by Matthew Lane
If you listened to much of the media and some Labour MPs, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Momentum were an extreme, far-left, violent, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, brick-throwing bunch of thugs out to infiltrate and then destroy the Labour Party.
There have been concerted efforts to paint them as dangerous, threatening and chock full of Trots, Militants, commies, anarchists and hard-left entryists. Rather than being seen as a force for good, a progressive, democratic movement to build on the energy, passion and enthusiasm that was seen in the run-up to Jeremy Corbyn’s landslide victory last September, they are instead seen as a force for evil, a party within a party, a vehicle for the far-left, an organisation intent on deselecting anyone who doesn’t agree with them.
A return to the dark old days of the 80s, a decade where bitter divisions in the party led to Labour being unelectable for a generation, is inevitable if Momentum are allowed to get their way, if this terrifying grassroots movement of eager activists – young and old, some just getting into politics for the first time – are able to take control of the party. At least that’s the received wisdom.
The obvious answer as to why Momentum cause such panic among the Parliamentary Labour Party is that they fully back and support Jeremy Corbyn. For many of the PLP Corbyn equals the devil incarnate, a stubborn, unelectable protest politician who just refuses to give up his massive mandate and step down after only 10 months – 10 months in which he’s faced unprecedented hostility from a biased media, the Tories and his own MPs. Anything to do with Corbyn must therefore automatically be bad, scary and dangerous. No reasons are given as to why, but things like that don’t matter.
Once it was decided that Momentum was hard-left, that line then needed to be stuck to at all costs. Evidence to prove such a fact wasn’t needed, just a compliant media – the Evening Standard, for example, regularly talks of Momentum as a hard-Left or far-Left movement, as do the Times, the Telegraph, the Sun and the Daily Mail – and Labour MPs such as Tom Watson, the Deputy Leader, describing the group as a “bit of a rabble”.
Emma Reynolds, a Labour MP and a former minister in Ed Miliband’s Shadow Cabinet, has described Momentum as “a parallel organisation to the Labour Party”.
She said back in October 2015 that the group have questions to answer:
What is it they are seeking to do? Who is going to be involved? Are there going to be members of the SWP or Trotskyite, Stalinist parties involved? And there is a suspicion they are really about de-selecting MPs and forcing MPs out of our party.”
Ben Bradshaw, MP for Exeter and a frequent critic of Jeremy Corbyn, has also been very forthright in his views of Momentum. Last December he said he was puzzled by the formation of a Momentum group in Exeter, saying:
“if they are genuine about supporting Labour they would be better spending their time taking the fight to the Tories rather than sniping at Labour MPs and fellow Labour members.”
In March this year he tweeted: “they’re useless time-wasters who have absolutely no desire to see Labour elected” after a planned protest against Florence Eshalomi, a councillor running for a seat on the Greater London Assembly (GLA).
In July Bradshaw went even further, appearing on BBC News to urge Jeremy Corbyn to “call off these Momentum thugs” after a window that was part of the building Angela Eagle’s constituency office resides in was bricked. At the time the media incorrectly stated that Eagle’s office window had been smashed, when this hadn’t been the case at all. It was a side door, of a building that was shared with seven other companies. It followed a spate of similar incidents in the surrounding area.
The police haven’t identified any motive for the attack or any of the perpetrators. There is no indication that it was carried out by a Corbyn supporter or even that the bricking had anything to do with Angela Eagle’s office. Any attempt to explicitly imply, as Bradshaw clearly did, that it was “Momentum thugs” who were guilty of the crime was incredibly unwise at best, inflammatory and sinister at worst.
Politicians should really think before they speak. In this case Bradshaw engaged his mouth before he engaged his brain. He made a tense situation even tenser by attempting to smear all Momentum activists as nasty, brick-throwing thugs.
It’s far from the only time Momentum members have been smeared in such a way. Stella Creasy, another vocal critic of the group – she said in March that “groups like Momentum now appear to be draining the very energy from our political process they claimed to be promoting, by encouraging the myth righteous by-standing is activism” – has apparently been a regular target for deselection by the Momentum “rabble” and “mob” who now supposedly control the levers of power in the party.
Again, there has been no actual evidence for attempts to deselect Creasy – just rumour, speculation and conjecture. But once that idea sticks – of Momentum as an unpleasant, nasty army of deselecters – it soon becomes gospel.
Creasy, who has in the past suggested that Momentum are far more interested in “meetings and moralising than real campaigning”, is regularly described as a moderate MP, in the same sort of club as Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham – moderate, moderate, moderate, moderate. No-one is quite sure why they’re so moderate (and their voting records often don’t back this up), but moderate in this case seems to mean standing for very little while constantly preaching that you stand for everything.
Miliband was a moderate, so were much of his frontbench at the last election. Labour lost dismally. Burnham, Cooper and Kendall are all described as moderate, with Burnham a bit to the left, Kendall a bit to the right, and Cooper firmly in the centre ground. All three were roundly beaten by Corbyn last September.
