<FYI from 14 Nov 2015— this is fairly long, Buzzfeed version is here https://medium.com/@peterkwells/momentum-as-a-tech-startup-b7851601674a>
I joined the Labour Party when Tony Blair stood down.
I voted Labour before Tony Blair became leader but didn’t vote for it for quite a while afterwards. I knew the party was doing many good things in government but, for me, the good was outweighed by the bad. The authoritarian (which leads to violent) side of New Labour did not appeal to me. The side that thinks you can solve complex problems with big solutions. That does things for people rather than building with them.
During that period it seemed you had to be New Labour or you couldn’t take part in Labour. I joined when I thought that period had ended.
Last year I did voluntary work for Labour. I found it complex and bewildering at first. Politics is hard because humans and the world are marvellously and brilliantly complex. I found most people I met to be honest, trustworthy and committed. Labour lost the general election. Earlier this year I found myself thinking of how to make Labour more open and fit for the digital age.
Now I find myself concerned again that the good things about the Labour movement are being outweighed by the bad again. The authoritarian side of Labour is coming back to prominence.
The birth of Momentum
The Labour leadership race was vicious with insults flying from all sides. I tried to avoid it. I even considered filling out my ballot in crayon.
Some Labour members are morons, others a virus and the rest need a heart transplant. Lovely! Think I'll fill the ballot in crayon #children
— Peter Wells (@peterkwells) July 30, 2015
After he won Jeremy Corbyn filled his leadership office with a team from more controversial backgrounds than normal. I was surprised at their backgrounds but waited to see if the party would open up and modernise as I, and so many others, would like to see.
Then Jeremy Corbyn authorised his leadership campaign team to set up a new group outside the Labour Party: Momentum.
I first encountered Momentum on social media shortly after they launched. The Corbyn campaign team had been avid users of online marketing techniques to build a supporter base and organise rallies for Corbyn supporters during the leadership campaign. So, as expected, a number of Momentum Facebook groups and Twitter accounts quickly sprang up.
When I looked at them I saw that they were often rebranded Corbyn campign groups. There were genuine, well-intentioned people in the groups but there were also people full of the rhetoric from the leadership campaign: anyone who did not support Jeremy Corbyn was from the “right” and should “go and join the Tories”. As with the leadership campaign you had to be a believer to be one of ‘us’, otherwise you were one of ‘them’.
This wasn’t one-sided. Similar rhetoric emerged from other parts of Labour who were attacking Momentum. There even seemed to be an implicit mindset in some that Jeremy Corbyn had no right to be the leader: here’s some information about democracy to help with that.
Meanwhile much of what I was reading from Momentum was about rigidly enforcing Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas rather than encouraging open minds and trying to unite a party that contains multiple viewpoints and represents people with many many more. Leaders don’t just impose their views. They listen.
But there were also more worrying signs.
One Facebook group caught my eye in particular: Momentum England. They shared a message commemorating an IRA soldier, Jimmy Quigley, who was killed on active duty. A British soldier, Ian Burt, was killed in the same incident. Ian Burt was not mentioned in the post.
Northern Ireland is a complex place with lots of history. Jeremy Corbyn has a complex history with Northern Ireland. I like peace. I don’t like violence. I dropped the Momentum team a note to highlight the Facebook group, the post and some other similar posts that were being shared. I do try and help.
After two weeks there was no reply. At this point I was starting to wonder if this was actually how the Corbyn leadership campaign had really taken shape. Was it happy to be all things to all people: even people who had supported the IRA in the 70s? Every vote counts after all.
The group had changed its name to Republican Momentum when I sent a third and final note after seeing another offensive post. It had sat there for a day or two calling for Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA, to try and “end Cameron as they had tried to get Thatcher”. Something I took as a reference to the Brighton bomb in 1984. You know the bomb that killed people. No one commented on it but me (yeah I commented obliquely, I should have just said “you’re offensive. please stop.”).
