No-one could deny that the impact of Momentum since it was formed last year has been staggering. Hundreds of thousands of new Labour supporters and members have joined, encouraged in no small part by the fresh and radical social media nous of the team behind Momentum, Jon Lansman and latterly James Schneider. An interesting dynamic duo blending long-term dogged experience whistling the same tune in the case of Lansman, a Bennite of old, with the more youthful and eclectic energy of the ex-LibDem and ex-Green-voting Schneider, they have transformed a movement founded to elect Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party Leader into a social movement appealing to a range of people on the left, some of whom joined out of dissatisfaction with so-called soft-left Blair/Brown/Milibandism, whilst others saw the possibility of electoral appeal of a mass party and renounced their former Green/SWP or other far left allegiances to sign the pledge.
In their own terms, as a social movement which continues to grow, Momentum must be judged as a resounding success which, with their figurehead Jeremy Corbyn installed on the throne of the Labour Party and at his right hand, John McDonnell holding the party’s economic policy levers, has undoubtedly given more influence to the collective viewpoint than had been possible for at least 30 years.
Yet this very success, judged from the scope of its own declared initial aims, threatens to prevent Momentum ever being able to achieve in practice what many of their members signed up for: to deliver real change in practice.
At the heart of the issue is a conflict of purpose and a misunderstanding so obvious that many simply fail to recognise it – and worse, having done so, feel so strongly wedded to the position they have taken that they can’t bring themselves to accept reality.
Momentum’s take-over of the Labour Party in 2015 has led inexorably to the breakdown and pitched ideological conflict in the party we are witnessing today. This was inevitable and not the fault of any individual or group of people. It’s important to emphasise this point. There is virtually no-one other than the odd outlier involved in the current situation who has not come to their current position based on a real passion for what they think is right. There may well be more passion in the party as a whole today for the left wing cause – of all shades – than we have seen in many years. More engagement, more debate, more comradeship; yes, more bullying, more in-fighting, more intransigence too, but these are by-products of significant interest and involvement which we truly need.
But it’s not working. Why?
Momentum are doing a brilliant job of building a social movement focused around a hard-left agenda. They’re engaging people open to such a position in a way never seen before. Such a job is very positive and essential to our overall shared cause and vision. But it’s not the job of a political party.
A political party exists to deliver a majority in Parliament by winning general elections. The Labour Party Clause 1 says that it is its purpose, specifically. To do that, the Labour Party must form a coalition of supporting voters who will agree their manifesto is the best on offer and vote for it and them. The job of the Labour Party and especially the PLP and its leader is to judge the political climate and decide how far left a program can be sold to the electorate whilst still winning an election. In a positive climate – and the party can influence the climate by long-term effort including by social movements such as Momentum – a very radical program can be electable. In less positive climates, a lighter shade of red may be needed to avoid subjecting people to Tory government. We must face up to this point. We exist as a Labour Party to form governments to do the best possible job for our people. We don’t exist to feel pure and self-justified and shout from the sidelines at the next Tory government, and the one after that. Momentum can play a vital role in ensuring the Labour Party is pushing the manifesto truly as far left as is capable of winning a general election, and not playing it too safe and wrongly prioritising electability over policy. But the decision on the program, the manifesto and yes, even the party leader ultimately, must be driven by what will deliver electoral victory and prevent a further 5 years of Tory rule. It’s our duty not to neglect those who need us most by subjecting them to that, rather than compromising our position. We should rather focus longer term on changing the political climate and environment to make the policies we want, popular enough to be electable. This is Momentum’s key role and task on which it must remain focused without being diluted by concerns of electability in the short-term. Meanwhile, the Labour Party must govern better than the Tories on as radical a manifesto as voters can be persuaded to support.
The Momentum social movement and the Labour Party are both right and both necessary. But they have different purposes and must set different agendas. If we ignore that, we might as well all join the Tories, as the net result will be the same. Oblivion.