Since its defeat in May’s general election, the Labour Party has transformed at what has seemed like lightning speed. The waves of new members and registered supporters inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid appear to have fundamentally altered the balance of power within the party. But this rapid shift to the Left has also polarised opinion within Labour circles. Although many existing members and a handful of MPs openly welcomed the new Corbyn era, many have complained about suddenly feeling like strangers within their own party.
It is against this backdrop that two new internal groups have recently arrived on the scene – Momentum and Labour Together. We’ve been delving into their aims, how they stack up in numbers, and what effect they’re likely to have on Labour’s future direction.
On its website, Momentum describes itself as 'a network of people and organisations that will continue the energy and enthusiasm of Jeremy [Corbyn]’s campaign.' That campaign, as cited regularly by Corbyn, was about changing the Labour Party itself.
There has already been much speculation from restive MPs about what Momentum’s agenda might be. Their main worry appears to be a return to the bitter deselection battles of the 1980s. Momentum’s website mentions that it hasn’t even decided on its governance structure yet, which means that lobbying decisions are some way off. But it’s not too early to note the potentially close relationship that could exist with the leader’s office. The website goes out of its way to stress Momentum’s independence from the leadership, but its open declaration that it has evolved directly from Corbyn’s leadership campaign makes fairly clear whose side it is likely to be on if there is any conflict between the new leader and the PLP.
Momentum may also have muscle in any such disputes stemming from its strength in numbers. Over 550,000 people were eligible to cast a vote in the recent Labour leadership election, and just under 400,000 of those are now fully paid-up members. A quick glance at its Facebook page reveals that, so far, only around 27,000 of those have ‘liked’ Momentum. But, if we compare this figure to other internal groups, Momentum appears to possess a massive advantage, at the very least among Facebook’s youthful demographic. Progress, the standard-bearer of the Blairite Right, is the next largest Labour affiliated group on Facebook, yet weighs-in at just under 4,000 likes.
There’s also evidence of Momentum’s regionalisation. Type 'Momentum' into a Facebook search and you can find sub-groups for Merseyside, Greater London, the North of England, Manchester, Eastern England, Brighton & Hove, Teesside, Salford, Nottingham... the list goes on.
Moreover, despite its ambiguous leadership structure and hazy ultimate aims, Momentum has embarked on its first national campaign: a voter registration drive called 'Democracy SOS', designed to counteract the effects of individual voter registration and perceived Tory gerrymandering of constituency boundaries. That is likely to be something that all Labour members can welcome, but fear over what Momentum might do next remains. And this is unlikely to be helped by the fact that the only people currently barred from joining are those who have stood as candidates for rival parties.
The most noticeable thing about Labour Together’s online presence is the current lack of it. Their website is rather low-key in comparison with Momentum’s; comprising a single page which outlines who they are and what they stand for. You get the impression that they are still testing the water to see just how much support there is for the organisation. Indeed, that the organisation has only received 226 Facebook likes so far, a fraction of Momentum’s support, confirms this theory.
Labour Together declares itself to be 'broad and inclusive,' hoping to attract supporters of all four recent leadership campaigns. It seeks to promote unity within the party, which suggests Labour Together will attempt to work constructively with the leadership. Yet, it is fairly obvious that there would be no reason for the organisation to exist if its members felt themselves to be entirely in-step with Corbyn and his Shadow Cabinet.
But, for Labour Together to have any kind of impact, it will first have to recruit more members. If it can pull off the trick of uniting hitherto disparate factions in order to stimulate “intellectual renewal” in the Labour project, then it may yet save the party from a lengthy stint in the wilderness of opposition. The first signs of that renewal may be in Jon Cruddas’s ideas about responding to globalisation by decentralising power, or giving it “back to the people.”
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Perhaps the obvious question to ask about these new internal groups is - are they really necessary? And if they are, what does that say about the current state of the Labour Party? Essentially, one of these groups has been set-up to assert the views of the majority of party members, whilst the other has been set-up to provide a space for discussion between all members of the same party. You could be forgiven for believing that there is already an organisation in existence designed to do both of those things – it’s called “the Labour Party”.
But this is a moment of rapid change within Labour, and no wing of the party wants to be caught napping by its intellectual opponents. There are now profound disagreements taking place over ideology, economics, electoral strategy, even history. And, if the party is set to re-embrace a thriving internal democracy once again, factional competition will be an enduring facet of Corbyn’s reign.