In November 2017, Joseph Hughes, a private renter in a shared house in Haringey (full disclosure, in which I live), north London, got an email from his local Momentum branch. The email invited him to a series of meetings to shortlist local Labour councillors ahead of the 2018 elections. It also informed him that two councillors on the shortlist supported the Haringey Development Vehicle, a controversial development plan.
Hughes had never been to any local event or meeting before, despite renting in London for 13 years. He decided that “as a borderline gen Y-er/older millennial” his apolitical stance no longer cut it. “Going against a life of nurtured cynicism and isolation from any community I’ve rented,” he said in an email. “I’m trying to force myself to get involved, meet other Labour members, and be part of the local party democracy.”
Hughes’s first meetings turned out to make national news. The councillors who supported the HDV were deselected, with the Evening Standard and Times reporting on a “purge” of Labour moderates, with one councillor who decided not to stand again calling HDV a “Trojan horse”. Yet while events in Haringey tell us something about internal Labour politics, those that think it is all about Momentum are missing the point.
Haringey, where I live, is a north London borough that sits above Camden, Islington and Hackney. Its 11 square miles contains a population comparable to cities like Swansea or Derby. It includes graceful Edwardian red brick town houses (now often discreetly subdivided behind their stained glass doors), the busy, multicultural neighbourhood around Finsbury Park, and, in the east, some of the poorest wards in the country.
The Haringey Development Vehicle sounds like an innocuous piece of local authority jargon, but it contains an explosive proposition. It is a partnership between the council and a private developer, Lendlease. The council provides the land, which includes housing estates containing thousands of socially rented homes. The developer gets to build on it, with new homes and a new town centre for one part of the borough promised over the next 20 years. Both share in the proceeds.
Unease about this scheme has been building since late 2016 when Emma Youle of local paper Ham & High reported on a £2bn council privatisation. The reaction of the community has been chronicled by Aditya Chakrabortty for the Guardian, and the posters attached to the trees I pass as I walk home.
It starts with the developer, Lendlease. Before I lived in Haringey, I lived in Elephant and Castle, just minutes from the vast, dark emptiness of the former Heygate Estate. In 2002, the council promised that 100 per cent of council homes would be replaced. By 2011, the proportion of affordable housing was down to just 25 per cent. In 2013, the council evicted remaining tenants and offered owners sums as low as £80,000 to sell out. By the time I left the area, in 2015, the luxury towers were rising and apartments were already being marketed in Singapore. Just 74 out of the 2,500 new homes will be affordable. The private developer responsible? Lendlease.
Second, while the first people to notice the HDV included veterans of the hard left, they also included the Haringey council’s own Housing and Regeneration Scrutiny Panel. A report published in January 2017 declared: “What the Council, and by extension its tenants and residents, gain from the proposed HDV is far less clear than what it and they stand to lose.” Local residents participated in marches. In July, shortly after the Grenfell Tower fire, the north London Labour MPs David Lammy and Catherine West wrote to the council urging it to pause the HDV and “reflect further on whether entering into a public-private partnership is the correct decision”.
By the time Hughes got the Momentum email, he had already been aware of the HDV scheme for several months. He went to the local Labour party meeting trying to keep an open mind. “I wanted to be wrong about the HDV as my thoughts based on everything I’d read were ‘well, this is a nightmare’ and wanted some other views,” he says. The meeting turned out to be extremely boring and civil. “If someone came out less than impressive ideas, these were met with polite silence and the chair kept it moving.” The members were there to vote whether Labour party councillors should be automatically reselected, and the branch voted that two who had supported the HDV should not be. Hughes observed that the attendees seemed older and whiter than the diverse, youthful population he saw on the streets. In accordance with party policy, the councillors were not allowed to be present.
The second meeting, by contrast, was still civil but a little tense. “The most depressing two minutes was when one person implied the majority in the room were there under the mysterious employ of Momentum, and someone in return rudely called them a Blairite,” he said. “A quiet knowing groan was let out by most of the room. At this point the excellent chair injected humour and the meeting ticked on for an otherwise respectful two hours.”
Criticism of Momentum has veered between fears of a platform for hard left veterans, some with deeply unappetising views, and the contrasting assertion that members are “clicktivists” who will not get off the sofa for the Labour party.
Although Hughes had been prompted to attend by Momentum, he found the idea that the vote had been orchestrated by it funny. “I found myself laughing at the idea that we were all following orders,” he said of the member’s outburst. “I also sympathised with them: I’m guessing there were many new faces and it must be bewildering.
“On reflection I, surely like many of the people there, had only been there because of Momentum. As well as getting previously non-political people to join Labour they are evidently very good at getting Labour members out of their homes and into Labour meetings.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated on 15 December to include the author’s relationship to Joseph Hughes, the Momentum member quoted, to clarify the meeting timeline, and to remove a line suggesting that there were councillors present at a selection meeting who had not explained their actions.