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26 October 2015updated 29 Oct 2015 10:00am

Labour MPs are worried about Momentum. Should they be?

Who runs the Labour party? The answer is complicated.

By Stephen Bush

Who’s running the show over there?” That was the question – or the complaint – that MPs and staffers voiced with increasing frustration during the first frenzied weeks of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

It felt like déjà vu all over again: just as Ed Miliband’s slick campaign quickly gave way to chaos and disunity – with, in the words of one aide, “everyone trying to be their favourite West Wing character” – Corbyn’s operation suffered a hideous start.  Why?

“We didn’t expect to win,” admitted campaign aide Jon Lansman, on Left Futures, the increasingly influential Corbynite website of which he is the editor. Most campaign staff had been on secondment from supportive trade unions, while others were on unpaid leave. Trade union officials were “greeted like conquering heroes” on their return to work on the Monday after special conference (in the words of one), but watched in horror as the good work of the summer threatened to collapse.

Whispers began to start that the wrong people had made the transition from the campaign to the leader’s office. Insiders began to joke about a “Sino-Soviet split” at the heart of Project Corbyn, mirroring the split between the USSR and the People’s Republic of China in 1960.

That analogy is more than a colourful one-liner: the brightest advocate of the flavour of anti-austerity championed by John McDonnell – that under-investment in infrastructure and skills is the biggest weakness of the economy, not lack of demand – is John Ross, currently a senior fellow at the Renmin University in Beijing, but formerly an economic adviser to Ken Livingstone during his stint as Mayor of London.

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The Livingstone connection runs right through Corbyn’s China tendency. His campaign manager and chief of staff is Simon Fletcher, a former Ken staffer. Fletcher, like John Ross, unnerves Labour MPs from the party’s right due to his former membership of Socialist Action, a Trotskyite group. “No one ever leaves Socialist Action,” one veteran observes, “And now they’re right at the heart of the party.”

But in hiring a team to surround Corbyn, Fletcher has looked not so much for ideological allies but for competence. Not everyone there is a dyed-in-the-wool left-winger: For example Neale Coleman, another former Livingstone staffer, replaces Torsten Henricson Bell as head of policy. Coleman is a pragmatist who stayed in his post at City Hall when Boris Johnson took over, and he is highly rated there. James Mills, who handled press during the campaign and now serves as chief spinner to McDonnell, worked on Ed Balls’s leadership campaign in 2010. He is very much from the centre of the party, but enjoys the trust of Fletcher. So does Kevin Slocombe, appointed interim director of communications until Seumas Milne, formerly of the Guardian, could take post. Slocombe is expected to leave the leader’s office soon to work on the mayoral race in Bristol, where he lives. 

The Fletcher Factor, however, does explain why the Liverpudlian activist Carmel Nolan, notionally head of communications during the campaign, did not make the transition to the leader’s office. Although she was well liked by journalists, she was regarded as ineffective by campaign aides.

On the other side of the Sino-Soviet split lies the “Russian tendency”, which includes many of Corbyn’s institutional supporters. Their ambivalence to his leadership suggests that the left-wing pull of the trade unions is often overstated.

With the exceptions of the TSSA and the CWU, most of the party’s affiliated unions supported Corbyn only grudgingly, with their leaders forced to endorse the Islington MP not because of a conversion to Corbynism but to keep pace with their own activists. “The right-wing press calls them barons,” says one senior aide to Corbyn, “But the reality is these are democratic politicians with their own electorates – electorates which love Jeremy.”

Len McCluskey, perhaps Britain’s best-known trade unionist, is a typical example. Privately, McCluskey attempted to force through an endorsement for Andy Burnham, but he was overruled by his executive committee. Although McCluskey publicly threw his weight behind Corbyn, the two men remain at a distance, and the Unite leader’s influence is much weaker at the top of the party than it has been in recent years.

Yet for all its relative weakness, it is this “Russia tendency”, rather than the people around the leader’s office, which has party moderates spooked. That is largely down to the creation of a new group called Momentum, which is billed as the “continuation” of Corbyn’s campaign. It has been founded by Left Futures editor Jon Lansman, a supporter of Tony Benn in the 1970s and 1980s and a long-term advocate of mandatory reselection for MPs.

The right’s old warriors believe that Momentum is a successor to Militant Tendency, the Trotskyite group which infiltrated the Labour party in the 1970s and 1980s, successfully taking over Liverpool Council and selecting several MPs. Accordingly, one wag has dubbed the new group “the Momentant Tendency”.

Momentum, for its part, describes itself as an outward facing organisation similar to Movement for Change, the do-gooding community group founded by David Miliband. That did a lot of good work at a grassroots level, such as organising street clean-ups, but largely stayed out of internal party disputes. Momentum says its mission is similarly benign. “We’re not organising to undermine the Labour party, but to help the Labour party win,” says one spokesman. Its first campaign, Democracy SOS, is aimed at signing up more voters, to ameliorate the effects of the new registration procedures (which penalise students in particular) and constituency boundary changes.

But moderate MPs and activists are still worried. They point out that the new group was launched without informing either the Shadow Cabinet or the deputy leader, Tom Watson, in advance, and that Gloria de Piero had already been asked to carry out a voter registration drive.

