Jeremy Corbyn once again made political history on the weekend, by securing a near super-majority of 61.8 per cent of all eligible Labour Party members who cast their vote in the leadership election. With a total of more than 313,219 votes cast, Corbyn has been re-elected as the leader of the largest political organisation anywhere in Western Europe.
At no point in Britain’s political history has the attempted removal of a party leader increased its membership and effectively transformed said party into a political and social movement. Between 25 June and 8 July, 120,000 new members joined Labour, taking its total membership above 500,000 for the first time since the late 1970s. In the two days after the leadership vote alone, more than 15,000 new members joined.
The possibility and probability of a million-member Labour Party has been echoed many times by Corbyn’s supporters. Yet raw euphoria, enthusiasm and the freshness of electoral and party victories cannot guarantee the long-term sustainability of Corbyn’s leadership, let alone a victory in the future general elections.
One could say that Momentum is Corbyn’s Dumbledore’s Army and The Order of the Phoenix fused together to uphold the ideas, recruit supporters and defend the Labour leader’s cause. The headmaster of Hogwarts inspired those organisations with his unyielding stance against the vicious bureaucracy of the Ministry of Magic and his efforts to stem the rising tide of destruction caused by Voldemort and his followers. Not unlike Corbyn, whose consistency, honesty and a lifelong commitment to the values of socialism and social justice inspired hope for change among a layer of the British society that knows and understands firsthand the dangers and horrors of Thatcher’s and Blair’s brands of neoliberalism.
Conceived of as a loose network for Corbyn’s supporters during the 2015 Labour leadership election, Momentum went through an initial period of stagnation, before being resurrected in February 2016. The failed Blairite coup in June and the ‘vote of no confidence’ that followed catapulted the group to the frontline of battles with practically all of Corbyn’s adversaries – from the Blairites and the party’s Compliance Unit to the National Executive Council (NEC) to the media outlets, ranging from the Guardian to the Telegraph. The last couple of months have arguably been the most crucial, and defined the movement as an instrument of political defence for cross-party supporters of Corbyn, his economic policies and hid political vision.
This has been most visible in the role they have played in defending expelled and suspended left-wing Labour Party members and activists, such as Ronnie Draper, the General Secretary of the Bakers’ Union.
The organisation’s grassroots actions, such as the Keep Corbyn mass rallies in Liverpool, Manchester and London, have solidified Momentum as a street movement as well. Social media has formed the core of its communication strategy, with pages like Red Labour, Jeremy Corbyn For PM and the Momentum page itself promoting rallies, events and information in support of Corbyn’s platform. The group have also organised phone banks and the online Call-for-Corbyn campaign to raise money for calling activities.
But Momentum’s biggest challenge remains the uncertainty regarding its political nature. Momentum has often been portrayed as the modern-day version of the Militant – an organisation of Trotskyists and far-left activists who became part of Labour during the early 1980s. Despite a membership of only a few thousand, the organisation played a very visible role in opposing the policies of Thatcher’s government (such as the savage funding cuts to local authorities and councils, particularly Liverpool City Council, where Militant-affiliated Labour councillors held a majority from 1983–1985). Branded as a movement of ‘infiltrators’, the group was purged during the initial months of the leadership of Neil Kinnock, as the party gradually shifted to the right in the wake of the Thatcher’s government victorious assaults on the trade unions and the welfare state.
Unlike the Militant, Momentum has, until now, lacked a coherent structure, clearly defined ideology or visible layer of cadre leadership that could lead it independently. Momentum follows the general line of anti-austerity policies of Corbyn and McDonnell (such as the 10-point program) and clearly states that it seeks to democratise and transform Labour into a member-led party. On that note, it has played an important role in attempting to capture and democratise some important sections of Labour’s internal institutions, such as the National Executive Council. Momentum scored an important victory in early August by capturing all six of the available seats.
But there exists a vacuum between its national leadership and the dozens of local groups spread around the country, which is yet to be filled with elected regional structures and an internal structure that could directly connect the activist base to Corbyn on an ongoing basis.
Momentum also clearly identifies with Corbyn’s socialist policies, yet what it defines as socialism is left vague. The World Transformed conference (conducted simultaneously with the Labour Party conference in Liverpool) marked the first serious attempt at exploring and adopting a wide range of ideas that its members have expressed over the course of the group’s existence.
The clear advantage Momentum has over Militant is the sheer size of its membership (believed to be around 17,000), the fact its spread across the country, and the diversity. Much like Los Circulos of Podemos in Spain, Momentum’s spontaneity, diversity and affiliation with relatively well-known anti-austerity, anti-establishment political figures like Corbyn, McDonnell, Dianne Abbott and others have attracted a membership that crosses age, gender, sexuality, race and political views, including those generally defined as to the left of Labour establishment. Yet, if Momentum remains ad hoc and disconnected nationally, with its leadership largely invisible to its members, it could suffer the same fate as Miltant at the hands of the Labour leadership – sidelined as an electoral machine and abandoned in favour of the top cadre of professional and reliable bureaucrats.
The biggest challenge may come from Corbyn himself, as he has consistently placed the unity of the party above any attempts to seek out and punish both the bureaucracy responsible for the purge of its members, and members of the PLP who have opposed Corbyn’s democratic mandate. Thus, the first real confrontation between the most militant members of the party could be with Corbyn himself, if the latter chooses to sideline any attempts by the members to initiate the process of de-selection of those MPs by their local Constituency Labour Parties. The humiliation and degradation endured by Momentum activists and members at the hands of both the media and the Labour Party bureaucracy will not be forgotten, and it would be a mistake to simply sweep it all under the carpet of ‘kinder and gentler’ politics.
Corbyn’s brand new victory gives the best opportunity for his supporters to build something that no left-wing leader in the English-speaking world could possibly dream of: a militant, organised activist base of hundreds of thousands of supporters carrying the politics of socialism and anti-austerity to every single community in the country.
Call it what you will – Momentum, Corbyn’s Army or Jeremy Corbyn Battle Units. Their existence is essential if the Labour leader is to survive the inevitable repeated future attacks by the increasingly desperate right-wing forces within his own party, and to build the campaign for Corbyn’s ascension to the position of the country’s first left-wing prime minister in nearly 40 years.
Image: ‘Don’t bomb Syria – Portland Place’, Alan Denney / flickr