members could reconfirm they supported their MP.”

Infiltrators were often blamed for being part of deselection drives. Murray believes many Momentum members formerly belonging to far-left parties became chairs and secretaries of constituency Labour parties, “creating trouble, intimidation, bullying, going after people who’ve been in the party for a long time, making meetings intolerable. All of that stuff is just horrendous,” he says. “Momentum wasn’t set up to get the Labour party into government. Momentum was set up to take over the Labour party.”

In January 2017, Lansman took sweeping action to address concerns, announcing a new constitution which replaced the group’s regional structure with an online model, essentially giving local groups less autonomy – and less capacity to move in directions that went against Momentum HQ’s official policy. This would also in theory leave less room for agitators to cause trouble. From now on members would also have to join the Labour party if they hadn’t already done so, a measure which seemed to target those from left-wing groups like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty and past Militant activists already banned from Labour. The decision was criticised by many Momentum members who were angry at not being consulted. “You are never going to please everyone but when you are leading a political organisation, you do sometimes have to lead,” Lansman tells me over email. “Sometimes I don’t get support for what I advocate and the organisation decides to do something else.”

Lansman’s changes were widely seen as a step towards officially affiliating Momentum to the Labour party – something that critics like Ian Murray would like to see happen, as it would force Momentum and its members to abide by all of the party’s rules. But Labour affiliates cannot be supporters of a particular left or right-wing faction within the party, or have a separate political agenda. For now, at least, Momentum remains an entirely independent organisation.

Jeremy Corbyn speaks outside the town hall in Royal Leamington Spa during the 2017 general election campaign

Labour party supporters and Momentum members in the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, 28th April 2018

Defeat from the jaws of victory

Momentum was thrown into campaign mode once again after Theresa May called a snap election for June 2017. Fresh from restructuring and with many key staffers now departed to work for Labour, the organisation was on the back foot. There were no more than a dozen people working at Momentum HQ at the time, and they had to put a plan together at lightning speed.

Despite all this Momentum deployed some impressive innovations in 2017, including sharp new video content tailored to social media platforms, and My Nearest Marginal, an app that directed thousands of activists to campaign in tight constituencies. Many questioned whether Momentum’s young base would actually turn out to campaign: “Which in retrospect is now hilarious because we’re seen as [being] able to magic up a door-knocking army wherever you need one,” says Todd with a chuckle.

Labour reduced the Conservatives’ 20-point lead at the start of the campaign to almost nothing, and Momentum’s activism in marginal seats was seen as playing a crucial role. The Conservative party retained power with the support of the DUP, but it seemed that Labour was on the rise. Before the election, Momentum staffers didn’t have much direct contact with the leader’s office. But after the election Corbyn’s strategy and communications director, Seumas Milne, met with Momentum’s heads of digital content, Charlaff and Paul Nicholson, in recognition of how important a campaigning machine it had become. By 2018, Momentum had also come to dominate Labour’s National Executive Committee, after candidates it backed won seats.

During this period, tensions within the Labour party had been periodically flaring up, as MPs complained of being bullied online by Corbyn supporters. Margaret Hodge says she was targeted with abuse about being Jewish. “What had always been present on the fringes of the Labour party… now became mainstream,” Hodge says. “It was entirely linked to [Corbyn] becoming leader of the Labour party.” According to Hodge, two-thirds of the abuse she receives comes from the political left rather than the right. While it can be difficult to identify social media posters as Momentum members, she blames the intimidation she’s felt since Corbyn became leader on Momentum. And she believes that Momentum was behind a drive to deselect her.

Hodge had been an outspoken critic of antisemitism in the Labour party since Corbyn became leader. In one dramatic intervention in the House of Commons in July 2018 she called him a “racist” and “antisemite”. In February 2019 Luciana Berger, another outspoken critic of antisemitism in the party, left Labour after a short-lived attempt to deselect her. When it came to Hodge’s turn in September 2019, Jon Lansman tweeted that “the Left” was not behind the move against her, and claimed local members were motivated by having long wanted a candidate who lives in Barking (Hodge lives in Islington, but has been Barking’s MP for 25 years).

