Momentum was founded in 2015 by Jon Lansman following Jeremy Corbyn’s success in the Labour leadership election. It was designed partly to be defensive: his praetorian guard against Labour MPs who didn’t want him in place. It also neatly dovetailed with an extra-parliamentary form of politics the hard left had long engaged in – both out of ideological belief, and due to lack of MP numbers.
The True Socialist vanguard demonstrated its worth in November 2016 when, following a parliamentary vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader beat off Owen Smith’s doomed challenge. The group had mobilised thousands of members to sign up to Labour as registered supporters in order to see off the centrist challenge. Corbyn won with 60% of the vote. This was accomplished when most Labour voters’ hearts had been broken by the Referendum result Corbyn had done so conspicuously little to avert. It was, in short, a triumph of factional politics.
But Momentum was also designed to be offensive: Capturing control of Labour’s NEC and, constituency by constituency, they recruited members to the party in the aim of getting hard-left MPs selected and solidifying their grip on the party. When most Westminster reporting was writing up the ERG as being ‘a party within a party’, this was what the real thing in action actually looked like.
But now, after grabbing the wheel and crashing the car, you might be forgiven for imagining they have gone away. Disappearing back into the myriad of obscure hard-left groups from whence they came would have been a humbled and chastened response to Corbyn’s abject failure in 2019 to win the General Election. After all, Labour’s hard-left General Secretary Jennie Formby resigned at the start of the month, citing the fact that Jeremy Corbyn had quit and he was the only reason she’d wanted the job.
But they haven’t gone away. Momentum is as active as ever and hosts several Zoom calls every week with thousands of attendees on a range of topics. One earlier this week featured hard-left Labour Chancellor John McDonnell, MP, and 23 year old Labour newbie Nadia Whittome, MP, broadcasting their thoughts to the masses. And on Tuesday another call was a discussion with three MPs from the 2019 intake -Sarah Owen, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Apsana Begum – and left-wing veteran Diane Abbott. The call was about the disproportionate impact, as they saw it, of Coronavirus on ethnic minorities and it was attended by over a thousand Momentum supporters from around the country.
Have the hard-left faction admitted any mistakes from the General Election defeat they led their party to?
It doesn’t look like it. Diane Abbott acknowledged to the activists that the Labour Party had had a “catastrophic General Election” but criticised the idea Labour should reconnect with the “core vote” if this phrase was a euphemism for white working class voters in industrial areas. One of the biggest problems with ending the lockdown was “Sinophobia” – according to British-Chinese MP Sarah Owen. She criticised Conservatives for calling Covid-19, which came from China, a “Chinese Virus” and also blamed Donald Trump, whom she called a racist, for stirring up resentment towards Chinese people. And Bell Ribeiro Addy’s most notable contribution to the chat was when she suggested the increased likelihood of Vitamin D deficiencies in black people was as a result of racism.
On previous Momentum Zoom calls in recent weeks Diane Abbott repeated her famous phrase that white people were playing “divide and rule” and on another call a Labour parliamentary candidate called the economy “racist”.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the Momentum call this week was the ability of hard left MPs on it to multitask. In the first ever remote division in the House of Commons Diane Abbott, Sarah Owen, Apsana Begum, and Bell Ribeiro-Addy were being broadcast live to Momentum activists and were heard asking each other which way they were supposed to vote. The question was “This House has considered Covid-19” – Labour were voting “no” and all of them managed to vote the right way whilst keeping their connection to the zoom call live. It’s all too easy to be a voting Labour MP and in Momentum at the same time. Which should give Sir Keir Starmer pause for thought.
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