The first thing to note is that Momentum is not (yet) flush with money. Like its three rivals, the Corbyn campaign ended the leadership race in arrears. Momentum’s organisers, far from starting life with a healthy bank balance, don’t yet know if there will be anything left over once the campaign account is settled to hire staff, although they hope that a combination of union assistance and member donations will allow them to hire a small team sooner rather than later.

It is information, rather than money, that is Momentum’s ace in the hole. While its organisers are cagey about the exact figures, it is likely that they have a bigger pool of members to talk to than any external organisation in the party’s history, thanks to the data collected during the leadership race. Former NUS president Kat Fletcher, who was in charge of marshalling volunteers, attracted the admiration of her allies and opponents alike for the size and scope of the phonebanks she managed. “She had phonebanks of more than 500 people running at the same time,” says one organiser. “Better Together didn’t manage that. Yes Scotland didn’t manage that.”

Why does that matter? To put it simply, in internal party elections: the hand that controls the mailing list rules the world. If you cannot talk to members, you cannot win their votes.

One insider from the Corbyn campaign, the veteran of numerous battles between the party’s left and right, admits that “we’ve been planning this for a long time”. Although mandatory reselection remains the end goal for many on the left, the internal priority will likely be organising around what one euphemistically terms “natural wastage”. Six Labour MPs died in office in the last parliament, while more resigned to stand as crime commissioners or local mayors. Filling vacant seats is a good way of reshaping the parliamentary Labour party to better reflect the grassroots. The Conservatives’ changes to boundaries will also force a round of selection battles. Momentum’s organisers concede that local branches, too, will “most likely decide to organise around electing delegates and selections”.

Momentum is unlikely to be the only group attempting to harness data harvested during the leadership election.  Labour First, an old organisation of the Labour right established in 1988, will retain campaign data from both Yvette Cooper and Tom Watson, and will hope to leverage it to win Conference votes and elections to the party’s National Policy Forum. From there, they hope to preserve moderate shibboleths like the party’s support for Trident, and to secure parliamentary selections for centrist MPs. 

These factions are cheered by one salient fact. Although Labour’s present state sometimes resembles the early 1980s – the party’s right discredited by a period in office that left activists discontented, and by successive election defeats – there is a crucial difference: size. In the 1970s, Trotskyite groups took over local parties that were moribund, with so few members that 20 committed activists could easily take control of the party’s structures.

The 2015 Labour party couldn’t be further from its Seventies husk. Enthusiasm for Corbynism may not yet extend to marginal voters but it is deep and genuine. Most local parties have doubled in size – and Corbyn’s victory has transformed the culture and the character of the party in the country overnight. Sadiq Khan, once regarded as a figure from the party’ s left, faced a barracking from new, pro-Corbyn members, for his critical remarks about the Labour leader in the Financial Times and Mail on Sunday. In some parts of the country, there are undoubtedly organised leftwing factions attempting to infiltrate Labour – but they are hugely outnumbered by new members with a much broader range of opinions.

“We’ve been to more new member events that I can count,” says one Shadow Cabinet staffer, “And they’re not Trots. They’re just people – often young people, or people who left [under Tony Blair] – who are excited by Jeremy, who like that he isn’t your average politician.”

That combination of size and enthusiasm means that Momentum is far more likely to be a patchwork rather than a cohesive organisation. In some parts of the country it will be a blunt instrument for retaliation by the party’s left – the Colchester branch has already caused a Twitterstorm by endorsing calls for 21 MPs who abstained on George Osborne’s fiscal charter to be deselected. In others, it will be a significantly more ecumenical force: two constituency chairs found, much to their surprise, that it was the local heads of Momentum who were arguing most forcefully for an ideologically heterodox Parliamentary Labout Party. In another, two activists are at loggerheads after both attempted to launch “their” local branch of Momentum.

That all of these activists – from the purists to the pluralists to the simply disorganised – are united in their support for Corbyn means that Labour’s internal balance will move left, not because of pressure from the leader’s office, but simply as a natural result of the new membership asserting itself through the party’s existing structures. Local councillors from the party’s right, who face automatic reselection as a matter of course, expect to be replaced by candidates from the left. Although incumbency is a powerful asset on the party’s ruling national executive committee (NEC), fixers from the right are pessimistic about their ability to hold on to any of their seats next year. That means the body which governs the party’s administration and structures ought to have a strong pro-Corbyn majority this time next year..

And as for the party’s National Policy Forum, the sovereign body as far as setting policy – and writing the manifesto – is concerned, the left has enjoyed increasing forward strides in recent years that will likely accelerate. As one NPF member noted, “people aren’t going to get re-elected by this membership saying ‘I’ll back the welfare cap’ or ‘I support Trident’, are they?”

Many of those advances will doubtless provoke anguished mutterings by the left’s internal opponents, with the hand of Momentum seen as crucial even when it is absent, just as the Blairite group Progress was believed to have an influence well in excess of its real power.

In reality, the significant changes in Labour will not be brought about by machinations from either side of “the Sino-Soviet split” in Corbyn’s team, but because the left’s opponents (in this metaphor, the West) remain discredited, defeated and lacking in real leadership. And, just as the People’s Republic and the USSR were able to see off the West for 30 years, the smart money must now be on the ability of Corbyn and the Left to remain in control of the party for the foreseeable future.

> Now read up on Labour’s warring factions and what they’re fighting over.

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