How Momentum won the internet – and the revenge of the centrist dads

Memes, digital skills and discipline were all on display at Labour party conference.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Sometimes I wonder if Momentum, the grass-roots organisation that grew out of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership victory in 2015, secretly enjoys not being taken seriously. This year, it again ran its “The World Transformed” festival alongside the main party conference in Brighton, and helpfully provided journalists with the kind of quirky details they find irresistible. A meme wall! Clay sculpting! A session on “Acid Corbynism”, complete with middle-aged men doing big-fish-little-fish-cardboard-box!

But the real story of Momentum is its formidable organisational ability. This year, it launched a conference app, which carried fringe listings, sent delegates daily briefings and (essentially) whipped them for key votes. The latter is the most important, because all sides of the Labour Party have long delighted in making important structural debates as opaque and dull as possible, in the hope of being able to control them.

Take the key “McDonnell amendment” to reduce the number of MP nominations needed in a leadership contest from 15 to 5 per cent. It rests in “Chapter 4, Clause II, Section 2b (i)” of the constitution. Snore. But the Momentum app helpfully gives the name of the nominating constituency party and then instructs delegates to vote for the proposed changes. This combination of digital skills and discipline also allowed its activists to scupper a potentially embarrassing vote on Brexit at the conference.

****

Thankfully, not everything was so sensible, or we journalists might have died of well-drilled boredom. (Though I did start getting flashbacks to the 2015 SNP autumn conference in Aberdeen, where disagreement was as welcome as Kim Jong-un at a CND rally.) 

Since the election, a telling meme has been doing the rounds: that in some nebulous sense, Labour won the election, despite finishing 56 seats behind the Conservatives and despite the unarguable presence of Theresa May in Downing Street. The greatest exponent of this line at conference was Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, who told the hall: “Let me say this to those merchants of doom, the whingers and the whiners, who say… we didn’t win. I say, we did win! We won the hearts and minds of millions of people, especially the young.”

Now, Labour’s recovery from its 2015 walloping was impressive, but this just feels like an attempt to avoid a tough question: where do the extra votes needed to win next time come from? Whisper it: the Tories.

****

This was the year the Corbynsceptics fell silent – recognising that, whatever their opinions on the Labour leader, he has vastly outperformed their expectations. No one wants to hear that Labour’s electoral coalition is fragile, and that one day soon the waveform of its Schrödinger’s Brexit position might collapse, disappointing one or other half of its 2017 voters. The majority of the members seem happy with the current fudge that “access to” the single market is just as good as the current arrangement, but would also allow us to end freedom of movement.

However, the Corbynsceptic tendency within Labour has not entirely melted away. Catch them in a quiet corner and they will acknowledge that there are three things they need to do: win the argument on the softest possible Brexit (or pin any collusion with the catastrophe of a hard Brexit on the leadership); make arguments about principles, rather than “electability”; and get much, much better at social media.

****

One of the pleasant things about conference is that everyone, by and large, is nice. Yes, there are frequent jabs at the “biased media”, but even the tone at Momentum meetings is more earnest workshop than Two Minutes Hate. It used to be fashionable to say that party conference had become redundant, but it feels more important than ever in an era when Twitter Corbynism is too often defined by perpetually angry young men calling people “melts” and “centrist dads” (admittedly, not an insult that hits that hard when the people involved are quite proud of being both centrists and dads).

Like the meme wall, this social media aggro warps the perceptions of journalists, preventing them from seeing the professionalism of this iteration of Labour.

****

Talking of which, it’s always a surprise to me that while Nick Timothy was described as “Theresa May’s brain”, the same sort of epithet isn’t applied to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, in relation to the Corbyn project. When I chaired a New Statesman business-focused event with him, he talked about 5G coverage, fibre-optic broadband and the economist Mariana Mazzucato’s ideas of the “entrepreneurial state”. Contrast that with the roll-call of vague answers given by Corbyn on The Andrew Marr Show.

That matters. At the next election, Corbyn is likely to be pushed harder on details. (Part of my discussion with McDonnell revolved around small business corporation tax, which the 2017 manifesto committed to raising, contradicting what the Labour leader had told the Federation of Small Businesses in April.) If Corbyn does become prime minister, his relationship with his chancellor will be just as crucial, and as fascinating, as Blair/Brown or Cameron/Osborne.

****

On Sunday, I was doing the BBC’s Sunday Politics and saw Andy Burnham arriving at the BBC temporary studio with seconds to spare, glistening lightly from the traditional journalists v MPs football match. It’s always mired in friendly acrimony: last year, the decisive goal was scored for the politicians by a ringer, the comedian John Bishop.

Their luck didn’t hold this time. Perhaps because the parliamentary team now lacks the sharp elbows of Ed Balls, the MPs lost 6-0. Which, as one special adviser pointed out to me, even Len McCluskey would struggle to classify as a win. 

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 28 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tragedy