Deluded, dangerous do-gooders

In this week's Faith Column, we look at faith in practice and the work of volunteers. In our first b

As a Salvation Army Officer for the past ten years, I have heard people make these claims against the Christian church and particularly about our own organisation.

These accusations are rarely said in an aggressive tone but rather in a way that suggests we only do what we do because we have a hidden agenda.

I have to confess, we do have an agenda but I pray we will never be so ashamed of it that it actually becomes hidden. For our motivation comes from our love of God and our belief that every human being has intrinsic value and the potential to be the person God wants them to be. But we offer help unconditionally to all people in need, regardless of whether they recognise ‘God’ or not.

The Salvation Army has a form of practical Christianity that has seen it grow from the streets of the east end of London to a worldwide organisation spanning 113 countries. In the United Kingdom, The Salvation Army has become one of the largest providers of social care after the government – a fact which surprises many people. You could not reach this level without being professional, well trained and organised. No do-gooders here.

Before being called into ministry, I used to be an office manager for a small shipping company. Despite having no background or experience in social care or theology, I gave up everything that I held dear to do what I felt God wanted.

After two years of specialist training, I was sent to Ireland still feeling totally inadequate for the task ahead. Since that time I have worked in different settings alongside the homeless, street children, the elderly, those with severe mental health issues, drug addicts, alcoholics, sex offenders, asylum seekers and refugees. Not bad for an office manager!

I have rescued people from paramilitaries and cried with people who could not see any future beyond a bottle of spirits or the end of a syringe. I have felt gut wrenchingly sick when I listened to children speaking about selling their bodies in the same matter of fact way as they would buy a bag of sweets. I have sat on walls trying to convince people not to commit suicide and sat on hospital beds praying and holding the hands of people moments before they died.

I have also witnessed people freed from the power of addiction, people given a sense of hope and purpose and moving on to do incredible things they didn’t believe possible, people finding release through forgiveness, people discovering a plan and a purpose for their life.

Deluded and dangerous? I don’t think so.

I currently manage a large centre for 150 former rough sleepers in the heart of the east end of London. For many, English is a second language and religious belief swings between apathy and strict Islam. For me it makes little difference, for I do not see people’s faith, or language or circumstances. I simply see 150 precious lives.

I am not a trumpet playing, Bible bashing evangelist but rather a living example of what God can do in ordinary people and passionately believe he can do the same in others as well.

So yes, I have an agenda and I see no reason not to shout it from the rooftops.

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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.