Why Momentum Is in Crisis

Momentum was created to organize Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters into a socialist force in the Labour Party. But faced with Keir Starmer’s moves to expel the Left, Momentum has retreated from the central political battle in favor of NGO-style campaigning.

Badges and leaflets for Momentum, the group set up to support Jeremy Corbyn. (Luke MacGregor / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Between Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader and his 2019 election defeat, it was possible — if sometimes difficult — to imagine a resurgent British socialist movement taking power in Westminster. This sliver of hope galvanized the Corbyn leadership campaign into the creation of a new mass membership organization: Momentum. We were intent on defending and extending the gains of the Corbyn leadership and socialism faced with opposition from the capitalist class and its agents in the press, Parliament, and even within the Labour Party.

In 2017, Momentum’s capacity to mobilize Labour’s socialist base proved vital. The party’s surge denied Tory prime minister Theresa May her majority and brought the largest increase in Labour’s vote share since 1945. As Brexit tore apart both main parties, a Corbyn government still seemed possible. But — aided by Labour’s disastrous push for a second referendum on the European Union — Boris Johnson succeeded in imposing his own hegemonic project.

Today, his Tory party is in crisis, rocked by resignations by top ministers. A snap election could be imminent — but if anything, it is the political center, not the Left, that is set to profit. Where Momentum was once able to make the political weather, today it has functionally vanished from national politics.

Since taking control of Labour in April 2020 on a mandate of party unity and broad continuity with Corbynite domestic policy, Keir Starmer has executed an unrelenting attack on the socialist left. If his onslaught ultimately succeeds, the Left will be driven out of Labour, Parliament, and the political sphere itself.

But all is not lost. If socialists can mount a serious defense at this late hour, a renewed left-wing force in Labour could play an important role in a wider working-class fight back — particularly against a weak minority or coalition government. Momentum has faced very difficult conditions in the past two years, but has singularly failed to stem the tide of the defeat. The question is whether its situation can be salvaged.

Attacks on the Labour Left

Certainly, the situation in Labour is difficult. Starmer’s operation, staffed by Blairites old and new, is methodically destroying the Labour left. The most prominent socialist in the shadow cabinet at the start of his leadership, Rebecca Long-Bailey, was quickly removed on the most tenuous grounds. At the same time, the Left’s figurehead, Jeremy Corbyn, had the party whip suspended for his entirely legitimate response to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission report on antisemitism.

Every week, more socialists are suspended or expelled without due process, just for putting forward the most basic defenses of Palestinian rights or anti-imperialist politics. The Right routinely rigs internal elections and selections to oust or block socialist candidates, debarring even council leaders and ex-MPs for crimes such as liking a tweet calling for Starmer to adopt a bolder policy platform.

Most ominously, Starmer threatened to expel eleven Labour MPs, all from the Socialist Campaign Group (SCG), unless they withdrew their names from a Stop the War Coalition statement critical of NATO. His operation has since toyed with following through on this threat. This attempt to permanently defeat the Labour left is not just another factional battle in the party. It is the spear of an establishment campaign to banish us from national politics altogether. Organizing an effective fightback should therefore concern all those who hold out hope for the advance of socialism in Britain.

Fiddling While Rome Burns

Sadly, Momentum’s response to this onslaught has amounted to little more than empty statements and complaints that there is nothing more it can do. It is unclear if this is a strategic choice by the outgoing leadership, or simply a symptom of an organization mired in political disarray.

Momentum’s membership is rapidly dwindling, and the structures that could once mobilize thousands of people have broken down. Certain objective conditions account for these losses, up to a point: politics, at least the antagonistic politics of the socialist left, was put on hold by COVID lockdowns, restrictions, and the mothballing of internal activity and democracy within Labour.

When Starmer suspended Corbyn and removed the whip, his regime also shut down Constituency Labour Party (CLP) branches that attempted to defend Corbyn and, in many cases, suspended their leaderships. In turn, regional party officials stepped in to ensure loyalist CLP leaderships were elected in brazenly rigged Zoom meetings, and Momentum did little about it. Who wouldn’t be demoralized?

But despite their protests to the contrary, the outgoing leadership of Momentum’s National Coordinating Group — a slate called “Forward Momentum,” now rebranded as “Your Momentum” — cannot simply blame external factors.

During their tenure, the organization’s activities have degenerated into a confused combination of turgid top-down campaigning efforts, half-baked interventions in the party’s factional war, and an extensive range of NGO-aligned pet projects unconnected to organizing efforts. Members who have not abandoned the project on paper are left isolated, reading about the endless attacks in the media with little hope of a counteroffensive.