This Momentum Facebook group had 2000 Facebook ‘likes’. That’s 2000 pairs of eyeballs that might have seen it and spoken up in a better way than I did. I didn’t see one.
I eventually got an anonymous response from the Momentum team claiming there was nothing they could do. Cobblers.
I responded to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, they could leave their own comments on the Facebook group to say that it breached their ethical code and doesn’t speak in their name.
The internet makes it easy to speak up. If you choose to.
The mostly anonymous Momentum team chose not to.
I live in Southwark in London. My local Labour Party ran an event last weekend to welcome new members to the party. The local party has doubled (tripled?) in size over the Summer. That’s a good thing.
I went to the event. Owen Jones gave a speech and then questions were taken. I asked the first question about a living wage campaign. The next three people all started their question by declaring themselves members of Momentum. I didn’t hear anyone else declaring themselves part of a “thing” (well apart from me calling myself a plastic Northerner from Blackpool). People are volunteers they have limited time and energy: this was a meeting where the local Labour team were trying to get people’s time and energy into the party that is led by Jeremy Corbyn. Subsequently a piece of paper went round gathering email addresses for Momentum. This wasn’t a Momentum meeting. This was a Labour meeting. Momentum aren’t even in Labour. Hmmm…
By the end of the meeting all of the Momentum questioners seemed to have already left so I left a note on Facebook questioning their decision to advertise themselves. There was a slightly inconclusive debate but there seemed to be a couple of reasonably open minds so I decided to go along to the meeting.
The attendees were mostly white and male. This is not representative of Southwark.
— James Schneider (@schneiderhome) November 10, 2015
All of the organisers and many of the attendees seemed to have been involved in the Corbyn campaign. Much of the discussion was framed as Corbyn and his supporters vs the rest of Labour. It was oppositional. Two leaflets were circulated about Southwark Council and Lambeth Council’s policies on housing and libraries. People blamed the councils. There was little awareness of the horrendously difficult choices that councils are having to make because of cuts imposed by central government.
The organisers chose topics for discussion and split people into groups. People nominated themselves as chairs for groups and reported back to the main meeting. The organisers and group chairs all seemed to know each other. Everything was fast. There was hustle and bustle and energy. Cool! But…… Structures like this work for those already engaged, not those who want to understand and think or who might struggle with the English language. It was the converted speaking to themselves. There was little listening. It was not democratic.
I joined a group to discuss “working with the local Labour party”.
Multiple people said that the people at the Momentum meeting needed to take over the Labour party and make it enact “Corbyn’s views”. That all Labour MPs and councillors should respect the democratic mandate of Jeremy Corbyn (yes) and enact his policies (no…).
Just like some of the people who are protesting against Jeremy Corbyn I don’t think these people understood democracy. Here’s a link to help with that. For those unfamiliar with politics and democracy it’s worth reading. In detail. There are many types of democracy: representative, direct, deliberative, participatory, etcetera. Different types of democracy work for different things. To my knowledge no viable society uses just one type.
Quite a few people nodded along with the views on taking over Labour. They were said loudly and with conviction. After all people are told that Jeremy Corbyn is being attacked. They see it in their Facebook feeds every day. They must fightback!
I spoke up, objected to the antagonistic atmosphere towards other members of the Labour party and questioned if the group represented the community and really wanted to work with Labour. Some people nodded along with me. Others glared daggers. I didn’t like the looks I got.
A member from the Lambeth Socialist Party was there. That’s the rebranded Militant. He declared his allegiance and no one, including the organisers, told him some views were not welcome. He knew people’s names. He was comfortable in the environment.
An organiser tried to explain to me afterwards that it was open and inclusive to include people with these views. No. No, it is not. By including view X you might exclude person Y. This is basic stuff. There are always boundaries, social or legal, in every group of people and in every micro or macrocosm of society. Boundaries have to be set. The IRA and the Socialist Party are the other side of a boundary from me.
