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Building Momentum

Building Momentum
10 min read

Once derided as a group of left-wing fanatics, Momentum is beginning to earn mainstream respect. Emboldened by June’s election result, activists in the pro-Jeremy Corbyn group have kept their feet firmly on the pedal. Sebastian Whale reports


As delegates pack their bags for the Labour party conference in Brighton, much of the buzz is about another four-day event taking place in the seaside town. For the second year running The World Transformed, Momentum’s festival of politics, art, music and culture, will run in parallel to Labour’s annual rendezvous.

“That is where the action is,” Labour MP Clive Lewis says in these pages. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to spend time at conference and hopefully I get to speak on the podium and engage in some of the fringe events there as well. But to me, the energy at The World Transformed is something else.”

Some 6,000 people are expected to visit events at nine venues across Brighton. Among the more than 20 Labour MPs set to attend the festival are Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, through to those from the more supposedly moderate wing of the party in the shape of Lisa Nandy and Jon Ashworth. Fresh from calling bingo numbers in Doncaster, Ed Miliband is due to host a ‘party politics’ pub quiz. Other notable speakers include Comedian Russell Brand, journalist Stephen Bush and film director Ken Loach.

Two of those mentioned either called for Corbyn to resign (Miliband) and or ran Owen Smith’s bid to succeed him as Labour leader (Nandy) in 2016. Indeed, many former sceptics have softened their views following Momentum’s exploits during the election. John McTernan, Tony Blair’s ex-director of political operations, attended the World Transformed last year. He is now one of Momentum’s 27,000 members. In under two years, the group has gathered more than 80,000 followers on Twitter and 160,000 likes on Facebook. Its viral videos and social media strategy allows it to navigate perceived biases in the media to reach directly to millions of voters.

A spokesperson says: “Everything that we did during that campaign was all to put as much effort as possible into getting a good result for Labour.

“People were worried that we were just clicktivists or other things that had been associated with Momentum. But afterwards people went ‘okay, these guys are serious, they are going to try and help Labour get elected’. I think that’s why people are now willing to come to the World Transformed.”

John Colbourne, a software engineer from Brighton, joined Momentum in May. The 29-year-old will co-facilitate a ‘Hackathon’ at the World Transformed, where volunteer coders and developers within Momentum’s Digital Network are set a series of challenges to solve issues with Momentum’s site, app or other aspects of its offering, as well as building on the existing digital infrastructure.

“It’s less serious and intense, and instead normal and open,” Colbourne says of Momentum. “It’s not the kind of image that I had maybe of Momentum, even as someone who’s sympathetic.”

Not everyone will be donning their glad rags and heading to the festival, though. Labour MP John Spellar has accused Momentum of seeking to “storm” the conference and “bounce” the party into their policy positions. Uncertainty about the group’s aims are still prevalent, as it continues to permeate the ventricles of the Labour party. A Momentum source insists the group is not calling for the deselection of individual Labour MPs at national level. Instead, it supports greater member participation, and welcomes the National Executive Committee’s endorsement of Corbyn’s democratisation plan, including lowering the percentage of MPs and MEPs needed to select leadership candidates from 15% to 10%.

It’s on the ground though where Momentum has gained notoriety. Its site, My Nearest Marginal, helped pro-Labour voters find out where best to campaign during the election. Its ability to mobilise troops has even become the envy of the Conservatives, who are hurriedly seeking to address their own grassroots problem amid the party’s dwindling, ageing membership base.

Refusing to lose impetus, activists have been out canvassing up and down the country all summer. On one blustery September day in west Yorkshire, I joined them to find out more.

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The passenger window of a blue Vauxhall estate rolls down as it draws alongside a line of Labour canvassers on the nearby pavement. “F*** the Tories!” a man yells from inside, his head poking out and arms aloft, the vehicle continuing into the distance. “Yea!” replies one canvasser, jubilantly, before pausing: “What did he say? Out with the Tories?”

Some nod their heads, others shrug, unsure what was said. But I know. “He said f*** the Tories.” 

“Oh. Right.”

It’s just before 11am on Sunday 10 September as activists gather at the Social and District club in Shipley, ahead of a day’s campaigning. Inside volunteers are busy setting up. Lines of chairs face a raised stage at the top of the hall. Labour-branded balloons are tied to a banister alongside steps that feed through to the back of the room, where three women, members of the Shipley Feminist Zealots, proudly serve homemade treats. Positioned next to a tray of cupcakes with blue icing is a sign recounting one of the local MP’s best known refrains: ‘Philip Davies said: Feminist zealots really do want women to have their cake and eat it’.

