Momentum activists were out in Streatham last weekend calling on Chuka Umunna to trigger a by-election, as part of a national campaign to unseat MPs who have defected to the Independent Group.
Around 100 people gathered at the corner opposite Streatham Memorial Gardens on a grey and windy Saturday. Some were local. Others had travelled in from further afield, including Hackney, Islington, Bexley, Mitcham, and Dulwich. They were welcomed by rallying speeches from Diane Abbott, Owen Jones and Ash Sarkar. “I’ve come all the way down from the People’s Republic of Hackney,” Abbott said, “because you seem to have mislaid your Labour MP.”
Umunna was among seven MPs who left Labour to form TIG last month. Councillors in Streatham say that his defection was a long time coming, though he never made it explicit to local members. But they worry it could be jarring to voters that Labour activists are now campaigning to unseat him, when not long ago they were on the streets and doorsteps singing his praises in the 2017 general election.
There is speculation that Umunna could stand and win again in Streatham, the area that he grew up in and has represented since 2010. But others think that accounts of his personal appeal are overstated. After addressing the event, Abbott told the NS: “It’s a mistake for Chuka to think he has some huge personal vote. The community here in south London is a Labour-voting community.”
Out on the doorstep, Momentum canvassers sang from the same sheet. “Chuka has changed his mind. Now his voters should be allowed to change theirs,” they reasoned with voters. “If he supports a People’s Vote, he should hold one in his constituency.” They asked Streatham residents to sign a petition calling for a by-election.
The response was broadly positive. Many people reacted with surprise upon hearing that their MP had quit Labour. One resident, Oneal, 37, said of Umunna: “I like him, He’s someone I get on with personally. But [Momentum] have a point. If he’s left Labour, we should have another election.” He was sceptical of the idea of a new party. “What’s gonna come of it? What effect will they have?”
But the reasons for which people signed Momentum’s petition for a by-election were varied. Many used it as an outlet to express their own personal political grievances. Syed Shah, 30, an accountant, said he supported it because of the uncertainty the government has caused for business over Brexit. Maria, 28, a sales assistant, said she’d never voted before but wants “better healthcare, better education”. A third voter with a pushchair said he signed in protest of the closure of local children’s centres. These are issues that won’t be solved by a change of MP, but by a change of government.
Momentum is now planning similar campaigning days in Stockport and Penistone and Stockbridge, represented by Ann Coffey and Angela Smith respectively, both of whom left Labour for TIG. Momentum spokesperson Becky Boumelha said that they stood on a Labour manifesto, and that “to abandon those policies and not give the voters another say is obviously unfair and undemocratic.”
But for now, the only by-election certain to take place is on 4 April in Newport West. In the contest to succeed Paul Flynn, who died last month, Labour will be defending a majority of 5,658.