Earlier this week, Labour was accused of purging centrist councillors from the party. Perhaps most controversially, Samantha Jury-Dada, an LGBT woman of colour and supporter of the group Progress, was replaced by a Momentum-supporting white male in the London borough of Southwark. Guardian columnist Owen Jones was quick to deny accusations that a purge was taking place, calling such accusations a lashing out of the right-wing press. But it was not only the press voicing these concerns, but members of the Labour party. Tim Gallagher, a councillor in Haringey, spoke of a ‘poisonous’ atmosphere in the north London borough, where a heated dispute over local development had culminated in around ten councillors either standing down or losing their seat.
Momentum has around 31,000 members. In the general election, Labour benefitted hugely from Momentum’s campaign strategy. Attempting to mirror Momentum’s success – especially among young voters – Young Conservatives started their equivalent, Activate, in September, with shambolic results. It may be that the Conservatives simply don’t have enough to offer young people to muster a following from them, but it may also be that Momentum’s grassroots campaigning has been particularly effective in making its members feel empowered. In any case, the pressure group has become increasingly influential, and its success is seen by its members as a testament to the popularity of Corbynism.
The question is whether accusations of an ‘aggressive purge’ are as far-fetched as Momentum members claim. The case of Haringey is perhaps a unique one, as conflict appears to have been created around the issue of transferring land to private developers, rather than being about Labour factions. Haringey resident Phil Jackson, for instance, argued in the Independent that the selection contest was about ‘ensuring a pro-social housing majority not a pro-Momentum majority.’ But deselections have been occurring more regularly across the country – in Leeds and Manchester, for example – suggesting a divisive atmosphere in which centrist Labour members are considered to be as much the opposition as the Conservatives are.
Loyalty to Momentum is becoming an increasingly significant aspect of joining the Labour party. Momentum is now asking Labour parliamentary contenders to sign a thirteen-point contract promising their commitment to the organisation’s objectives. This includes promising to commit to all of Jeremy Corbyn’s policies. It is difficult not to regard this as a somewhat Draconian way of stifling political difference. In fact, rather than guaranteeing loyalty and unity, such a move may exacerbate tensions within Labour, by sending out a message that disagreements with the Party leader will be ignored and discouraged.
In this way Momentum’s approach suggests a mistrust of healthy political debate. Owen Jones argues that newspapers such as the Times have been attempting to derail Momentum’s campaign. This attitude among Momentum supporters may have been bolstered by allegations of bias in news reporting during the general election, when BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg was accused of a bias against Corbyn in her reports. But this idea that what Owen Jones calls the ‘Murdoch press’ are conspiring against Momentum quickly begins to echo a Trump-like anti-journalist sentiment. The press of any liberal democracy will always contain left-wing and right-wing elements. Moreover, it is healthy for a democracy to voice the views of those across the political spectrum, so long as those views do not promote hate speech. But Momentum appear not to subscribe to this line of thinking.
The conversation around Momentum returns again and again to the question of whether or not the organisation is democratic. Of course, Momentum insists it is much more democratic than similar organisations. But whilst it is democratic to represent the views of its members, it is surely anti-democratic for an unelected group to engulf a party to such a degree, particularly when those members seek to repress the voices of other members. A bullying attitude and a refusal to listen to or tolerate different views appears to be characterising Momentum. The ‘poisonous’ atmosphere referred to by Gallagher should not be ignored.
Momentum are aspiring to create a Labour party of homogenous views and fully-fledged Corbyn support, without allowing room for disagreement and independent thought. Unity in Labour will only come from acknowledgement of, and respect for, these differences – otherwise Labour will continually butt heads over smaller issues rather than confronting Tory policy. Regardless of differences, Momentum need to check their behaviour in order to prevent further factionalism.