Now Owen Smith is the latest moderate, who also happens to be very radical and very, very left-wing (he’s keen to make this clear at every possible opportunity). The PLP can no longer decide if their moderate or centrist or radical or left-wing – but they’ll be holding a focus group in Nuneaton next week to find out for sure.
So while Cooper and Burnham, who both voted for the Iraq War (and any investigations into it), PFI, ID cards and tuition fees, are described as moderate, a grassroots movement made up of people from all backgrounds, professions and age groups whose main aim is “to create a mass movement for real progressive change” are routinely painted as a radical, hard left, purging, deselecting rabble; part of a group that has been infiltrated by the SWP and other far-left groups intent on destroying the Labour party.
Of course, if you actually go to a Momentum meeting, follow them on Twitter or receive email communications from them (as I do), then you would know that the reality doesn’t match the media portrayal. All communications I’ve received from them have been perfectly reasonable, rational and sensible – there has never been any talk of deselections or purges. They’ve just regularly outlined their support for Corbyn’s leadership and policies, called for a new kind of politics and attempted to mobilise support during by-elections, local elections and the referendum. They are now doing the same with the second Labour leadership election in under a year, relentlessly campaigning and trying to win support for Corbyn. Again, not one of the emails I’ve received has been in any way violent, hostile or inflammatory.
Maybe I’m receiving a different kind of email from everyone else, because I’m not actually a paid-up member, but I’ve seen nothing from Momentum to suggest that the paranoia and suspicion from the PLP about a far-left infiltration is in any way warranted.
Yes, there will be a few Momentum members that are shouty and aggressive, but they are likely to be in a very small minority, just like is the case on the right and centre of the party. Abuse, whatever the media likes to think, hasn’t just been going one way. However, to try and suggest that the 60,000 or so supporters Momentum has – plus those who have signed up to vote for Corbyn as leader or have joined the Labour party because of him – are all hard-left Trots is so ridiculous it’s not even worthy of proper scrutiny.
I’m 26. I’ll be honest, I had to look up what a Trotskyite was. I had to Google the TUSC and the SWP to know for sure what the acronyms stood for. I’m sure many other young people, engaged with politics for the first time because of Corbyn, would be the same. I’ve never, believe it or not, purchased a copy of the Morning Star. I’ve never been to a rally. I’ve never interacted with any far left-groups. I’m sure, as a Corbyn supporter, I’m far from alone in that.
A large portion of those backing Corbyn will just be ordinary, everyday people who want an alternative; a progressive stance against the most right-wing Tory government in years. In Corbyn we see a politician we can trust and get behind. He’s by no means perfect, but he’s the only one who is fully committed to actually challenging the status quo. He doesn’t just say things to get votes, he says things with conviction because he believes in what he is saying. After the Blair and Cameron years, that’s extremely refreshing.
People of my generation have grown up in the “they’re all the same, can’t trust any of ‘em” world of politics. Many young people don’t vote because they are so disenfranchised, because they think their voice won’t be heard. In Corbyn, though, they see someone who could actually improve their chances of owning their own home, getting a decent job and getting a university education without saddling themselves with a lifetime of debt.
The sneering attempts to write off Momentum as hard-left are why the PLP have been failing so badly to connect in recent years. If they still can’t understand why Corbyn won, why the Corbynmania surge last summer took off, or why young people (and older ones too) are putting all their faith in a 67-year old, allotment loving socialist who had never been in a position of power until last September, they are doomed to fail yet again. It’s the disconnect between the PLP and Labour members, festering for so many years, that led Corbyn to power. It’s the PLP’s patronising, we know best attitude that will see them lose again in a month and half’s time.
Isn’t it also odd that Progress, an actual party within a party with some very dubious funding and shocking levels of transparency, are only ever framed as moderate, whereas Momentum – a grassroots movement that anyone can join – are only ever framed as mad, bad and dangerous to know?
Why aren’t Progress afforded the same level of scrutiny and media coverage? What, as Emma Reynolds might put it, is Progress seeking to do? Who is involved? How are they being funded? What is their aim? And there is a suspicion that they refused to accept a democratic vote last September, have been working ever since then to overturn it – by any means – and are prepared to see the party split in order to get their own way.
The way in which Momentum have been framed is very telling – and more than a little worrying. How is it that such a large swathe of our media can paint them as hard-Left or far-Left without any actual evidence to back this up? How is it that a Labour MP can link Momentum members to violence and not be challenged on this?
Maybe that’s what the PLP fear most. That the grassroots now have a voice, a voice that is telling the PLP that they’ve been taken for granted for too long. Blair’s top down approach is no longer good enough for the members and the grassroots, but with so many New Labour/Progress/moderate/Fabian Society MPs still in place the PLP are unprepared to change their ways – not even three election defeats (including last year’s Labour leadership election) in a row will convince them that radical change is required.