by Sean Meleady
A group of left-wing Norfolk Labour activists have re-founded the Norfolk branch of the socialist pressure group Momentum. Originally they were affiliated with the pro-reform Forward Momentum faction, which argued that the group needed to change in a post-Corbyn era. Following the victory of Forward Momentum candidates in the Labour Party’s internal National Coordinating Group (NCG) elections, at the expense of the Momentum Renewal slate associated with Momentum founder Jon Lansman, they hope that the group can be revived locally.
The newly rebranded Momentum has outlined its vision in a document called ‘Socialist Organising in a New Era’, which emphasises ‘build[ing] left power’ in the Labour Party, electing socialists, campaigning in communities and supporting working class struggle.
I spoke to three members of the Momentum Norfolk Committee, Alan, Richard and Susan, who opted not to use their real names in fear of retribution from the Labour Right. I started by asking them how Momentum could adapt without Jon Lansman, who had founded the group following Jeremy Corbyn’s win in the 2015 Labour leadership election.
“The whole situation is very different in Momentum now. The re-founding has taken two steps; the first is to get the local groups up and running again, which has gone well. The next stage will presumably be looking at the whole structure of Momentum and how it works.”
One of the criticisms of the Lansman-era Momentum was that it was undemocratic due to its constitution, as well as its bureaucratic and top-down nature. Alan argues this was partly due to the pressures the organisation faced in its early years:
“The excuse that was given when we raised these issues before was, when Jeremy [Corbyn] was elected we constantly had to fend off the attacks and then deal with the coup in 2016. Then we had a general election in 2017, so Momentum was heavily involved in social media output and developing campaigning. So for two years they said that they didn’t have the resources or time to prioritise local group activity. Thereafter, between 2017 and 2019 not very much happened.”
However, Susan is of the opinion that the issues surrounding Momentum’s lack of democracy have been addressed following the NCG elections last year:
“It’s overcome it because the people who were elected to the NCG believe in democracy. If you’ve got an NCG who believes that things should be top down, that’s what’s going to happen; but if you’ve got an NCG who believe it should be a member-led organisation, it should be a two-way street.”
Another criticism of Momentum was that it was too London-centric, having developed around Lansman (a long-term London Labour activist), Corbyn (the MP for Islington North) and a London-based team. However, for Susan, the popularity of video conferencing technology during the Covid-19 pandemic has changed things:
“The NCG always consisted of representatives from around the country, but because they always had meetings at head office, which was in London, they couldn’t have many meetings as they had to pay for people to travel. A lot of the stuff that Momentum is managing to do now couldn’t really be done without Zoom. Whereas before we might have thought to make it less London-centric by moving HQ to Manchester, that might not be necessary now.”
Despite the popularity of Corbynism in Norwich, particularly in the period from 2015 to 2017, which saw several large rallies held, substantial gains from the Green party in local elections and a 13% increase in the Norwich North vote at the 2017 general election, there was opposition to Corbyn and Momentum amongst Norwich Labour Party grandees. Alan argues that:
“Norwich is typical of places that have got a tradition of Labour-led councils across the country; you’ve got a very strong Labour aristocracy, people who are entitled or feel entitled and don’t want to be challenged. That applies to the left and the right.”
Norwich Labour Party has also faced accusations of undemocratic practices in recent years. For example, in 2017, prominent local trade unionist and councillor Jo Rust was controversially excluded from the shortlist for the position of Norwich North Prospective Parliamentary Candidate. More recently, in an online AMM (all members meeting) last December, the chair refused to hear a motion expressing no confidence in Sir Keir Starmer and Labour’s General Secretary, David Evans, and shut down the meeting, claiming authority from the regional Labour Party office, which decreed that the motion violated the General Secretary’s prohibition on discussing matters related to the suspension of the whip from Jeremy Corbyn. Susan argued that the move to online meetings had made upholding democracy more challenging:
“I think unfortunately Zoom has made it so much easier for Labour Party meetings to be controlled and to mute people when you don’t like what they’re saying.”
With the withdrawal of the party whip from Corbyn, poor polling and his refusal to stringently oppose the government on a number of key issues, Sir Keir Starmer has hardly endeared himself to the Labour Left. Richard is scathing in his criticism of the Labour leader:
“I think he [Starmer] is crassly incompetent; there is a stupidity around Starmer with the bullying from the leadership.”
Alan argues that the Starmer’s leadership itself may be under threat if things don’t improve:
“If Labour does badly in the May elections I think there could be a leadership challenge before the end of the year. There are people on the right who are going to become increasingly uneasy if Keir Starmer fails to deliver what he promises. There is talk on social media of Yvette Cooper being primed.”
Momentum Norfolk activists will hope that their organisation can be revived locally and nationally in a post-Corbyn era. Momentum was crucial in building Corbynism, defending Corbyn from internal attacks and leading a brilliant grassroots campaign during the 2017 general election. However, after 2017 Momentum went into gradual decline, defined by poor leadership and lack of direction, while it could never decide if it was a grassroots election and community group or something else entirely. Momentum squandered its opportunity to embed itself in working class communities and now finds itself largely marginal, if not redundant. Given that Labour is now led by a wealthy barrister who is refusing to tolerate dissent and is for the few rather than the many, it faces an uphill struggle to revive its fortunes.
Featured image supplied by Momentum Norfolk
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