“The reselection challenge, although they denied it, was instigated by Momentum,” Hodge says, accusing members of “stirring up” agitation against her in individual wards that voted to trigger a reselection ballot of members and affiliates. Hodge ended up winning a resounding victory which she saw in part as a vindication of her stance against antisemitism: “Momentum were suggesting I had made it all up,” she told The Jewish Chronicle at the time. A Momentum spokesperson told me: “This is completely untrue. Momentum has taken a very firm stance against antisemitism right from the start and has been absolutely clear that there is no place for it in the Labour party.” Many senior figures involved with Momentum since its launch have been Jewish, including Lansman.

By the time the 2019 election came round, the Conservative party had spent much of the year tearing itself apart over Brexit – but Labour was not in much better shape. Momentum was seen by many as inextricably linked with the divisions in the party. “They piled all of their resources into getting Jeremy elected, into taking over the NEC, into making sure that selections went their way, to trying to take over constituency Labour parties,” says Ian Murray, who saw a deselection ballot triggered against him in October 2019 not by local Labour members, but by the Unite union, a Labour affiliate. “And for what purpose? Because they weren’t talking to the country when they were doing that.”

At the same time, however, staff at Momentum HQ were busy building a much more sophisticated election campaign plan than 2017’s. When I met the heads of the digital content team in early 2019, their plans were already far more developed than they had been for the previous election. And by the end of the year, they would have the chance to put those plans into action.

A member of the Campaign Against Antisemitism protests in Parliament Square on 19th July 2018 following the Labour party’s announcement that it would take action against Margaret Hodge MP for calling Jeremy Corbyn an antisemite

The 2019 campaign

Joe Todd was tired. It was a bit more than halfway through the election campaign, and he hadn’t had a day off in weeks. Around 70 young staffers and activists were bustling about Momentum HQ, far more than had worked there in 2017. There was a steely determination in the room, with many eyes glued to computer screens, but an upbeat atmosphere too. Someone had hung up a handwritten poster counting down the days “till Socialism”.

Todd, who coordinates campaign strategy and faces the press, had agreed to an interview with me, but there were no private offices free. He suggested we go to the greasy-spoon café across the street. There, for about an hour, as the owner cleaned up before closing time, Todd rose above his exhaustion to sound ebullient. He stressed that Momentum was fighting for nothing less than victory; its campaign strategy document was entitled “Plan to Win”. And Labour was rising steadily in the polls. In the final two weeks the campaign would be pivoting towards Labour leave voters, he said.

We left and headed back towards the office. Outside the front door, we ran into a young man wearing a red beanie emblazoned with “Vote Labour”. He didn’t work at Momentum, but Todd knew him. Todd asked him how canvassing was going. “It’s tough,” the activist said. “It’s Corbyn. He’s a real hard sell, to be honest.” This was in London, where Momentum was most active; the man in the beanie seemed to think things were going worse elsewhere. Todd disagreed.

“What do you think’s gonna happen then?” the activist asked. “I really think we can win this,” Todd insisted – and he seemed to believe it. Todd cited the voter registration drive – 108,000 mostly young people in key marginals signed up by Momentum, which could be enough on its own to swing the election, he said.

“In one viral clip, the Joker pointed out that if billionaire Bruce Wayne just paid his taxes ‘villains’ like him wouldn’t exist”

This wasn’t necessarily just wishful thinking. Unprecedented numbers were turning up to individual canvassing sessions. Tens of thousands were using My Campaign Map, the new website designed to direct canvassers not just to their nearest marginal, as the previous Momentum app had in 2017, but anywhere activists were needed. Volunteers could use the website to join local WhatsApp groups, organise events and band together to travel to far-away constituencies. Meanwhile a fundraising drive surpassed the total amount raised in the 2017 campaign within a few days.

Compared to 2017, the digital content team had a bigger budget to produce slicker videos. In one viral sketch clip, the roles of Batman and the Joker were flipped – the latter humorously pointing out that if the billionaire Bruce Wayne just paid his taxes “villains” like him wouldn’t exist. Such videos were funded by large numbers of small donations accrued via Momentum’s regular call-outs. These videos still weren’t exactly expensive productions – I watched one, Tory Robin Hood, being shot on a shoestring one morning on Hampstead Heath during the election – but Momentum had the capacity to produce more of them. And it now had some budget to target key voters with paid content on Facebook. Momentum’s videos would be watched nearly 70 million times by the end of the election campaign.

