Momentum and the Fate of the Labour Party

by Lizzie Howe

In September 2015, Jeremy Corbyn won the campaign to be the new leader of the Labour Party. Since 1997 the Party had taken on the form of ‘New Labour’, an initially revolutionary force fronted by Tony Blair. It centralised the Party, eradicating nationalisation as supported by Clause IV and aligning itself with business owners and the private sector. However, Corbyn began a shift to the left and back towards the older style of Labour as seen before the 1990s.

Soon after Corbyn’s election, the popularity of the Labour Party among young people began to skyrocket. Party membership began to increase more than it had in the last several decades as membership rose from 201,293 on 6 May 2015 (the day before the 2015 general election) to 388,407 on 10 January 2016. This rise of over 100,000 in less than a year was attributed to the ‘Corbyn Effect’. This refers to the fact that many of the new members who rushed to the support of the divisive leader were the young. Evidence for this can clearly be seen in university towns such as Bath, where Labour Party membership increased from 300 to 1,322. Although these numbers still do not seem hugely impressive, they do imply a sudden change in participation as Corbyn has become leader of the Labour Party, albeit from an active minority rather than a widespread support.

Alongside this surge in traditional membership, the creation of Momentum has signified a fundamental change in support for the Labour Party. Just four weeks after Corbyn was elected leader, Jon Lansman (a political activist who has had a long career working for the parliamentary party) founded the new grassroots organisation that sought to revolutionise Labour and create an open and democratic party that is powered by the members. This far-left organisation has built on Corbyn’s victory and seeks “the election of a progressive left Labour Party at every level, and to create a mass movement for real transformative change”. Many of the policies it endorses are traditional Labour policies, such as nuclear disarmament and retaining the NHS in its current form.

Momentum has grown in size since its creation in 2015 to the extent that it has been described as “a party within a party posing as a movement” by Chuka Umunna, MP for Streatham. The 20,000 members are often young and disillusioned with mainstream politics and so have turned to the movement in an attempt to influence a system they feel is failing. However, it has proved to be extremely divisive within Labour. While it can be hailed as a way to modernise participation within a political party, particularly as it relies largely on social media and encourages political activism in every part of the country, it also has created enormous controversy since its inception. Within the parliamentary branch of the party, Momentum has been met with widespread hostility and suspicion as the concern has grown over a possible ‘Momentum Unite coalition’ which may take place in order to promote the extreme left-wing interests of Labour. Some view this possibility as a threat to the existence of the Party as a viable opposition entirely, as Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, claimed: “If this secret left-wing plan to take over the Labour Party comes to pass, our electoral existence is in peril.”.

 It does not bode well for the future of Labour that they have become threatened by a grassroots organisation, a concept that it would be expected they would fully support. Furthermore, Corbyn’s ascent to power was facilitated partly by more central members of the party who felt it was necessary to widen the debate leading up to the election by supporting MPs who fall to the left on the political spectrum. However, this has clearly backfired for those who supported Corbyn in his early days and have now come to regret it as he has taken on the role of leader. Momentum has hopes, as voiced by Jon Lansman, to alter the make up of the party, for example by allowing MPs to run in the leadership election with less than 15% of votes from MPs and MEPs. This would make it a lot easier for candidates who are more left-wing to gain the energy needed to propel themselves into the position as leader. Many members of the parliamentary party feel that this could in fact lead to the demise of Labour as a viable opposition if they cannot depend upon a leader who will serve both a socialist agenda, while maintaining a moderate stance in order to win over the electorate.

It remains to be seen whether Labour will continue to be hijacked, as they see it, by Momentum, or whether they can retain control of the party and keep it moving in the direction which they think will ultimately win them electoral victory.