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Pro-Corbyn group Momentum vows to resist SWP "infiltration"

New organisation rebukes the Socialist Workers Party after it calls for its members to attend meetings. 

When new group Momentum was launched by Jeremy Corbyn supporters, Labour MPs were immediately alarmed by its decision to allow non-party members to sign up. This, they warned, risked far-left entryism and the creation of a Militant-style "party within a party". 

Their fears were given greater credence yesterday by the announcement by the Socialist Workers Party, the most loathed Trotskyist groupuscule, that it intends to participate in Momentum. The SWP's "Party Notes" stated: "There are also various initiatives to re-launch the Labour left. Momentum which has the backing of a group of newly elected Corbyn-supporting MPs such as Clive Lewis and Richard Burgon, looks like it might be the most significant to date (Corbyn and McDonnell have also made supporting statements backing it). It does not seem restricted to Labour members, though it says it will aim to encourage people to join Labour. We should go along to any local Momentum meetings with the aim of taking part as open SWP members, suggesting joint activity, and sign up to be on the email lists. A launch meeting in Manchester last week attracted 70 people, many of them new and comrades had a friendly response when they raised common activity."

For Momentum's Labour supporters, the involvement of the SWP (see Edward Platt's 2014 NS piece for an account of the party's multiple woes) would be a political catastrophe. Indeed, it is precisely because the SWP recognises that its participation would discredit the group that it has adopted this strategy. It intends to support Momentum as the noose supports a hanged man. 

It is notable, then, that the group's founders have moved swiftly to repudiate the SWP. An article on Left Futures, the site edited by Momentum director Jon Lansman, declares: "There are extremely good reasons why the SWP and my erstwhile comrades in the Socialist Party should be told to sling their hook when they try and get involved. A passing acquaintance with them is all it takes to understand that they’re fundamentally uninterested in building the wider labour movement, let alone the Labour Party – which is one of Momentum‘s explicit objectives. During the summer the SWP looked upon stormin’ Corbyn with indifference and barely any comment. For the Socialist Party, because Labour was a “capitalist party” Jeremy couldn’t possibly win and it was dead as far as socialist politics were concerned." 

After Progress director Richard Angell called on Momentum to "make clear they are opposed to the infiltration of Labour by the SWP and they are neither welcome at their meetings not in their policy making", a spokesperson for the group said: "We oppose the infiltration of the Labour Party by the SWP and we would like to meet with Progress and other groups within the Labour Party soon to build constructive relations."

But the suspicion that Momentum will be infiltrated by hostile left-wingers is likely to endure. If SWP members are to be formally excluded from meetings, the new fear is that its activists go undercover (though it is worth recalling how few there now are). Shadow minister Clive Lewis, a Momentum director, told me this week: "If people are concerned about Momentum, all I would say is judge it on what it does." But for Labour MPs, the jury will remain out for some time. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder