If Berniecrats Were British: How Jeremy Corbyn’s Momentum Won the Soul of the Labour Party

Momentum continues to play a central role in organizing the Left in the U.K.’s Labour party.

Sarah Jaffe November 3, 2017

Supporters of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn shout and clap during Momentum's 'Keep Corbyn' rally outside the Houses of Parliament on June 27, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

While Amer­i­cans were still adjust­ing to the real­i­ties of a Trump pres­i­den­cy, across the Atlantic, the Unit­ed King­dom faced a snap gen­er­al elec­tion last spring, pit­ting the left­ist Labour Par­ty leader Jere­my Cor­byn against Prime Min­is­ter There­sa May. Corbyn’s takeover of Labour was aid­ed by young activists, many of whom formed an orga­ni­za­tion named Momen­tum to sup­port Corbyn’s bid for lead­er­ship and his agenda.

I remember a very strong sensation of being in a group of very good, very committed, very genuine people who I've never known before, with one or two exceptions. The feeling of being attacked and the feeling of it kind of being down to us. There was a constant feeling of, "It's us that are going to make this happen or it isn't going to happen."

Momen­tum defend­ed Cor­byn from attacks from with­in and with­out the par­ty while also play­ing a cen­tral role in the Labour Party’s unex­pect­ed suc­cess in June’s elec­tion. While in Lon­don, I spoke with Momentum’s Rachel Wood about the organization’s begin­nings and where it is now.

Sarah Jaffe: Start off with when you start­ed to get involved.

Rachel Wood: I was on the left, and I was rea­son­ably active in pol­i­tics but I was­n’t in the Labour Par­ty. Jere­my Cor­byn was actu­al­ly my MP, but I’d nev­er joined the Labour Par­ty because I just did­n’t see any way through which you could actu­al­ly change things for the bet­ter with­in the Labour Par­ty. When they lost the elec­tion in 2015, it was quite dev­as­tat­ing, it was a blow even though I was­n’t a par­ty member.

And when [Cor­byn] threw his hat in the ring and decid­ed to enter the race that was a great moment. Him stand­ing gal­va­nized a lot of peo­ple. It was quite spon­ta­neous at that time and it just took on a life of its own. It was clear ear­ly on that they were get­ting lots of vol­un­teers for the phone bank­ing, to an extent that had­n’t real­ly been seen before. I went phone bank­ing a few times in that cam­paign, though I was­n’t that heav­i­ly involved in it.

In Octo­ber 2015, after he became the leader, I joined Labour and I joined Momen­tum very soon after­wards, about a week after. That was quite a few weeks after Momen­tum had been founded.

Sarah: What was Momen­tum like in the beginning?

Rachel: I found it incred­i­bly pos­i­tive from the begin­ning. In those ear­ly months it was very chaot­ic. The state of the project itself was very vul­ner­a­ble, Jere­my was very vul­ner­a­ble, his team were try­ing to work out how to get things going, and as Momen­tum we were quite cut off from them. And we were get­ting attacked quite a lot, by peo­ple on the Right of the par­ty, the media and stuff like that.

I remem­ber a very strong sen­sa­tion of being in a group of very good, very com­mit­ted, very gen­uine peo­ple who I’ve nev­er known before, with one or two excep­tions. The feel­ing of being attacked and the feel­ing of it kind of being down to us. There was a con­stant feel­ing of, It’s us that are going to make this hap­pen or it isn’t going to happen.”

Over that whole first year there were var­i­ous expe­ri­ences of occa­sion­al­ly think­ing maybe some­body else has got some­thing cov­ered, and find­ing out they don’t — actu­al­ly they’ve got even more prob­lems than we do. And I feel like that bound us togeth­er as Momentum.

As it went on, that whole first year, I think it was quite dif­fi­cult because over­all the project, it did­n’t seem to be pro­gress­ing very much. It was­n’t pro­gress­ing in terms of chang­ing pub­lic opin­ion very much, we weren’t mak­ing any inroads to any sig­nif­i­cant changes in the Labour Par­ty. There was quite a lot of despon­den­cy, real­ly. But in spite of that there was always a very spe­cial kind of ener­gy and deter­mi­na­tion to make things happen.

Sarah: What were the num­bers like in Momen­tum at first?

Rachel: In a way, you could say it kind of start­ed with a data­base, because dur­ing in that first week of the cam­paign they asked peo­ple if they’d be hap­py to be con­tact­ed again by the cam­paign of Jere­my Cor­byn. That became the data­base of Momen­tum, so that means that when it start­ed, we had a data­base of around 150,000. They were sup­port­ers but they weren’t mem­bers, we did­n’t have a mem­ber­ship struc­ture until April or May of 2016.

Then you had all of these Momen­tum groups spring­ing up spon­ta­neous­ly around the coun­try. That was kind of chaot­ic and it was quite hard for us to work out what was hap­pen­ing and to try to estab­lish some sort of sys­tem to pro­vide sup­port for those peo­ple and try to reg­u­lar­ize it. We had­n’t worked out to what extent we were try­ing to show lead­er­ship to those groups or where we were mere­ly facilitating.