Momentum groups in larger cities also held workshops in ‘persuasive conversation’, a technique shared with the Bernie Sanders campaign. While traditional canvassing is largely about checking whether your past voters are still voting for you, persuasive conversation is designed to give even new volunteers the tools to convince people why they should vote for your party, typically by deploying a personal story about a key issue such as the NHS.

But the hopes of Todd and his colleagues took a hit when the first YouGov MRP poll dropped on 27th November. It was seen as the most accurate poll, having come closest to predicting the 2017 election result. Now it was predicting a Conservative majority of 68 seats.

The Corbyn factor

On the night of Friday 6th December, six days before polling day, I visited Momentum HQ again and, with the staff, watched the final BBC prime ministerial debate. Previously, there had been a buzz of anticipation in the air. Now tensions were high – although the Conservatives’ lead over Labour in the polls was narrowing, it wasn’t happening as quickly as in 2017. As the debate wore on, despair began to seep into the room about Corbyn not being combative enough. Ash Sarkar, an unwavering Corbyn supporter, couldn’t help but shout at the screen for him to give Boris Johnson more of a pasting.

Afterwards senior staff member Laura Parker, Joe Todd and other campaigners gathered in the kitchen area for a meeting. They were sombre. “I could feel half the nation tearing their hair out that Jeremy just didn’t land a punch on Johnson,” Parker says, given the accusations of racism against the prime minister being made by the audience. Corbyn famously claims not to indulge in personal attacks. “I know Jeremy is an anti-racist, and a decent, civilised human being – he would have found the things that have come out of Johnson’s mouth unrepeatably bad. But he needed to bloody well repeat them,” Parker says. Parker was Corbyn’s private secretary in 2017 and believes he didn’t have the same energy this time round. “I think he was more tired; not just physically, though that was part of it,” she says.

In Momentum’s London HQ, they took comfort from the huge numbers of activists turning out to canvas. But outside the big cities, the picture was more complex. In places like Bury, part of Labour’s ‘red wall’, the party faced the challenge of strong local support for Brexit. “Labour’s Brexit position really didn’t wash with traditional Labour voters [who supported leave],” says Chris Neville, chair of Momentum Bury. “Although I found it got better the more the campaign went on – more people were positive on the doorstep.”

Compared to the Tories’ “Get Brexit Done” slogan, which was repeated ad nauseum, the stream of Labour policies, including a Brexit proposal many voters found confusing, was not easy to sell on the doorstep – or by Momentum’s digital content team. “The free broadband policy, for example, just didn’t seem credible to people, and they didn’t really understand why we were offering it. It wasn’t presented as part of a wider strategy,” says Emil Charlaff, whose job it was to boil these complex issues down to bitesize chunks of digital content. Momentum’s role, as he saw it, was to take Labour’s vision out to voters – but that vision came out piecemeal, late and unclear.

With hindsight there are things Charlaff accepts his team could have done better. They realised late on that “northern leave voters” weren’t connecting to the party’s messaging, which Charlaff addressed by encouraging and assisting activists in leave seats to make their own content. “And that I think was really good. I just wish we’d done more of it and done it sooner,” Charlaff says.

Margaret Hodge blames the whole Corbyn project for the 2019 defeat. “Jon Lansman probably himself shoulders a lot of responsibility, but it’s wider than that,” she says. “It was the party machine that Momentum dominated, and it was the leader’s office and the leader and the cohort around him. We lost the election because of Corbyn: nobody trusted him.” When the final election results came in, Labour had recorded its worst defeat since 1935.

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn take part in the BBC election debate, 6th December 2019

The fallout

There were tears at Momentum HQ in the days after the election. Senior staffers broadly believed that Momentum’s staff and army of volunteers had run a great campaign, however, and laid the defeat largely at Labour’s door. Laura Parker points to the lack of a coherent vision from the “mothership”, as she calls it. “They produced a manifesto that was like War and Peace. And you just about got your head around it, and there was another policy announcement,” she says.

Parker also believes that the pivot towards Labour leavers was rushed and late. As Labour had only settled on its final Brexit position shortly before the election, Momentum had been left playing a delicate balancing act – having to mobilise its largely remainer members to reach out to leave voters. This was something Labour should have been addressing ever since the Brexit vote, Parker believes, not halfway through the campaign. “All the party actually did for the last three years was piss off its remainers and not get anywhere near leavers,” she says. “We lost that election before we started fighting it.”

