By Noah Merrin
In 2015 Jeremy Corbyn was propelled from unknown backbencher to leader of Britain’s opposition party in Parliament. Following this, and after some deliberation, the organisation responsible for servicing Corbyn’s meteoric ascendency, Jeremy Corbyn Campaign 2015 (Supporters) Ltd., changed its name. From then on, the refurbished Momentum Campaign (Services) Ltd. would evolve into what we know today, simply, ‘Momentum’.
Momentum has developed an almost bogeyman-like reputation for its supposed wish to deselect Labour MPs who do not conform to the views of its leader, Jon Lansman. The fear and the furore surrounding Momentum’s increasing influence, which has risen in parallel with Corbyn’s, has prompted searching questions for Labour and for their potential voters.
Momentum’s aims, enshrined in its constitution, are enlightening for understanding its past, and future, trajectory. Seeking transformative change, it places impressive emphasis on the democratisation of the Labour Party at ‘every level’. Principally, however, it seeks a Labour election victory.
Rigorous and ultra-democratic election processes fortify the organisation’s National Coordinating Group (NGC), the supreme decision-making body. Complex guidelines for representation ensure that those organising Momentum’s administration are reflective of those who voted for them.
While Momentum’s democratic commitment seems to proliferate at ‘every level’ of its constitution, it is possible that those values could be overridden by other aims, such as broadening support for a socialist programme. If this aim were achievable through the deselection of certain, less acquiescent, Members of Parliament, it is possible that the organisation could turn to less democratic mechanisms to achieve its goals.
Such has been the accusation that dominates media coverage about Momentum.
Selection is the process by which individuals are chosen by a local party branch to represent that party at a general election. While there is little explicit evidence linking Momentum directly to any nationwide deselection campaign (the leader, Lansman, has vehemently denied reports of a ‘hit list’ of moderate MPs to be deselected) there are certainly some examples of Momentum’s authoritarian behaviour.
In the past, local Momentum branches have had input on who will be the Momentum-backed candidate for Labour selection in that constituency. In the most recent round of selections in constituencies without a Labour MP, Momentum’s national bodies imposed on local branches their own candidate choices.
This does not mean that Momentum actually selected nominees – this is the internal role of the local Labour branch – but that it stated which candidates it believed would best fulfil its aims and commitments, and represent its principles.
While this certainly frames Momentum’s national bodies as authoritarian forces within its own organisation, it is difficult to say that this influence extends into the Labour party when looking at the results of its candidates in selections. Only seven of the 29 individuals that Momentum backed achieved success.
Things may soon change, however. Momentum leader, Jon Lansman, was elected on 12 January this year to the Labour National Executive Committee (NEC), along with two other figures in Momentum. Their positions on the 39-member body are three of the nine that represent local constituencies.
The NEC was described as the Labour party’s ‘Politburo’ by The Economist, a term reminiscent of Soviet bureaucracy and which implies that the Committee wields absolute power within the party.
According to Labour’s website, the NEC is ‘responsible for upholding the rules of the party and propriety of Labour selection processes’. Some commentators, therefore, see Lansman’s election as a ripe opportunity for him to employ a nationwide deselection programme by introducing a mechanism that he has long advocated for: mandatory reselection.
Mandatory reselection, not currently in use by Labour, involves sitting MPs going before a panel and arguing their case for why they should represent Labour again.
It is uncertain whether Lansman’s attitude is promulgated by his commitment to democratising the party, or to formulating a Labour socialist agenda (which he could push through by the extirpation of moderate Labour MPs and their replacement with Momentum-approved candidates in reselection). Having spent a transformative experience in Israel at the age of 16, Lansman may simply be expressing the democratic principles he saw in action in Kibbutz, for which he has much admiration.
Although he has the ear of the Labour leader, with whom he worked under Tony Benn and whom he convinced to stand for the leadership, there are evident limits on Lansman’s influence. Suggestions of mandatory reselection have already faced strong, vocal opposition from sitting MPs.
Jeremy Corbyn was able to reconcile some of the party’s ideological dichotomies after the last election, at least for the time being. But any proposition in favour of reselection would peel back this façade of unity and ignite civil war between the Party bureaucracy and its representatives in parliament, scuppering any hope of a Labour victory at the next election.
Indeed, if we need evidence for Momentum’s commitment to Labour victory, we can look at the powerful ways it is influencing the Party agenda. At the Party Conference on 24th September last year, a discussion about Labour’s stance on whether the country would remain within the Customs Union after Brexit was shelved. Guardian live coverage suggested that this was due to pressure from Momentum, eager not to expose the divisions between the Party leadership (Corbyn and McDonnell, both Eurosceptics) and its MPs. This assessment was corroborated by Business Insider.
Also, at the conference, the percentage of the Parliamentary Labour Party (the body of Labour MPs and MEPs) needed to nominate a leadership candidate was reduced from 15% to 10%. According to Cameron McIntosh, writing in the Palatinate last year, this was ‘a compromise on the demands of Momentum which had pushed for a reduction as far as 5%’. As with reselection, this may be interpreted two ways: an attempt to prevent a dogmatic stranglehold over the party and create a more pluralistic space by allowing less established candidates to stand; or a design to concrete the socialist programme of the party by making it easier for a Corbynite candidate to stand.
Momentum at a national level clearly has a multi-faceted approach to influencing Labour’s agenda and internal functions. It faces serious hurdles, however. It is unclear where exactly its motivations lie. Whatever they may be, it seems that brute force in the NEC is unlikely to be met unopposed. For the time being, reselection is not on the cards. The shiny, scandalous side of the Labour-Momentum coin has until now been largely the only one making headlines. This has come at the price of attention being denied to the earthy flipside: Momentum’s grassroots efforts.
A bottom-up organisation, we must also focus on Momentum’s local endeavours and support, not solely their attitudes towards reselection.
Photograph: Chris Beckett via Flickr