We got to around 70 – 80 groups quite quick­ly, but then in some cas­es there were groups formed and there were inter­nal divi­sions or groups formed and after a cou­ple meet­ings peo­ple stopped com­ing. When we became a mem­ber­ship orga­ni­za­tion we got 4,000 peo­ple who became mem­bers. At that stage there was a bit of a sense of dis­ap­point­ment as well.

Because Jere­my Cor­byn was leader of the Labour Par­ty, hun­dreds of thou­sands joined the par­ty. We formed an orga­ni­za­tion on the back of it, and it’s only got 4,000 mem­bers? There’s a bit of dis­ap­point­ment. And that changed quite a lot in the sum­mer of 2016 when they tried to get rid of Jere­my. As a result of that loads of peo­ple joined Momen­tum. And the local Labour par­ties shut down for two months. So peo­ple, they saw the point of Momen­tum — an orga­ni­za­tion that was nec­es­sary to keep things on the road.

So there was a mas­sive influx of peo­ple into Momen­tum. It took mem­ber­ship up to around 18,000 with­in two, three weeks. There was an expan­sion of groups as well. And the next big expan­sion was dur­ing and after the gen­er­al elec­tion, we got a few more thou­sand. And then a trick­le of peo­ple com­ing. Then recent­ly, after the par­ty con­fer­ence, we got sev­er­al hun­dred addi­tion­al mem­bers. So at the moment we’ve got 170 or 180 groups and 31,000 mem­bers. A few hun­dred thou­sand sup­port­ers on the data­base, but they’re not pay­ing members.

Sarah: I want to go back to the despon­den­cy peri­od – sim­i­lar accu­sa­tions were being thrown at Jere­my Cor­byn that were thrown at Bernie Sanders. I guess my ques­tion is which were the hard­est ones to grap­ple with?

Rachel: The stuff about misog­y­ny was like…it was quite obvi­ous that an awful lot of it was in bad faith and an awful lot of it was hyp­o­crit­i­cal. And misog­y­ny does exist on the left, and when it does exist, it’s bad. And some­times it’s quite glar­ing when you can see the con­tra­dic­tion between peo­ple’s pol­i­tics and the way that they actu­al­ly behave. That still does exist on the Left. It’s quite dif­fi­cult to get it right between call­ing out the hypocrisy of the peo­ple mak­ing accu­sa­tions in many cas­es in bad faith, but also being quite seri­ous inter­nal­ly about actu­al­ly try­ing to address these issues.

Sarah: And then we get to the moment where the Labour Right decides to blow up the par­ty. Did you see that com­ing, and what was the response as Momen­tum in that moment?

Rachel: From the begin­ning it was clear that there was a sig­nif­i­cant group of MPs who just want­ed it to end. They have very sig­nif­i­cant, priv­i­leged access to the media. So they could cre­ate an echo cham­ber which served to desta­bi­lize Jere­my Cor­byn’s team, mak­ing it very dif­fi­cult for him to do stuff, basically.

Before these big events you’d see peo­ple mak­ing state­ments that sug­gest­ed that they were kind of prepar­ing some­thing. The sec­ond was the local elec­tions in May 2016 when again, Labour did bet­ter than expect­ed. Basi­cal­ly they held on to all of the seats from a high point four years ago and they won in Lon­don quite well. Again, there was this whole chit­ter-chat­ter before about like, Oh he’ll have to go if he does­n’t get a good result,” and senior par­ty offi­cials con­cerned that Labour’s going to be doing bad­ly. But again it did­n’t happen.

And then there was the Brex­it ref­er­en­dum and they went for it. But it had a politi­ciz­ing effect on the entire move­ment. For a lot of activists those events framed their polit­i­cal per­spec­tive and will do so for many years. It played its role in a way even though it was quite unpleas­ant at the time. It woke peo­ple up in a sig­nif­i­cant way, it was­n’t just enough to vote for Jere­my Cor­byn and then hope­ful­ly wait for him to get elect­ed and to make nice poli­cies. They actu­al­ly had to get involved and make it happen.

Sarah: Tell me about how the day-to-day orga­niz­ing work was going before and after that turn­ing point.

Rachel: Nine­ty to 95 per­cent of what we did in the first year was basi­cal­ly respond­ing to cri­sis after cri­sis. It was very dif­fi­cult to devel­op any kind of strate­gic per­spec­tive, we did­n’t have our own sys­tems in place. And then inter­nal­ly there were dif­fer­ent peo­ple in dif­fer­ent groups with fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent strate­gic per­spec­tives about what Momen­tum should be doing and what type of orga­ni­za­tion Momen­tum should be. And so for exam­ple, as soon as we won that lead­er­ship elec­tion in 2016, then all of that inter­nal stuff blew up just a few weeks after that.

