I have been a Labour party member since 1996. I will never forget the feeling of elation on the morning after the landslide 1997 victory. But now I feel a sense of dread before I go to local branch meetings in Stroud Green. After the meetings I, like most active members, tend to socialise in the pub together with new Corbynistas as well the pre-2015 stalwarts. But that has become increasingly uncomfortable for me.
I am neither a member of Momentum nor Progress. Before Jeremy Corbyn became leader I had not given much thought to which wing of the Labour Party I was on. That was until very recently when my place in the party was defined for me.
At the last branch meeting I attended, a fellow member demanded to know whether I was a “Blairite”. Why was this? I asked a question to our two recently endorsed council candidates about whether their priority would be winning over Tory and Lib Dem voters or sticking to Momentum ideology.
This is the atmosphere in which the estate regeneration and the housing crisis, is discussed in Haringey. I don’t fully back Momentum’s stance against the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV), a public-private joint venture with a timescale of 15-20 years, and have raised concerns about Momentum’s campaigning activities against two of my local Labour councillors. But if you are not totally opposed to the HDV then you are guilty of one of the worst crimes in Corbyn’s Labour party – being a Blairite.
It is alienating that an organisation I am not a member of (Momentum) has come to completely dominate the agenda of my local party in Haringey. In September, a Momentum activist wrote in the Momentum newsletter The Clarion that “supporters of Jeremy Corbyn” had won “a clean sweep of officer positions” at the annual general meeting of the Hornsey and Wood Green constituency Labour party. The entire Momentum-backed Grassroots Left slate for my branch’s 18 delegates to the Hornsey and Wood Green CLP General Committee (GC) was elected. As a supporter of Grassroots Left put it in November after the council selections: “At branch level and CLP level, members of a Grassroots Left alliance, including but by no means limited to Momentum members, swept the board.”
Momentum’s reach isn’t just confined to Haringey. It extends to cities where the HDV is not an issue. Roy Hattersley, who served as deputy leader under Neil Kinnock, wrote in the Guardian that: “Momentum’s success varies from place to place. In Manchester and Sheffield, moderate councillors have already been deselected or have chosen to resign rather that face the humiliation of rejection. In Liverpool, the old gang is back.” In January, the election of Jon Lansman, Rachel Garnham and Yasmine Dar to Labour’s National Executive Committee, shows that Momentum now has a place at the very top of the party.
On an anecdotal level, I bumped in to a Labour Party member from Nottingham. She felt that the role of Momentum in her local Labour party was not dissimilar to what I had experienced in Hornsey and Wood Green.
If you are not fully signed-up to their ideology, then you are deemed to be on the other side. Everything is an all or nothing vote. But in our own personal lives, and in the local Labour Party, the decisions we make are often much more nuanced.
Take the issue that Momentum has organised around in Haringey – the HDV, a public-private joint venture designed to regenerate council owned housing and stimulate growth in the poorest parts of the borough. I am sceptical of private sector involvement, in this case with Lendlease, having read of the safety problems that developed after Scottish schools were built under the Private Finance Initiative. I do though recognise that Haringey Council is severely strapped for cash, and can see why local councillors are attracted to an injection of private sector capital. I also believe there is an over-emphasis on affordable rather than genuine social housing in the HDV plans. As a private renter in a flat-share with little prospect of buying my own home, the HDV does not offer me much hope.
Yet while I think the HDV is flawed, I do not believe that it is an attempt at “social cleansing” or that supportive councillors are motivated by anything other than the best of Labour values. I believe that many active members of the party share this view. They are desperate to hear some properly thought out alternative solutions that will build the large number of new homes required.
Momentum’s campaign against the HDV may tap into popular sentiment, but it has not articulated anything beyond the notion that when (not if but when) Labour wins the next general election there will be a change of policy to allow Haringey to build lots of new council houses.
This overlooks the fact that a Labour victory cannot be taken for granted: the party is barely ahead of the Tories in the polls. Now that the Tories lack an overall parliamentary majority, they will be in no rush to hold another general election before 2022. We shouldn’t have to wait that long – new homes are needed now.
Personally, I believe the pause button should be pressed on this polarising episode. The way that the 2018 council candidate selection process has concluded makes it is difficult to see how the HDV will continue in its current form. This should be an opportunity for all Labour members in Haringey to have an informed debate on how to remove the obvious flaws and improve the HDV. It would be better for both sides to come together. Maybe mediation would be necessary in order to come up with a consensual solution that is economically viable. A plan that addresses the shortcomings that even some moderates have pointed out, such as the low provision of social housing. Local Momentum activists need to draw up a practical vision for housing in Haringey, and stop shouting “Blairite” at anyone who does not entirely share their ideology.
I began writing before Labour’s National Executive Committee asked Haringey Council to halt the HDV. It is not clear that the council will comply, as it argues the HDV is the only viable option. The risk is that this development will only heighten ideological differences. Yet this, more than ever, is the time for nuanced views.
Christopher Martin is a member of the Hornsey and Wood Green Labour party and a trade union delegate to the Hornsey & Wood Green General Committee.