The British Labour Party’s annual conference in Liverpool finds it at a political and ideological crossroads. Yet a conference happening at the same time in the same city could be just as historically significant. The event – The World Transformed – is being organised by Momentum, the campaign group formed in 2015 to support newly elected leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Momentum claims its event is not a rival to the Labour conference but the fact that it is happening at the same time clearly shows what a force it has become.
The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) has sought to downplay the influence of Momentum, portraying it as a collection of fringe radicals who will make the party unelectable to the more mainstream voter. It is viewed as an idealistic mirage that will come crashing down to political reality by the time the general election rolls around.
For its part, Momentum is trying to promote what it calls a “different type of politics”. It denounces the centrist legacy of New Labour and, as a result, has been accused of being “stuffed with anti-Labour speakers”.
This exposes Momentum’s precarious and ambiguous position. It is both resisting Labour and seeking to dramatically reshape it from the inside. It remains to be seen if this leftist challenge can move beyond movement politics to become a credible progressive opposition or government.
Like Corbyn, Momentum is simultaneously committed to Labour while fundamentally opposing many of its recent policies and beliefs. It is thus both on the outside looking in while trying to help lead the party.
Its popular appeal largely stems from being against the existing status quo. However, its larger goal is to use this anti-establishment platform to create its own progressive establishment.
The aim is not just to win elections against the Conservatives – it’s to take on the entire economic and political oligarchy – the powerful corporations and the politicians that supposedly control both parties.
Building a new New Labour
Corbyn’s re-election signals a profound departure from the party’s recent past. If his initial victory could be chalked up to a mere protest vote, another landslide triumph shows the PLP that there is an increasing public appetite for a progressive alternative.
On top of their stark ideological differences, Momentum objects to the entire politics of the PLP. Yet while it so often rails against New Labour, Momentum’s rhetoric often echoes the very sentiments that originally made Tony Blair so popular in the first place. Both trumpet the need to remake the party and break free from the orthodoxies of the past. Each claimed they were giving voice to alienated voters who felt ignored by mainstream politics.
Blairism grew in direct response to the perceived failures of Old Labour. The enduring influence of the party’s socialist roots was seen as a political albatross and economically backward looking. What was urgently needed, it was argued, was a party in tune to the concerns of the time, with real answers for contemporary problems.
Momentum must make a similar case now. It has to show that New Labour’s third way no longer makes sense in a post-crisis world. It has to offer a better way to address the devastating consequences of financial excess and the looming global threat of climate change. It has to show that New Labour’s big nation foreign policy should be updated to reflect a multilateral world that demands development and diplomacy rather than free trade and Western militarism.
From movement to power
The mere existence of Momentum’s separate conference in Liverpool has already sparked controversy. Its detractors claim that it is just the latest example of disloyalty. Its organisers counter that it is a fringe event meant to complement, not challenge, the official Labour party conference.
However, if Momentum wants to ever become more than part of the fringe, it can learn important political lessons from its much derided predecessors of Thatcherism and New Labour. Doing so does not imply ideological compromise or a capitulation. Rather it is a recognition that political success depends on turning today’s revolution into tomorrow’s normal.
Momentum has to move beyond protest mentality to forge a popular image of its leftist politics as pragmatic and responsive. It has to show convincingly that the PLP and Tories are irresponsible and not to be trusted with the economy and international affairs. It means reaching out to other groups such as the Greens and the SNP as part of a united progressive front that can competently solve the real problems of the British public through public investment and a modernised welfare state. The challenge is to highlight the electoral advantages of a progressive platform not just its ideological correctness.
The rise of UKIP and the result of the EU referendum show that the political landscape is rapidly evolving. The disaffected and angry voter is increasingly gaining prominence as a political force. The Middle England that was so central to New Labour’s victory has moved on. Decades of rising inequality and political elitism has made it hungry for genuine change.
The future belongs to the party that can best and most productively channel this rage. Prime Minister Theresa May has already sought to do just that through linking her Conservative values to a populist commitment to addressing chronic social and economic ills. Momentum must take the lead in helping the Labour Party do the same, through a message of anti-austerity, anti-racism, social democracy and the prospect of a more democratic political establishment.
Momentum is undeniably a political phenomenon. It has attracted hundreds of thousands of new voters with claims to be practising a “different type of politics”. Now it is time to see if it can turn a movement into real power for good.