The launch of Activate, an organisation which claims to be a grassroots network of Tory supporters unconnected to the party, was met with amusement and ridicule among leftwing activists and the liberal commentariat. That amusement turned to outrage when private messages emerged in which Activate supporters appeared to endorse the idea of “gassing chavs”, and then bafflement when the Twitter account for the organisation endorsed Jacob Rees-Mogg for Conservative leader while its website claimed never to have been launched at all.
To the extent that the organisation might change the course of British politics, the fuss over Activate is a waste of our time. Momentum’s mass membership and network of local groups was never going to be matched by an organisation with more people called Lewis than women on its National Committee. But on another level, the left should look seriously at Activate – both because it tells us something about what gives the Jeremy Corbyn project a unique appeal to the young and disenfranchised, and because it holds up a mirror to the dangers of machine politics.
Activate was only ever seriously compared to Momentum because of the impressionable group think of political journalists. Call something a “mimic of Momentum” and give it a similarly structured website, and that’s how it will be reported. In reality, it was an entirely different project. Momentum aimed to take energy and policies of the Corbyn campaign and change the Labour Party. Activate is the voice of the Conservative Party aiming to change the minds of young people. Its memes are embarrassing, but even if they had been brilliant, they would have been the vestiges of a subculture devoid of the content which gives Momentum life.
The constellation of political forces that created Momentum were deeply rooted in unions and social movements. Some had come through ‘the long dark night’ of Blairism’s domination in the party, others had toiled thanklessly on the outside. Its components are largely ideologically coherent and determined. Its local groups are messy and unmanageable. The mass of the Corbyn movement is populated by young and disenfranchised people gasping for a radical alternative and attracted by the prospect of a politics that takes them seriously.
The two bases of strength for Momentum – one in the messy world of the organised left, one in a new wave of youth support – seem contradictory, even counterposed. New young recruits aren’t usually impressed with two hours of turgid, fractious discussion over internal structures or local government budget-setting. But the fact is that without an internal democratic life, mass political organisations lack a vision beyond the immediate political game, are controlled from above, and ultimately lose their radical edge. Activate will aim to captivate the young without giving them agency – and it will fail.
The problem for Momentum is that it has itself adopted an increasingly top down approach. Following a shock move by its leadership in January, when its existing democratic structures were abolished by an email vote of a small committee in around an hour, Momentum is no longer governed by the turbulent, difficult demands of its membership. Its governing body is majority unelected, and although its constitution allows for e-democracy, not a single online vote has been held. Without any internal debate, non-Labour members have been banned from the organisation.
Momentum has sacrificed much of its internal democratic life in the name of being a more effective mobilising machine in an era of constant elections and leadership campaigns. On one level, this has paid off. Momentum’s image in the press has substantially improved without the internal strife and loose cannons produced by democratic structures. It has focussed almost exclusively on mobilising members and training them up to campaign for Labour and take up roles in local parties – and had great success. But how much could be lost in this process?
Activate is an absurd vision from one of Momentum’s possible futures: an organisation that takes young, enthusiastic people and throws them into the task of winning elections for the Party, without giving them agency. There is no danger of Momentum becoming Activate, but if there is one thing that should make us stop and think, it is recognising our own distorted image in the mirror. Bottom-up politics is messy and awkward, but it is ultimately the only way the left’s project can endure.