Sipping her tea in the back room of a north London cafe, Rachel Godfrey Wood does not seem like the type to make the UK’s most famous politicians hop with rage. Assuming that would be a mistake. Godfrey Wood is lead organiser of Momentum, the grassroots organisation supporting Jeremy Corbyn. Both the Labour establishment and the Tories have learnt to fear its organisation powers. More than 20,000 people are now members. Momentum-backed candidates are now winning seats in Labour’s internal power structure. A Momentum-backed candidate could soon be the leader of Scottish Labour.
Godfrey Wood is known as an efficient and focused operator, but until 2015, she was not a member of the Labour party. A climate change researcher, she would “go to demos”, and vote for the party, but it was the prospect of Corbyn becoming Labour leader that made her sign up. She joined Momentum almost immediately after. At that point, the organisation consisted of a few volunteers, including the veteran hard left organiser Jon Lansman, and volunteers James Schneider (now Corbyn’s head of strategic communications) and Emma Rees.
“At the beginning I didn’t have a strong understanding of how the Labour party worked,” Godfrey Wood tells me when I meet her in Finsbury Park, a short walk from Corbyn’s own constituency of Islington North. “Rationally we were prepared for the types of negativity and hostility we would get towards Jeremy and his supporters, but that first year – it was an experience. It informed our politics in quite a substantial way.”
Early critics of Momentum pointed to Lansman as evidence that the organisation was a throwback to the 1980s – a description which misses, according to Godfrey Wood, a period of intense change. “I don’t think anyone in Momentum has got exactly the same approach and the assumptions they had two years ago,” she says. “It’s been a journey for everybody.”
It was Brexit that gave Momentum its current power. Membership plateaued at about 4,000 after Corbyn won the leadership, but then came 24 June 2016 and the resignation of the shadow cabinet. In July and August, with Corbyn’s leadership challenged, Momentum swelled to 18,000 members. Corbyn won, and the organisation seemed in the ascendancy.
But then came the in-fighting. Momentum’s vice-chair, Jackie Walker, was accused of anti-Semitism (the organisation ultimately decided her comments were “ill-informed” and stripped her of her post). Meanwhile, battles raged about the future structure of the organisation, with Lansman pitted against sections of the “new left”.
“When we started we didn’t have a constitution,” Godfrey Woods said, of that turbulent time. “We weren’t even a membership organisation.”
Today, new Momentum members are expected to read the constitution and sign up to a code of ethics. Its current structure includes a small team of permanent staff (of which Godfrey Wood is one), a national co-ordinating committee and a rotating member’s council, made up of randomly selected members. “It’s been a learning process actually,” Godfrey Woods concedes. The number of incidents like Walker, though, she says, are “surprisingly small”.
In his victory speech, Corbyn told Labour to be ready for a snap election. But in the early months of 2017, like Momentum, the party floundered. Its poll ratings slipped, and even Corbyn allies began sharing private concerns. Then came the snap election. Suddenly Momentum and established Labour MPs found themselves on the same side. Stereotypes about armchair activists were disproved after young voters turned out in surprising numbers, and voted Labour.
A “substantial” number of Labour MPs have warmed to Momentum, says Godfrey Wood. One fear, however, has not entirely gone away. As Corbyn’s supporters entrench their grip on the party, do recalcitrant MPs face deselection?
“Not really, no,” says Godfrey Wood. “Historically not many people have been deselected.”
MPs should stop fearing deselection and accept a broader point about engaging with the membership, she contends: “A lot of party members don’t have that vengeful approach to politics but what they do want to feel is accountability between them and the MP.
“After all the members are the ones that make the party. They’ve made Jeremy leader, supported the manifesto, they got out on the streets and did a lot of campaigning. The future of the Labour party does depend on engaging with a lot of those people.”
After the election, Corbyn embarked on a country-wide tour, while Momentum launched the #Unseat campaign targeting Tory marginal constituencies. But the idea of another snap election seems less likely than it did in June. If there isn’t another election, what is Momentum campaigning for?
“That’s when things like structures and accountability becomes so important,” says Godfrey Woods. “A lot of those people who got out and campaigned in the election would have done so overlooking various inadequacies in the way they see the Labour party works.
“They’ll do that because it’s an election. But when it’s not an election sometimes stuff like that comes to the fore.”
Internal campaigns will include “people getting involved in their constituency Labour parties, running for key positions, in some cases running to be councillors”. The aim, says Godfrey Woods, is to “make the parties more responsive to members”.
So what would the ideal structure of the Labour party look like? “I don’t know what the ideal structure would look like but I think the current structure is not quite there yet.
“If we get into government – I think we will get into government – we’ve got to achieve a lot of difficult objectives. We will be trying to implement an anti-austerity policy. There will be a lot of hostility from big business, the financial sector, the media.
“If you’re in a situation like that you need a mobilised organised movement. It can’t be dependent on MPs. That’s not a personal comment or anything – it’s just a political analysis.”