In many of Momentum’s old bastions, like my home city of Bristol, which had hundreds of active Momentum members and controlled most of the local party structures, we have struggled to get a handful of members into a room. The power of Momentum always lay in its ability to mobilize the membership; however, with a leadership clearly unable to present them with a plausible plan of action or to treat the Labour left’s survival as a serious strategic priority, it’s difficult to begrudge comrades for taking back their evenings and weekends.

No Strategy

How has this once-mighty socialist force been laid so low? Though there have been plenty of tactical missteps, it is the leadership’s underlying strategic orientation that is ultimately at fault.

In the organization’s 2020 leadership elections, the eventual victors, Forward Momentum, drew sharp battle lines. They correctly identified a democratic deficit in Momentum: the previous leadership had treated membership as just another resource to deploy rather than as potential organizers or valued socialists. The most egregious example was the imposition of Angela Rayner as the sole choice for Momentum’s endorsement for Labour’s deputy leadership over Socialist Campaign Group member Richard Burgon — both a betrayal of principles and a tactical disaster.

For many members, this was the final straw; they would not tolerate Momentum’s command-and-control ethos and demanded change — giving landslide backing to Forward Momentum’s program of democratic reform. It had argued for a focus on refounding the organization and overhauling its structures, premised on the idea that unless Momentum abandoned top-down control, members would not commit to the organizing required to transform Labour.

Writing at the start of the campaign, Forward Momentum argued that only by building a consensus among the membership could they transform the “failing organization” and realize its strategic objectives. This suggested that strategic ambitions would only be relevant if Momentum could first achieve organizational consensus. A managed plebiscitary democracy would deliver the consensus which would win commitment from members to struggle to achieve political goals. After Forward Momentum took over the organization’s leadership, this orientation was on show in a “refounding” process which lasted a full eighteen months.

But this isn’t how political commitment works. A productive tension between democracy and leadership is fundamental to socialist strategy — sometimes you need leadership to transform the terrain of struggle. Clearly, it was strategic objectives — like winning a Parliamentary Labour Party that would fight for their interests — that drew comrades to the Momentum in the first place, not a seventeen-page vote on minutiae of the organization’s structures.

Pursuing that objective secured the commitment of tens of thousands of campaigners, workers, and young people. Without offering strategic objectives that connect with the reality on the ground, democratization could only ever be a partial fix.

The second tenet of the outgoing leadership’s approach is the notion that they are providing a “bridge” between Labour and social movements. Due to Momentum’s diminished organization capacity — thanks to swingeing cuts to the organizing staff and the loss of members — this amounted to advertising existing campaigns.

But movements, trade unions, and community unions do not need Momentum to act as their advertising agency to local lefties, nor simply as means to amplify their work. Members don’t pay their subs just to be simply directed to worthy causes. Instead, the membership and our potential allies require us to use our unique position as a left faction within the Labour Party to act as a powerful ally in our own right.

There are examples of this, like when Momentum members on Oxford City Council were able to organize within the Labour group to pass a landlord licensing scheme campaigned for by their local branch of community organization ACORN, in the face of the powerful landlord lobby. But if Momentum is permanently defeated in the Labour Party, we will be of no use to anyone.

Losing Power

By the Labour Party conference in 2021, Starmer had already proven his willingness to junk democratically mandated policy and set the agenda entirely from his own office. Starmer and the Right instead focused on reforming the rule book to lock the Left out of influence and secure a stranglehold on the party’s National Executive Committee. The rule changes profoundly undermined Momentum’s ability to win for the Left.

In this context, the Momentum leadership should have faced reality and focused on blocking his rule changes, recognizing the unfortunate truth that even successful policy motions passed by the conference would simply be ignored. Instead, they invested staff and resources, not to mention members’ time into organizing elaborate policy primaries and organizing to get motions passed — first and foremost on proportional representation (PR) — while Starmer’s men got their rule changes through, making any future left-wing bid for the party leadership significantly harder. Despite talk of the strength of “the movement” in the tents at The World Transformed (TWT) festival down the road, the Labour Conference was a devastating failure for Momentum.

The same abdication of strategic leadership dogs the outgoing leadership in the present election. On their website, “A plan to build left power,” they talk vaguely about building the socialist movement. Your Momentum says the organization should help members and local groups to support “the wealth of progressive movements in this country” and “to support and amplify the demand for broader social movements.” But these exalted sentiments overlook a fundamental question: What good is Momentum’s support when its membership is declining and its political influence plummeting?

