By Chris Jarvis
I’ve been a member of the Green Party of England and Wales for five and half years, and as such, I’m often criticised for sticking my oar into the internal affairs of other political parties, particularly in relation to my views on the Labour Party and its electoral and political strategies. But when it comes to the Labour Party, I just can’t help myself.
It is undeniable that, whether we like it or not, the Labour Party has, at least in electoral terms, been the strongest and most important force for progressive political change in our country. Whether it be the National Health Service, the Welfare State or the Equal Pay Act, we have relied on a Labour Government to deliver them. But Labour also has a proud history of being a part of wider social movements that are vital to a healthy society and to democracy, from Trade Unions to the co-operative movement, and to this day the ties remain. Those of us who are actively working to create a society and a world that is more socially just, all therefore have a necessary interest in the fortunes and the positions of the Labour Party.
When Jeremy Corbyn became Leader of the Labour Party, the left rejoiced, acknowledging the monumental shift that this represented in the political trajectory of the party. But from day one, with former frontbenchers from Yvette Cooper to Tristam Hunt refusing to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet, it became abundantly clear that the war for the soul of the Labour Party had only reached the end of its first skirmish.
Since then we have seen prominent Labour politicians stoking divisions within the party over issues including Trident and airstrikes in Syria, while the media has used every opportunity to attack Corbyn’s leadership on everything from attending a Christmas dinner, not bowing to a sufficient degree and not singing at a time when it was socially customary to do so. From multiple angles, there is a concerted effort to ensure Corbyn is irrevocably unsuccessful firstly in terms of his ability to garner significant public support for the Labour Party and its new policy positions, but also in continuing as Leader until the next General Election and thereby enacting long-term change within the Party and in the country more broadly. The intentions behind this are pernicious, and the worrying thought is that at this stage they are, at least to a degree, having success.
From multiple angles, there is a concerted
effort to ensure Corbyn is irrevocably unsuccessful
It is therefore crucial that an effective counter campaign is waged against this. Momentum is the vehicle in which to do so, and this is demonstrable in that the establishment, much like in their clamouring over Stop the War Coalition, are attempting to delegitimise it as a project before it has even really got off the ground. Momentum’s stated aims are to ‘continue the energy and enthusiasm of Jeremy’s campaign’, as well as to ‘create a mass movement for real progressive change.’ At its heart, Momentum has a recognition of the plurality of modern politics, of the value of political parties, in addition to their fundamental shortcomings and the need for mobilisation outside of this framework. Momentum thus seeks to work on two fronts, both to democratise and shift the politics of the Labour Party leftward, while also enthusing new people to get involved in politics, the kind of people who have never joined a trade union, never attended a demonstration and will vote sporadically depending on the weather on the day.
In the former, it is unarguably clear that this is necessary. Labour’s internal structures offer very little feed in from ordinary party members, allow the annual Conference to be a tick box and rubber stamping exercise and allows policy and strategy to be centrally dictated. Opening up the Labour Party’s processes to better and fairer democracy will aid them in three ways. The first is that a more democratic party that more readily listens to its members views will naturally push their policy positions in a more progressive direction. Throughout its history, the further down the Labour Party hierarchy you go, the more left leaning the people tend to be, with the parliamentary party being firmly on the right. Secondly, were Labour to be an open and democratic party, it will begin to act more like a mass movement directly connected to the people it seeks to represent, rather than to corporate funders, media moguls and endless focus groups.
This can only be a good thing, both in terms of the legitimacy of the Party as an organisation based on working people, but also in terms of its ability to more readily reflect the views of people across the country. And finally, a party that is democratic is one which is able to hold the people who stand on its platform to account. Hence, the reactionary elements within the Parliamentary Party will struggle to espouse the very un-Labour views that they currently do, and help ensure that their voting record more directly reflects the values of the Party they represent as well as the views of their constituents.
On the second of Momentum’s aims – that of wider political engagement and the attempt to make a movement for progressive change, there is similarly no doubt that we are in dire need of this. Political apathy is a myth, political disillusionment is not. And Momentum needs to galvanise the disillusioned. It needs to build networks and communities of people who have something worth getting involved in and something worth working towards, because there is a vacuous hole in our political system and our civil society for such an organisation.
While NGOs, campaign groups and activist networks are excellent at mobilising people around their respective causes, they are naturally restricted from being able to offer a holistic approach to society’s ills. An organisation such as Momentum, with ties to a wider political ideology, with direct links to relevant social movements and with (although I say this begrudgingly) ties to a political party is able to deliver this. And crucially, if Momentum is embedded within communities, talking directly to and with people across the country, the perceptions of Corbyn and his politics including those which are both legitimate and those which are conflated by media projections will begin to shift in the direction of positivity. From there, we can collectively begin to scratch away at the work that has been done by right wingers within the Party and reactionary media outlets to undermine Corbyn’s leadership in order to delegitimise his views.
In order to achieve this, I believe Momentum needs to be open and non-sectarian. It is unfortunate therefore, that under pressure from voices outside and inside the party, Momentum has announced that it will restrict membership of its decision-making bodies to people who are members of the Labour Party, or of none. People from a variety of political parties, whether that be the Green Party, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, or indeed many of the derided ‘far left’ parties have valuable part to play in Momentum. These might be people who left the Labour Party over Iraq and aren’t ready to rejoin yet, they might be people who have been active within Trade Unions, within charities, within community campaigns and therefore have important skills and networks to bring into Momentum, or, like me, they might be people who are ‘cautious Corbynistas’, who want to see a Corbyn-led Labour Government, but disagree with some of his politics and therefore sit more comfortably elsewhere. All of these could contribute significantly and positively to the Momentum project and to Corbyn’s wider support networks, and so it is a shame that the right within the Labour Party has been effective in pushing them out.
Momentum necessarily must be tied to the Labour Party, but it must also be broad-based and pluralistic in order to reflect the political nature of our times. A majority Labour government is unlikely for the foreseeable future due the splintering of left-wing voters across a multitude of different parties in different parts of the country. Ignoring this and calling to ‘get behind Corbyn’ in a vanguardistic and paternalistic way is not a solution. People will continue vote Green, SNP, Plaid and others. Momentum and Corbyn need take this moment and this opportunity to reach out to allies and comrades whose allegiances lie in other camps and work collaboratively, to build for an effective resistance to the existing Tory government and for a better and fairer future for all.