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26 September 2018updated 03 Sep 2021 11:56am

Factions, fudge and fashion: How Momentum went mainstream

As The World Transformed becomes an institution of the Labour conference fringe, the Corbynite left has found its majority voice.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“There used to be those men in suits. Those standard-issue blue suits that young Labour men wear. I haven’t seen any of them this time.”

Dress code has been a hot topic at this year’s annual gathering of the Labour party in Liverpool, as this observation by one attendee suggests.

Everywhere you go, people are unsure of whether they’re dressed correctly.

Political journalists (usually deemed the scruffy ones) feel “overdressed” for events and parties run by The World Transformed – a politics festival created by Momentum that has been running alongside the official conference for three years.

And on the flipside, Momentum officials experiencing the main conference for the first time set the tone in jeans, t-shirts and sportswear – occasionally getting stopped by doormen.

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One strategically be-cardiganed former Labour staffer said he’d developed a “hybrid” outfit for attending both Corbynite fringe events and traditional gatherings in the conference centre.

This mild fashion crisis might seem superficial, but the erosion of Labour’s polyester sheen reveals the heart of what’s happened to the party over the past three years.

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The young Corbynite left is now mainstream.

While the leadership has continued to take over the party’s structures since 2015, a shift to the cultural mainstream is evident for the first time this year – as observed by both centrist and Corbynite figures.

Talking heads

It’s clear everywhere you look. Even when you switch on the TV or radio, people once referred to as “alternative” voices are popping up repeatedly on flagship political news programme slots as talking heads.

This is partly because of a communications network called NEON (New Economy Organisers Network). Neither affiliated to Labour nor Momentum, this organisation has been working hard behind the scenes to train left-wing policy experts, community organisers and activists for media appearances, and getting them booked on mainstream channels.

In one recent week, it had members of its “spokesperson network” on Question Time, the Today programme, Newsnight and Politics Live. The group has helped build the profiles of now seasoned media figures, like Class think tank director and Chingford parliamentary candidate Faiza Shaheen, for example.

As well as this, journalists from new left platforms like Novara Media are having more of an outing on these shows.

While this helps producers trying to put together more diverse panels, those who share the politics of the “moderate” pundits they’re more accustomed to seeing on their screens realise they’ve lost the edge.

“We’re just not sexy anymore,” says one “Blairite” Labour student who’s been attending party conference for three years. “We need young, good-looking, cool people and we’re just not cool anymore. Conference used to be really fun and raucous for us. Now Momentum have all the best parties.”

Indeed, The World Transformed festival has hosted parties every night of the annual conference at a venue called Constellations. Down a side street in Liverpool centre, around the corner from a BMX park, the redbrick space has a bar and courtyard festooned with fairy lights, disco balls, speakers and giant murals of multicoloured graffiti on the brickwork.

On Monday night, the postal workers union CWU’s party at this venue – complete with an inflatable surfboard rodeo game, and Hugh Grant as a surreal guest – was a talking point the next day.

Uniting the parties

And this shift is working both ways. Momentum officials have been attending the classic social events of Labour conference, including the Mirror party (long considered the go-to conference finale by Labour veterans) and the New Statesman’s own reception (where they played a game of surreptitiously sticking red Momentum stickers on the “most right-wing” people in the room).

Far from the tensions political observers would expect after the party’s toxic summer, this cultural crossover has diffused the divisive tone somewhat. There are still grumbles about “The World Unhinged” by moderate members – but they now buy tickets to the festival and attend. One press officer at The World Transformed has also noticed more reporters covering its events and taking them seriously.

More than opportunities to scoff at “Decolonising Yoga” or “Folding our Futures: Origami for Peace”, the numerous gatherings featuring shadow cabinet members, non-loyalist politicians like Ed Miliband, and international left-wing representatives like Democratic Socialists of America candidates and France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon draw mainstream journalists.

Utopia, euphoria, establishment

While The World Transformed has only started collecting information this year on how many of its visitors are also delegates at the Labour party conference, it welcomes more crossover with the official conference – and, anecdotally, there are more conference delegates wandering over to the unofficial festivities.

Established think tanks like the IPPR now run fringe debates at the festival, and there’s a feeling on both sides that conversations at the main conference have been influenced by The World Transformed this year: new fixtures like the “policy X Factor” Big Ideas debate – where you can pitch any idea for a new policy – for example.

Since it was established with hardly any funds in 2016, The World Transformed has “professionalised” and is now financially self-sustaining. Momentum insiders have discussed its journey from “utopia” in its first year, when Jeremy Corbyn had first become leader, to “euphoria” last year following the general election result to “getting serious” as an institution this year – looking ahead at the prospect of power.

This pragmatism is reflected in Momentum’s measured response to party democracy rule changes on Sunday, when the group was thwarted by the leadership and denied its call for open parliamentary selections and dramatically lowering the leadership threshold. “It could have been much worse,” said a press statement released on Monday morning, which, despite the “deeply disappointing” outcome, still celebrated members having “far more say”.

Echoing this conciliatory tone was the left-wing pro-EU pressure group Another Europe Is Possible (which includes Momentum members and has a presence at The World Transformed) regarding the party’s fudged agreement to the prospect of a second referendum in the absence of a general election.

Despite the “huge anti-Brexit surge of Labour members” not being “fully reflected in the text”, the outcome was described by national organiser Michael Chessum in a statement to the press as “a clear step forward for Labour’s position”.

More often associated with ideological purity than compromise, the left-wing grassroots have learned the language of negotiation.

On a national level, Brexit divisions have dictated headlines about the Labour party this autumn – and understandably so. But beneath the surface is the cultural establishment of the party’s left, which is attracting the reluctant admiration – and, in some cases, the tentative embrace – of those who were once its majority voice.