As Brexit begins, British progressive politics could do with some momentum

6 Apr 2017

Well that was an anti-climax, wasn’t it? Theresa May’s Article 50 letter signed, sealed and delivered to Donald Tusk, and after almost ten months of political posturing we are finally off to the races. Seeing as there has been more than enough column inches dedicated to the ticking time bomb that is Brexit, let us talk about something else instead. 


A friend of mine left the Labour Party last week, after roughly twenty years of on and off membership. When contacted by the membership team to explain her decision, she said, ‘I will re-join when there is a new leader who is capable of leading an organisation and hopefully a country.’


Good riddance to bitter Blairites eh? Well, perhaps not, as party documents leaked to The Times this week showed that 10,849 other like-minded souls had done the same over the last month. All told, the party’s lost 26,000 members since last July. 


Yet you’d still be right to point out that Labour remains the largest left-wing party in Europe in terms of membership size. Hardly an existential crisis. But as Brexit kicked off this week, so did the Unite leadership elections, and the fight to lead Labour’s biggest paymaster could have serious repercussions for the party itself. 


A recording, taped at a meeting of Momentum in Richmond at the start of March and leaked to The Observer, shows Momentum founder Jon Lansman calling for the movement to officially affiliate itself to Unite should incumbent leader Len McCluskey be re-elected this April. Momentum’s plans to reshape the Labour party are well-documented, including in that recording, and if the organisation were to be financed by the resources of Britain’s biggest trade union, it would almost certainly have the means to mount an attempt to fully take over the Labour Party at a local level. 


Moreover, the so-called ‘McDonnell amendment’, which would mean a prospective candidate for the Labour leadership would only need the support of 5% of MPs and MEPs, the current requirement being 15%, which was also proposed by Lansman in that recording, is yet more evidence of the left attempting to maintain their stranglehold on the party beyond the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. It is no wonder Labour deputy leader Tom Watson tweeted to Lansman, accusing him of trying to ‘destroy the Labour Party as an electoral force.’


So, Momentum equals bad, right? Well it’s not quite as simple as that. There’s a tendency to see Momentum as a cadre of crusty old Trotskyists (certainly that’s Watson’s view), the same hard-left figures fighting the same battles as they did in the 1980s. And while Lansman’s conspiring with McCluskey shows that desire to gain permanent control of the Labour Party is certainly there amongst some figures in Momentum, it is far too simple to say that it’s merely Militant with a different title. 


See, Momentum is full of people like me. Young, politically-charged, idealistic and progressive. Perhaps the only difference is that they’re generally supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. But that’s a debate we can have. Tony Blair’s former speechwriter and current Times’ columnist Philip Collins, perhaps an anathema to many of Momentum’s members, wrote back in September that: ‘it is the Labour Party that is the sclerotic dinosaur, not Momentum… ‘it is not flashpoint campaigning or left-wing placard-wielding.’ 


Fellow centrist Nick Tyrone echoes this and wrote that: ‘what fuels Momentum is young people who are scared about where their country is going and what their futures look like; who are scared that owning a house is becoming increasingly a pipe dream for members of their generation; that decent jobs appear to be getting more and more scarce for graduates; they look at the encroaching conservativism of society, given extra oomph via Brexit, and feel it is out of touch with their left-liberal world view.’


An army of politically active, progressive young people is a boon for British politics, it should be encouraged rather than driven out. It is certainly right to question whether or not Momentum is a cult of personality that is inextricably linked to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and whether the drive of its members can be co-opted by the wider progressive left. 


It is also right to question whether the exodus of Labour members and Jeremy Corbyn’s continuing pathetic leadership of the Labour Party will impact on this same drive and political activism. If and when Corbyn quits or is eventually deposed, perhaps the most damning indictment of his leadership could be that those voters and members attracted by his message of a new kind of politics and of social justice, are eventually turned off from politics altogether by his actual brand of an unelectable, useless politics. 


In the week Article 50 was triggered, it is worth thinking about the political impact a progressive army of young people, working in conjunction with existing political parties, could have. It is my hope that Momentum members see faded old leftists like Corbyn, McDonnell, McCluskey and Lansman as an obstacle to progressive politics rather than its salvation, but in these dark times for the left, it could at least provide a flicker of light. 


With all the talk over immigration, European acronyms and different shades of Brexit, such a movement could refocus the debate onto issues that matter just as much to us; affordable housing, well-paid jobs, the state of society, and the kind of Brexit that works for us. Given how hard it can be to get young people to care about politics, Momentum should be applauded for what it has achieved since its inception in 2015.


It has so much potential for progressive politics and for energising those who don’t have a history of political activism, it would be such a shame if it degenerated into a way for the same hard-left retreads to wage the same wars in a bid to take over the Labour Party. 


As the two-year timer ticks down, British progressive politics could really do with an injection of momentum. 

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