Labour has always been a conference of two halves. There’s the official conference, surrounded by corporate lobbyists and lots of policemen; and there’s the fringe outside where more radical voices talk about socialism and militants traditionally shake their fists at Labour MPs. This year it’s different – the fringe has become the conference.
Ten minutes from the soulless docklands convention centre, Momentum is staging a rival conference in a labyrinthine community arts centre called Black-E, attended by thousands of Labour members and supporters. From 9am to 11pm they’re attending sessions on everything from “Radical Federalism” to “Football as a Force for Social Change”; from “Rethinking Higher Education” to “Making the Left Sexy”. There’s also earnest discussion about automation, the jobs famine how to make globalisation work for people rather than the other way round.
If there’s a student radical feel to much of what goes on in Momentum, that isn’t surprising. It owes its origins to the anti-fees demonstrations in 2010 and to activist initiatives like Occupy, UK Uncut and Stop Climate Chaos. Everyone here wears their feminist, LBGT and non-racist credentials very prominently. There is a strong element of self-help: workshops on how to organise a phone bank, citizen journalism and public speaking.
The youthful and somewhat chaotic character of Momentum makes it easy to dismiss as amateur hour, but it reminded me of nothing so much as the Yes Scotland campaign in 2014. There’s the same eclectic radicalism and willingness to embrace culture as a political activity – the Black-E agenda is laced with films, theatre, music. 2014 Yestivals come to mind.
What it isn’t is a revival of the Trotskyite politics of the 1980s. Labour MPs don’t seem able to understand this, but Momentum is as different from Militant as the Yes Scotland campaign was from the old Scottish National Party. Superannuated Marxists are certainly around but they are under tolerance.
I heard one prominent Marxist academic, Leo Panitch, silenced by a Momentum audience who complained that he had droned on for half an hour about revolution and they didn’t need another patronising lecture. SWP-types who barge into debates ranting about the need for class struggle and Bolshevik organisation are given short shrift. Capitalism is certainly seen as the problem but communism – or its variants – is not seen as any kind of answer.
This makes it hard to locate Momentum as a political entity. Ideologically, it is more like the mainstream Labour Party back in the 1980s before it became corporate. There is support for unilateral nuclear disarmament and public ownership but you don’t hear boilerplate rhetoric about “seizing the means of production” or “expropriating the expropriators”. There is surprisingly little mention of class, though inequality is a prime focus.
But whatever it is, this movement has been immensely successful in its short life. It has propelled Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell – the two icons of Momentum – into the leadership of the UK Labour Party. Its members have helped turn Labour into the biggest political party in Western Europe with 650,000 members.
But can a party with this diffuse enviro-femino-LBGT-agenda ever be successful electorally in Daily Mail England? That’s difficult to imagine – but not much more difficult than thinking back in 2014 that the Yes Scotland campaign could come to dominate Scotland. I remember the Spectator columnist, Alex Massie, dismissing the knitting-group-and-wish-tree Yessers as being “about as subversive as a flat white in Finnieston”. But these naïve amateurs turned Scotland upside down and helped destroy the Unionist parties as an electoral force.
Just as the SNP absorbed the energy and numbers of the Yes Scotland campaign, and turned it into electoral hegemony, so Labour could – in theory – absorb the radicalism of Momentum and turn it into an electoral force. This would be more believable if they had a leader of the character of Nicola Sturgeon. But there could well be figures in the Momentum movement who could take on this role in future after Corbyn.
A more immediate question from a Scottish point of view is whether Momentum poses a challenge to the SNP. Many of those Yes Scotland campaigners who joined the SNP after the referendum must be wondering where that adventurous radicalism has gone. Is an SNP led by conservative figures like Angus Robertson and John Swinney really what they were fighting for? Where’s the “better nation”?
As it turns into the party of the establishment, the SNP would be wise watch Momentum very closely.