The old and the young file in, some resplendent in Labour t-shirts, many bearing party stickers slapped on their weekend attire. By 11.30 every seat is taken. This is an electric atmosphere as the guest speaker, Owen Jones, nears arrival. A hush breaks out as the Guardian columnist enters, and ventures to the stage.

A team photo, taken after Jones’ rousing six-minute address, is swiftly circulated on social media. Members of the press are ushered into a room to chat with Jones and other local politicians, while Joe Bradley, an employee of the pro-Jeremy Corbyn group Momentum, leads an hour-long session on how to canvass. The training, which was developed with activists who worked on Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, sheds light on techniques to use while door knocking.

Today’s event is the second collaboration between Jones’ Unseat movement, which targets marginal constituencies held by high-profile Tory MPs with a view to creating a series of “Portillo moments” at the next election, and Momentum. The first was held a week earlier in Putney, the seat currently occupied by Education Secretary Justine Greening. Fellow Cabinet ministers Amber Rudd and Boris Johnson are also in the line of fire.

I’m told there are around 250 people present, and to the naked eye this does not look like spin. On a wet Sunday, which coincides with the annual Saltaire festival at the nearby model village (a world heritage site), that is some feat, testament to the potential that combining the slick operations of Momentum and Jones’ popularity brings.

Rather than seeking a ministerial scalp, today activists are targeting a very specific Tory backbencher. Davies was first elected MP for Shipley in 2005. His majority at the 2017 election was more than halved from 9,624 to 4,681. Davies’ record of talking out private members’ bills on free hospital car parking for carers through to tackling violence against women and girls has made him something of a vilified figure. To others he is a purveyor of men’s rights and diligent with his scrutiny of legislation.

Sitting down with Jones, I ask if it’s wise going after MPs in this way, given the political climate? “The reason we’re saying he’s a sexist bigot is because actually speaking, he is a sexist bigot, and his record in parliament voting against legislation tackling violence against girls and women shows he’s a sexist bigot,” he says. “That’s not about his character, that’s about his record.”

But it’s a record that the people of Shipley have chosen to elect on four occasions. Doesn’t attacking Davies question the judgment of those who backed him? “No, I think what you find in an election is often people don’t know very much about their candidates, because they’ve got better things to do with their lives,” he says.

He adds: “There is a very optimistic bent to what we’re doing, because we’re going out with Labour’s vision and message about what sort of country we can build. The Tories on the other hand, they’re the ones who have the wholly negative campaigns going on about personal stuff. Ours is very different from that.”

Mike Connors is a local businessman (he owns a property management company) who joined in 2015 to vote for Corbyn. He drives our group to the Higher Coach Road estate, a council housing development built in the 1950s, as canvassers are distributed across Shipley. Progress on the doorstep is stilted, it’s Sunday after all. A man with zombie face paint politely says “now is not the best time” after Jones taps on his door, his daughter giggling effusively through the window. Many aren’t home, most likely at the festival on the other side of town.

A local Labour party member invites activists to her home for cake, tea and a debrief on the political thinking of nearby residents. She counsels that Davies is a popular local MP. Many of his constituents aren’t familiar with his Westminster antics, but several can recall tales of him helping with an issue. Focus on Labour’s platform, is the underlying message.

Davies is nonplussed however, branding the day a “publicity stunt by Owen Jones to try to impress his hard-left friends”. “I didn’t really make much of it really. We had an Unseat Philip Davies campaign in June. It was called the general election,” he says.

Of course, it’s not the first-time Davies has been targeted in this way. Sophie Walker, the leader of the Women’s Equality party, stood against him in June on a platform of attacking his remarks about women’s rights. As with Walker, Davies challenges Jones to back up his assertions.

“What Owen Jones has said is completely wrong and defamatory and I’m awaiting him to provide some evidence of when I’ve ever called for women to be treated less favourably than a man. And he won’t be able to because I never have and never would do.”

There are some successes on the doorstep. Several non-voters indicate they’d be willing to vote Labour. Jones proves a hit, his elevator pitch for Labour well harnessed after years of door knocking, and lands a few wins with floating voters. A videographer, a volunteer from Momentum’s Video Network, documents the event, while a Labour activist who moonlights as a photographer takes snaps ready to distribute to the media. Within days, Jones shares on Twitter a two-minute video of the day’s highlights to his circa 674,000 followers.

By 5pm, the rain is pouring down. Activists retire for a social event at the Kirkgate Centre in Shipley. Whatever your views on their tactics, Momentum are making their voices heard across the country. With Labour membership at 550,000, the group is keeping its foot on the pedal as the possibility of a snap election looms overhead.

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