Parker resigned shortly after the election. In an email to members she wrote that “I am proud to have been part of the biggest people-powered election campaign in British history”, adding that the movement must continue to grow, but that she would now support this from outside Momentum. The main reason indicated in the email was to “spend time with my family”.

“All the party did was piss off its remainers and not get anywhere near leavers. We lost the election before we started fighting it”

Shortly after resigning, Parker took to Twitter to criticise Momentum’s announcement of its support of Rebecca Long-Bailey for leader, the candidate closest to Corbyn; Jon Lansman is running Long-Bailey’s campaign. In a confirmatory ballot of the decision, 70 percent of voters backed Long-Bailey, but only 7,395 of Momentum’s total membership of 40,000 took part. Many criticised HQ for not holding an open ballot of all the candidates – one Momentum member described it to me as “another slap in the face”. Parker tweeted: “Although I am pleased Momentum’s governing body accepted the principle of balloting its members on the leadership, I’m sorry they seem to have decided in advance what the answer is.”

Why didn’t Momentum hold an open ballot with members? “Because they were scared,” Parker tells me six weeks after the election, “of getting an answer which was more complex than [to the tune of ‘Seven Nation Army’] ‘Oh Re-be-cca Long-Baaaaailey.’” In Parker’s view, the confirmatory ballot made both Long-Bailey and Momentum look weak. The big mistake of Momentum and others is thinking that they can just replace Corbyn and carry on, she adds. But there’s also a strategic danger in backing Long-Bailey, “because if the candidate loses, what does that mean for Momentum?”

Lansman, busy on Long-Bailey’s campaign, responded to me by email when I put Parker’s criticism to him. “I think that demonstrates that Laura does not fully understand Momentum’s purpose, which is to transform the Labour party so that it can make that transformative change in the way our economy and our society works. We are not a debating society which decides which side we are on on every issue. We set out to make the changes we stand for… There was only one left candidate with any chance of getting elected and that was Rebecca Long-Bailey. That was actually the unanimous view of the elected leadership of Momentum. Unanimous!”

On 19th February, Parker went further when she backed Keir Starmer for leader in an article for the LabourList website. Echoing Starmer’s campaign talking points, she wrote that he was the candidate to unite the party and bring about a progressive government.

What will happen to Momentum if Rebecca Long-Bailey loses? Momentum staff were adamant that the organisation will continue its campaign for socialism and democratisation of the Labour party, but several admitted to me that a different leader would be a challenging new reality.

As for the Parliamentary Labour Party, some agree with Alan Johnson’s election night call for Momentum to be disbanded. “I want Momentum gone in their current form. There’s no point having a party within a party,” says Ian Murray, who is standing for Labour’s deputy leadership. “We’re in an existential crisis in terms of our party.” He believes that “the public are screaming at us” to find a credible leader and policies and talk the language of the country. “And what Momentum are saying is, ‘Vote for our candidate, keep to the manifesto, stay on the same track, just shout louder, because we love winning the arguments but losing elections.’ And that is just utterly ridiculous as a proposition.”

Others in the Labour party have rallied to defend Momentum. Faiza Shaheen, who smashed Tory MP Iain Duncan Smith’s huge majority in Chingford and Woodford Green to come within a whisker of winning the seat, has said that the “weird demonisation of Momentum is out of control”.

On 26th February 2020, a YouGov and Sky News poll showed Keir Starmer heading towards victory in the leadership election. He has pledged to end factionalism in the party. But even if Momentum has backed a losing candidate, it still wields huge influence over the NEC, other party positions and now, officially, open selections of candidates for parliament. “Momentum backs open selections as it’s the only way to ensure we find the best talent to become MPs. It’s right that Labour members should choose their candidate to become MP – that’s democracy,” says Joe Todd.

It’s no accident that Starmer and fellow leadership candidate Lisa Nandy have been cautious about criticising Momentum.

The battle for Labour’s soul is far from over.

Rebecca Long-Bailey and Keir Starmer at the Labour leadership hustings at Cardiff city hall on 20th February 2020

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