In a dimly-lit conference room off Euston Road, littered with assorted packs of crisps and chocolate digestives, Jamie Driscoll, a training coordinator for Momentum asks the assembled group of activists: “What can you do in 10 seconds?”
This, according to Driscoll, is “the time that it would take to sum up a Labour manifesto point, concisely and clearly”.
Momentum, the grassroots organisation made up of supporters of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, likes to describe itself as “a new kind of politics”. Its critics, on the other hand, suspect it of the opposite – a throwback to 1980s hard left groups like Militant. But after a general election in which Labour, supported by Momentum’s sophisticated online campaigning techniques, did better than almost anyone predicted, is it time to take the organisation’s ambitions seriously?
In the Momentum training session, Driscoll remarks that, when talking to people on the doorstep, you quickly realise that “there’s this myth of a left-right spectrum”. There are nods of agreement around the room. He adds that individuals will often adopt contradictory stances and “in reality, everybody is incredibly complex and arrives at their views differently”.
Momentum’s approach to canvassing, inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign in the US, attempts to create a deeper engagement between the activists and the members of the public they are speaking to. The message at the training session was ambitious – even the staunchest Tory can be convinced to vote for Labour.
Canterbury’s swing to Labour this summer is a case in point. A previous Tory stronghold, the constituency swung to Labour by more than nine percentage points, and was won by Labour’s Rosie Duffield with 45 per cent of the vote.
One workshop attendee who canvassed in Canterbury believes this swing was because Momentum “went to every house” and that even those who seemed hostile to Momentum “still wanted to talk politics with them”.
After the result of the snap election, with Theresa May’s plans for Tory domination in tatters, Momentum announced plans to continue to campaign as though there was another snap election on the horizon. Activists and canvassers have descended on Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat as recently as three weeks after the snap election, supported by notable Labour party figures such as Sir Keir Starmer MP and Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry. While May has clung onto power over the summer break, the continued political turbulence adds a sense of urgency to the training session.
As Beth Foster-Ogg, one of the training co-ordinators at the workshop admits: “There’s a lot of work still left to be done – after all, we’re not in government yet”.
The session on Saturday was the first of three and will be replicated throughout the country. There are also further sessions planned on community organising and the long-term role that Momentum can play in creating spaces for political conversations. Training sessions such as this one can take a surprisingly highbrow turn – the sessions typically use concepts such as Aristotle’s ethos, logos and pathos, roleplay and forum theatre exercises.
Despite swelling to an impressive 27,000 members, the emphasis on Momentum’s training is on local communities and collaboration.
“The more people you empower, the more positive it will be.” says Beth Foster-Ogg, one of the training coordinators at the workshop.“We hope to upskill all of our activists – making sure that everyone has the kind of engagement that enthuses people to run for chair, even if they have no previous political experience.”
Throughout the meeting, individuals who had never met each other before were swapping jokes and horror stories, in addition to offering tips and techniques about how best to approach hostile voters. “Momentum’s politics are about participation and inclusion,” says Dan Iley-Williamson, a Labour councillor for the ward of Holywell, Oxford and a Momentum member. “The community spirit comes about a result of that.”
The workshop ends with Foster-Ogg telling the group that she’s added everyone to a Slack group to help better coordinate future workshops.
The older members of the group look puzzled. Foster-Ogg explains it’s a collaborative messaging service. She seems convinced that all the participants will soon master it – and Momentum will be one more step towards its new kind of politics.