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11 January 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 5:58am

Momentum has defied the odds and will continue to grow

Labour should be participatory and campaign oriented. This isn't just a product; it's a movement.

By James Schneider

No one knows what politics will look like in a year. That was the lesson of 2015. Imagine telling a pundit only a year ago that 2015 would end with a majority Tory government, 56 SNP MPs, doctors preparing to go on strike and Islington North’s Jeremy Corbyn leading Labour. They would have laughed.

Another unforeseen development in 2015 was the grass-roots network Momentum, which emerged out of Corbyn’s leadership campaign. Momentum, for which I work as a national organiser, exists to harness the energy that led to Corbyn’s election. We aim to strengthen democratic, popular social forces in Britain, to grow Labour, help it win and reconnect it with its radical heritage. In short, Momentum organises to shift power away from the 1 per cent.

Momentum was always going to have a rocky first few months: attacked by swaths of the media and a small but vocal group of Labour MPs. An organisation that seeks to make ordinary people more powerful is a threat to many of the most powerful in our society. Labour is experiencing enormous change with Corbyn’s thumping majority and its growing party membership. Change can be difficult, especially for those who helped shape Labour’s previous direction. The Corbyn revolution might seem like an implicit criticism of their life’s work. More can be done to reach out to the minority struggling with the changes, but the party is growing and should be made to work for all.

Some say Momentum is a party within a party. We are not. Some MPs worry that Momentum will deselect them. We will not. MPs should not have a job for life, but Momentum is not organising for any deselections. Selections are a matter for local parties and their members. But we do want to change Labour’s culture and practices, making it more participatory and campaign-oriented. We think this is what’s required for Labour to win in 2020 and to make the changes this country needs. The essence of the new kind of politics is this: we’re not just selling a product, we’re building a movement.

In 2016 we’ll take journalists outside the Westminster bubble to see Momentum’s mobilisation, organisation and activism across the UK. We hope this will begin to change media perceptions, currently overdetermined by the misplaced fears of a minority of MPs. Some of those MPs call us a mob, but we are committed to building participatory democracy. Some were upset that over 30,000 supporters emailed their MPs (both Labour and Tory) asking them to vote against bombing Syria. Telling your elected representative what you think assists accountability, and is a long way from mob rule.

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This is not to say Momentum is without its faults. We are not yet the inclusive organisation we want to be, with all minority groups properly represented. Discrimination and exclusion are enormous problems in our society. Labour politics attracts those committed to equality and Momentum is in a better position than most. Roughly 40 per cent of our launch organisers for local groups are women. We know this isn’t nearly enough. As Momentum develops over the next six months to become an entirely democratic structure, policies will be put in place to guarantee representation for under-represented groups and gender parity (at least) at all levels. Many local groups have, and all will, set up working groups on inclusion and representation. At the first meeting of our National Committee, expected within a month, proposals may be tabled to ensure we set a standard for organisations countering patriarchy, racism, ableism, homophobia and other discriminatory practices.

In our first three months we have not been as transparent as we would like. Launching a movement with tens of thousands of supporters, ambitious plans and limited resources, all under the glare of a frequently hostile media, is challenging. It is also a complex organisation, with many stakeholders and actors from different political traditions and with varying experiences. It has taken us three months to put together an interim national committee, the membership of which will be announced this month. Now we can be more transparent, providing an increased sense of ownership for groups and activists.

Momentum has done so much already. One hundred local groups are being set up. In 2015 we ran a national voter registration drive, campaigned against Tory cuts to tax credits, ill-considered plans to bomb Syria and the government’s unfair rail-fare rises. We mobilised for the pre-COP21 climate-change actions and against the Trade Union Bill, bussing in 200 activists from around the country to campaign for the fabulous Labour victory in the Oldham West and Royton by-election. Next, we will stand with nurses and junior doctors as they fight for our NHS.

In 2016 we will help people organise in their communities and workplaces. We will knit together these groupings and campaigns with other movements to develop a diverse network for progressive change. We will engage with the process of change in Labour’s culture, practices and policies so that it develops and represents this movement, and we will help Labour win elections to put into practice a transformation of society that is for and by the overwhelming majority of people.

If 2015 showed us anything, it is not to trust political pundits – and to believe that another world is possible.

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This article appears in the 06 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue