In the summer of 2015, the campaign to elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour party rapidly became far larger than the future Labour leader would ever have expected. Corbyn had made it clear early on that he wanted the campaign to become a bigger movement at a grassroots level: transforming the Labour party from a top-down organisation to a bottom-up political party.
Shortly after Corbyn’s landslide victory, Momentum was formed by Jon Lansman as a successor to the leadership campaign – independent of the Labour party’s leadership – and with the intention of establishing active branches in every village, town and city in the country.
But its relation to the Labour party itself was something of a mystery to most people who turned up at the first meeting for Birmingham Momentum this week, and was the topic that dominated.
To find out more, I spoke to student and Birmingham resident Rachael Harris, the founder of Birmingham Momentum. I first met her over the summer; she was one of the hardest workers in my phone banking team for the Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader campaign, often working from home due to the limited hours we had at the Unite Union offices.
In launching the Birmingham Momentum group, Harris has taken on a leadership role, as well as a great deal of responsibility. She doesn’t see herself as a natural leader, stressing, “I put myself forward because nobody else seemed to.”
I point out that people often say the same of Corbyn: that he accepted he had to run for leadership in order for his values to be represented, rather than out of a desire for power and prestige. While she is the leader, she says she wants, “everybody to take an important and active role and for everybody to feel equally valued”, echoing the ethos of Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party.
Harris reflects, “Birmingham is not known as a politically active city” in the way others are, but over the summer she has seen a significant number of people engaging enthusiastically, thanks to Corbyn, and wants to, “harness that energy to give the people of Birmingham a voice and a chance to campaign on issues which matter to them”.
She believes Momentum is a way to achieve this.
To Harris, Momentum embodies, “everything that Jeremy Corbyn campaigned on over the summer and won him the leadership: working towards a more democratic society where everybody gets a say in how we do things”.
As Corbyn-focused as Momentum is, she does stress that it is, “a movement for everybody, where everyone’s ideas and thoughts are valued”.
While it certainly has an inclusive spirit, there was one topic that recurred during the first Momentum meeting in Birmingham: what are the criteria for entry? This was the cause of much confusion, but also discussion. Harris makes it clear, “You do not have to be a Labour party member”, but the primary aim of the group is to achieve a Corbyn-led Labour government, so joining the party helps.
Momentum will work with other groups to achieve common goals, but if you campaign for candidates rivalling Labour, then this group is not for you.
One of the main issues that arose during the first meeting was that most of those who attended couldn’t attend meetings within their own constituency Labour parties. Many of those who raise this issue are disabled, and campaign for more accessible venues because, as Harris points out, “Birmingham isn’t very disabled-friendly”.
But there were a few others who highlighted that several CLPs are in special measures, meaning an indefinite hiatus, during which local members can’t talk to the hierarchy, something the group committed itself to resolving as part of its drive to democratise the party.
Harris’ primary goal is, “to see Jeremy Corbyn elected Prime Minister”, as she sees him as, “our best hope of being able to bring about the changes we so desperately need”.
However, the one issue that so many fear Momentum is really here for is the prospect of deselection. During the meeting this subject was mentioned once by an 18-year-old who wanted to know what the word meant. Harris, like Momentum itself, is firmly against campaigning to deselect any Labour MPs. She celebrates Labour being a broad church brought together by a common fight for a more decent society. As far as Momentum is concerned, talks of deselection only lead to fear and division, as when you threaten an MP’s job, they are likely to stop listening to you.
The most obvious way to boost Labour’s chances of government is to increase their membership and voter numbers. “Social media was key during the summer but it can’t be the only thing we rely on,” she warns, adding that Momentum Birmingham will, “need to be active within communities. Many people have lost faith in the Labour party and we need to restore it. We can do this by listening and taking an in interest in their concerns.”
The first step towards this could be caucuses for each constituency, so “people can campaign on issues at a very local level”.
As someone who is active in her local Labour party, Harris knows, “local meetings can be very boring”, but she hopes to change this by holding, “more social events and community meetings where people can come along and have lively discussions. Labour meetings can often be very dull where the business and operations are the only things discussed. For people coming along for the first time, we don’t think that is very attractive.”
For Birmingham, like all Momentum groups, galvanising mass support will depend upon ordinary people starting up and helping to run groups in their own communities. This may well intimidate the majority of people, who are likely to have had very little experience of politics – but, as Harris concludes: “If I can do it, I think anybody can.”