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Behind the scenes with Momentum: what are they up to?

1 December 2015

10:47 AM

1 December 2015

10:47 AM

On Saturday evening, the Eastern Pavilion Banqueting Hall was taken over by Momentum for a curry after a cold and very wet day of campaigning for the Oldham West and Royton by-election. Momentum is a political activist group, founded in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the Labour leadership. As with most things under his watch, it has received a bad press. Critics in and outside of the Labour party say Momentum is trying to be a party within a party — an effort by hard-left activists to infiltrate Labour as Militant did in the 1980s and make it their own.

Everyone I spoke in the Eastern Pavilion vigorously denied this charge, simply telling me they were enthused by Corbyn’s victory in the leadership contest and want to keep the spirit going. For the Corbynites, Momentum, not necessarily the Labour party, has become the natural outlet for Corbynites to support their man. On the last Saturday before by-election polling day, Momentum put together four coaches to ship activists from London, Birmingham, Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield up to Oldham. Labour managed to pull together 400 activists and a good chunk, if not the majority, were present thanks to Momentum.

There was no stereotypical Momentum activist at the dinner — it was a melting pot of the young and old, men and women. The event was a reward for a day of campaigning, just like the Conservatives did (dare I say it) with RoadTrip during the general election. Aside from some cans of Fosters, there was little drinking and certainly no pool table romps.

While munching on their dinner, the Momentum troops listened to speeches from their fellow activists before the Oldham West Labour candidate Jim McMahon took to the stage, followed by John McDonnell. As well as some choice comments about Ukip and his fellow MPs, the shadow chancellor set the record straight about what Momentum is:

‘We’ve had a bit of a bad press, Momentum, in some of the press, some of the stuff that’s been put up by, well, elements within the party unfortunately that Momentum is all some left-wing plot within the party about deselecting some MPs or whatever. To be honest, if you’ve just read some of the newspapers, you lot would have be seen as a revolutionary sect about to take over the world.’

‘Well you might be, that’ll be reported in the Daily Mail,’ he joked. McDonnell was effusive about how Momentum is  reshaping the Labour party. ‘What Momentum brought, what that campaign brought…was the concept of the Labour party becoming a social movement again. Thousands of people are still joining the Labour party ever week…and they’ve brought in fresh ideas, fresh blood but above all else, fresh activity’.

The question that still puzzled me is why does Momentum exist as a separate organisation from the Labour party? There are the traditional party structures, which offer plenty of opportunities for campaigning — regardless of whether you support Corbyn or not. I spoke to Emma Rees, one of the Momentum organisers for the Oldham campaign day about what the group is doing. Rees said Saturday was ‘a real show of strength and solidarity’. Despite the ‘absolutely abysmal weather’, Momentum did similar things to regular Labour activists: leafleting, posting letters and making tea.

So what is the point of Momentum if it is doing the same things as Labour? ‘Momentum is about providing an additional platform for people to get involved and to participate in politics at a local level with the idea of strengthening the Labour party and working towards a Labour victory in 2020 and all the other elections,’ Rees said. ‘The vast majority of Momentum supporters are active members of their local Labour parties and many Momentum supporters are people who have also newly joined the party’.

Like McDonnell, Rees denied that Momentum is trying to be a party within Labour — insisting the group only exists to help. ‘The experience on the ground really doesn’t speak to that. I think you have consider that Momentum has come out of the back of a leadership campaign that was incredibly positive and it involved lots of people – there were 16,000 people that volunteered during Jeremy’s leadership campaign and Momentum is continuation that’.

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