This abstract “movement building” found its nadir in the top-down attempt to mobilize members into a widespread eviction resistance campaign. The financial crisis which the COVID lockdowns posed to many workers sparked fears that Britain was facing a wave of evictions. Momentum aimed to ally with tenant and community organizations like ACORN and London Renters Union (LRU) to mobilize and train Momentum members to resist those evictions.

In practice, this flagship national campaign amounted to some online training sessions and mobilization to support two protests organized by LRU and others. Power is the ability to change one’s circumstances, and the objective of the campaign was to build power for the renters’ movement. In this case, it is difficult to see what Momentum achieved for anyone. Yet instead we are asked to see this as a sign of the “bridge” Momentum could be between Labour and social movements — a bridge which only exists in theory, and never in practice.

What unites these two approaches — other than a demonstrable record of failure — is that they focus inward. Rather than considering Momentum’s relationship to the working class, or its organizing ability to make tangible socialist gains at key sites, the barometer of Momentum’s success is how democratized and politically educated its own activist base is. In other words: navel-gazing.

Organizing a Solution

To be valuable to the working class and stem the ebb of demoralized members out of the organization — let alone start winning again — Momentum’s leadership need to recognize that the main threat to our movement right now is the attacks on the Left by Starmer and the wider establishment — and to begin a serious political fightback.

Any workplace rep or community organizer will tell you that fighting back generates confidence. Refusing to be pushed, exploited, or abused is powerful and appealing — once a few workers come together, it inspires others. Once Momentum gets off its knees, we can start to achieve some wins. But we should be honest about the short-term horizon: effective defense of the Labour left’s existing power bases, especially in Parliament, would alone be a significant victory, such is the difficulty of the situation.

My campaign — Momentum Organisers — has sketched out what a viable plan might look like. Firstly, it means urgently coordinating the defense of the Left: it beggars belief that Momentum, left-led trade unions, and the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs do not have a shared strategy or forum for responding to the repeated attacks against them, much less share campaigns and resources. Likewise, recognizing that anti-imperialism has been the thin end of the wedge when it comes to establishment attacks on socialism and socialists, we must actively campaign against the McCarthyism now pervading Labour and the British state.

But in a rigged political system like ours, we cannot hope to survive by defending alone. Instead, we need to organize strategically to shift power back to the Left in and through Labour, focusing Momentum’s forces where they matter most, instead of spreading them too thin. That has to mean winning power in and through Labour Party structures, targeting key regional committees which enable further wins. Many socialists were elected councilors in London earlier this year, but the number could have been much higher had the Left retained a key London Labour committee.

This regional focus should be complemented with a plan to win power at key sites in the party, which provide strong foundations to build on, whether that means representatives on Labour’s National Executive Committee, getting socialists selected as Parliamentary candidates, or taking hold of the party’s socialist societies, as my fellow socialist campaigners did with Labour’s health affiliate earlier this year.

All of this is only possible with engaged organizers to coordinate and lead on the ground. Today Momentum’s local groups are on life support — they need saving. Decisive action is required: that means, among other things like funding and data access, dedicated local organizing plans which respond to the situation on the ground, not top-down NGO-style campaigns imposed from London HQ. That might mean supporting trade union struggle on the ground — but it might also focus on how Momentum might be able to organize in Labour locally, gain power and use it to support wider social movements and unions.

Aversion to the pursuit of power — and allowing talk of that pursuit to become rote and formulaic rather than a living struggle for our class — shrank the Left into a subculture. We need to show we are still interested in building power if we want to break out of that rut again and reach the tens of thousands of workers who Corbyn inspired in 2015, and are now inspired by the resurgence of industrial action.

Regaining Momentum

From the start, the Labour left underestimated the threat posed by Starmer. At each stage of his leadership, Forward Momentum failed to grasp the magnitude of the response needed. Their response to Corbyn’s suspension was weak, the party conference of 2021 was a strategic disaster and a historic defeat and they failed to deliver their grand promise of a turn to the social movements. No surprise, then, that Momentum has lost members. Why should they stay when the leadership cannot be honest about the scale of the crisis, let alone offer plans to address it?

We have no illusions about the forces arrayed against us, nor Momentum’s diminished capacity, but we do have a worked-out plan for rebuilding our movement within the party, at a local and national level. Rank-and-file members have already recognized this — our activists’ meetings have dwarfed official Momentum events in recent weeks, pulling activists who had long ago abandoned the project back into the struggle and winning over previous Forward Momentum stalwarts to our campaign.

From rising stars like Zarah Sultana MP through to a resurgent trade union movement and timely policy solutions unmatched anywhere else on the political spectrum, the Left can have a bright future in Britain. But first, we need to get organized, and get serious about power.