A template motion was passed round by organisers.
It had been produced by Lambeth Momentum. It protested against some recent expulsions and suspensions from the Labour Party whilst calling for anyone who wasn’t “a known and unrepentant former member of a neo-fascist organisations or out-and-out racists” to be allowed to join Labour.
I have no idea on the expulsions but the rest is Militant or the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) or the Alliance for Worker’s Liberty (AWL) or other far left parties trying to use Momentum to get into Labour then into power. No one spoke against this template.
This is scheming by the far-left. It is either naive or scheming by the Momentum organisers to allow it to happen. I don’t know which.
There was lots of talk of Labour, Syria, Trident, fighting the cuts, Labour, expulsions, the media. There was some on housing. People had answers. That surprised me, these are complex problems. Apart from housing, there seemed very little that would have made sense to most people who aren’t already engaged in politics.
It was not open or inclusive. This meeting would attract people who already believe. It did not seem to represent the needs of the local communities.
Since I wrote the above Momentum have posted pictures of their first meeting in Manchester on their Facebook page. As with the Southwark meeting that I attended it appears to be mostly white and male.
Momentum and data
We also have to talk about data.
Political party membership is really sensitive personal data. It can be used to discriminate. It was being implicitly gathered at the same time as the email addresses at the Labour Party meeting: everyone there was a member of Labour. Most people were blissfully aware of the implications.
At the Momentum meeting email addresses and Labour branch details were captured so people could organise. Someone even captured emails for people interested in fighting against blacklisting.
This was in the week that the Investigatory Powers bill was released. These email addresses, Labour party membership details, branch information are all being captured and placed somewhere. I wonder where the data went and how many people have it now. This data could be used for the purposes it was intended for but it could also be used for other purposes. Who has access? What controls exist? Who will have access next week or next year? This data could be used to discriminate.
Momentum may be good at using the internet for campaigning but its organisers seem to fundamentally not understand the internet and how it can be used for good and for bad.
The organisers, who mostly seem to be anonymous should have more respect for the people whose data they are gathering.
Frustration and fightback
I went home from the meeting very frustrated. I got even more frustrated when I talked to some of the Momentum people on Facebook. People who told me that it was open and inclusive to have Socialist Party/Militant contributing to Labour Party or Momentum discussions. It really isn’t. It excludes me and many many others. I am further “left” (whatever that means) than many Labour voters. I won’t hang around with Militant, the SWP or many other parts of the far left.
The Momentum organisers claim that they will set up democratic governance. This seems a strange thing to say when you are excluding people by your setup. Democracy should not look like the meetings in Southwark (and Manchester). It should look more like our wonderfully multicultural and inclusive society. I want Labour to do well because of the people it represents. Too many people in Momentum seem to be thinking of their own ideas not what people actually need.
Too many in the Labour movement are currently being idiots. They are wasting energy on infighting and squabbling over internal positions rather than working with people to do useful stuff that people actually need. Let’s cut down on protests and increase the useful activity.
Jeremy Corbyn seems like a very genuine person from what many people have said. I don’t care whether he bows, sings anthems or kisses the Queen’s hands. These things are unimportant to me. Many of the people in Momentum and at that meeting will be genuine too. Unfortunately some are naive and some are scheming. The scheming ones seem to be successfully manipulating the naive ones.
I don’t know what should happen next. There are no easy answers to complex problems like thee two that I think I found:
- Momentum do not represent the people Labour represents. Their meetings and groups are not open and inclusive. Momentum think they are.
- The far left are back, they are in Momentum, they are in Labour and they are organising.
These two problems are not the same, but they are related.
I hope the problems get solved. It is possible. There clearly are some genuine people in Momentum. I wish them luck.
In the meantime let’s remember the 1980s. Whilst they claim to be a new kind of politics Momentum seem to be heading back to that time. Lets fire up the Delorean….