By Noah Merrin
Last month I explored how Momentum was making inroads into the Labour Party. I concluded that, whilst most of Momentum’s press coverage focuses on its national agenda and leading figures, its local foundations are vital to understanding its power. Recent developments in Haringey Council, for example have frequently been discussed in the context of Momentum’s national aims and actions. For this reason, it provides an excellent case study for coming to terms with the forces that are driving Momentum.
On 30 January 2018, Claire Kober, leader of Haringey Council, announced that she would be stepping down from her role. She cited bullying and sexism as key reasons behind her resignation. The main source of the toxicity directed against her? Momentum.
The furore amid which Kober announced her resignation centred on a housing project directed by the council, in 50:50 partnership with a private firm, Lendlease. This was termed the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV).
Kober states that members of the Labour NEC, including Jon Lansman, leader of Momentum, have labelled her as ‘incompetent’ due to her involvement in the scheme. Such criticism, she argues, would not have been levelled at a man of her position and experience. The comments are, in her opinion, therefore sexist.
But in Decca Aitkenhead’s article about her interview with Kober, the former believes that such comments would have been levelled at a man. She makes the point that housing in London is a raw subject. Kober should have expected the backlash.
Indeed, although the council’s website states that both Haringey and Lendlease taking an ‘equal 50% stake is crucial as it means that we [the council] will need to approve every decision, keeping us in control’, and that tenants displaced as a result of the build ‘will have a right to return to the estate, and to be rehoused on equivalent terms and rents’, the history of private developments in London do not stack in favour of the council’s claims.
Figures from the Greater London Authority obtained by Darren Johnson in February 2016 showed that estate regeneration schemes in London would lead to a net loss of 1,389 affordable homes. Moreover, out of the 214 estate regeneration schemes in London that already had planning permission, there would be a net loss of 7,326 social rented homes. According to Natalie Bloomer writing for politics.co.uk, between 2010-14 almost 50,000 people were moved out of London by local councils.
Ultimately, this suggests that the local opposition to Haringey Council’s proposed developments is set in the context of grave, regional, socio-economic concerns. Kober’s claims that the voicing of such concerns is simply sexist in nature and that it is the product of ‘blinkered dogma’ versus her ‘politics of pragmatism’ demonstrate an inability to grasp the local contexts which have formulated Momentum’s – or rather, local people’s – stance.
This is not to say that Kober’s support of the HDV is not well-intentioned, however. Arguably, opponents of the scheme have been unable to look past its risks to see that, with cuts to the funding of local councils, Haringey has no choice but to work with private firms if it wants to have the money to invest in housing. As the council website points out, they can only borrow £50m, whilst the cost of a project inevitably runs far beyond that.
Nevertheless, Kober’s comments about ideology belittle the reasons for which her community is opposed to such a plan.
To Aitkenhead, Kober voices her outrage that Momentum members stood for ‘virtually every’ position at the local Labour Party’s Annual General Meeting. With over 20 councillors in Haringey having been replaced by Momentum candidates since the AGM and only 6 of the 28 councillors who supported the HDV being reselected to stand in local elections in May, it might seem that Momentum is taking over in Haringey.
The Daily Mail has reported members of councils around the country being ‘ousted’ from their positions for their centrist, ‘Blairite’ views. ‘Hard left’ candidates have swarmed in and wrenched control.
Alternatively, these developments might be an electorate; disillusioned with councils that have not listened to their concerns, exercising their democratic rights. As much as Momentum’s leaders may be ideologically driven, its rank-and-file membership are using the organisation as a mouthpiece for real concerns about their local community.
Momentum disseminates easily digestible information about how an individual can become more involved in the Labour Party and how they can start their own local Momentum branches. In doing so, the organisation has created exportable methods of grassroots organisation that give communities a voice.
There is much valid criticism to be levelled at Momentum. Guardian analysis reveals Momentum’s failure to enforce its rules has resulted in members of the group Militant, purged from the Labour Party by Neil Kinnock in the 1980s, finding influential roles within the organisation. But the bandying of ideologically-charged terms is often imprecise and ignores the variegated views of members, and their variegated circumstances. Criticism must be levelled at the correct groups within Momentum, or we risk further alienating the disenfranchised.
Portraying Momentum as a bureaucratic virus means avoiding the reality that there is genuine support for Corbyn’s socialist programme, and that this comes right from the bottom. The 2016 motion of no-confidence in Corbyn was passed with an overwhelming support of 172-40 Members of Parliament. Yet he was re-elected leader by a large margin: his victory came not from MPs, but from the grassroots.
Momentum is a local movement, on a national scale. If those in the Labour Party, who have until now described Momentum only in terms of its most dogmatic members and national agenda, were to focus on listening and responding to local concerns, they may diffuse the most toxic aspects of Momentum and use it to improve relations between the Party and communities, while avoiding empowering those who wish to use this phenomenon for their personal gain.
Photograph: Funk Dooby via Flickr