Late 2016 was when we start­ed becom­ing more ori­ent­ed towards orga­niz­ing with­in the Labour Par­ty. We still had a lot of aspi­ra­tions that weren’t met. We always want­ed to do train­ing ses­sions for activists, but we nev­er actu­al­ly start­ed that until the elec­tion this year. Then a few Bernie Sanders peo­ple came over. Until then we actu­al­ly had­n’t done any activist train­ing. But then the elec­tion pro­vid­ed a lot of oppor­tu­ni­ties to do those sorts of things.

Sarah: So then There­sa May called the elec­tion, assum­ing that she would win a big­ger majority…and the oppo­site happened.

Rachel: There were peo­ple who were more opti­mistic. There were also peo­ple who were less opti­mistic, but it had a uni­fy­ing effect. I think we’d start­ed uni­fy­ing a few weeks before the elec­tion was called, because Corbyn’s pol­i­cy team start­ed putting out lots of very strong poli­cies that kind of remind­ed every­body why they were in it in the first place.

Sarah: When did you notice the dif­fer­ence in the con­ver­sa­tions that you were hav­ing, that peo­ple were hav­ing on the doors dur­ing the elec­tion? When did you start to feel it?

Rachel: Prob­a­bly around three or four weeks into the elec­tion. A lot of activists were mes­sag­ing us, say­ing, We can do it. We can win this seat, we can win that seat.” So it was accu­mu­lat­ing anec­do­tal stuff, obvi­ous­ly the polls were get­ting a lot bet­ter. Even then, the result of the actu­al elec­tion is still bet­ter than what I would have pre­dict­ed. There are oth­er peo­ple who were more opti­mistic, but still.

Sarah: Was there one result, one con­stituen­cy result, that real­ly shocked you?

Rachel: Kens­ing­ton. Can­ter­bury. Portsmouth. Those are prob­a­bly the biggest ones. The biggest, in terms of the places where we gave the most sup­port to. We gave sup­port to, for exam­ple, to Bat­tersea. Which again at the begin­ning of the elec­tion was a long way behind. [Bat­tersea] had a real­ly good can­di­date, so we put quite a lot in there and it was clear after a few weeks of real­ly sus­tain­ing a lot of activists, mobi­liz­ing, stuff like that, it was real­ly spe­cial when the results start­ed com­ing in.

The exit polls are usu­al­ly pret­ty accu­rate, but there was like a two-sec­ond thing before we real­ized what he was say­ing, because it was like Con­ser­v­a­tives are the largest par­ty.” And it was like a two-sec­ond gap, But no over­all major­i­ty” and we just went crazy.

Sarah: Tell me what it’s been like since the elec­tion. What have you been work­ing on?

Rachel: We’re still doing this Unseat cam­paign. That is cam­paign­ing days with high-pro­file Con­ser­v­a­tive min­is­ters, like we did Boris John­son in Uxbridge, Iain Dun­can Smith in Ching­ford & Wood­ford Green and Jus­tine Greel­ing in Put­ney. So that’s been pret­ty good. They’ve been get­ting pret­ty good numbers.

We’re try­ing to sus­tain the train-the-train­ers scheme, so we’re train­ing up a lot of activists so they can then deliv­er the train­ings them­selves. The par­ty con­fer­ence was quite a big deal, although a lot of the key deci­sions had already been tak­en before the con­fer­ence start­ed. But the num­bers of del­e­gates that were there and the over­all atmos­phere of the con­fer­ence was incredible.

Sarah: Tell me a lit­tle more about who Momen­tum’s base is. Who are the peo­ple form­ing groups, doing a lot of the vol­un­teer­ing? You only have a small num­ber of paid staff, right?

Rachel: It’s increased so now it’s like around 15 staff, some of those are tem­po­rary. There’s a bit of a demo­graph­ic dif­fer­ence between the peo­ple at the office and the grass­roots activists. On the whole, peo­ple on the staff are a lot younger than a lot of the grass­roots activists. A lot of the grass­roots activists are peo­ple who are com­ing back to the par­ty after hav­ing left, over Iraq and stuff like that.

If you go to a lot of Momen­tum groups there are not that many younger peo­ple. But there are a lot of younger peo­ple who are Momen­tum mem­bers who are increas­ing­ly active in the Labour Par­ty through Young Labour, but they’re not real­ly act­ing as Momentum.

We need to think about ways to engage dif­fer­ent groups of peo­ple. I think it’s very dif­fi­cult to have one par­tic­u­lar type of space that engages the whole diver­si­ty of our soci­ety, really.

Sarah: What’s one thing that peo­ple who aren’t famil­iar with Momen­tum should know about it?

Rachel: I think it’s the first ever orga­ni­za­tion to achieve things on a dis­tinct range of activ­i­ties with­in quite a short space of time. So in terms of mobi­liz­ing elec­toral­ly, orga­niz­ing in the Labour Par­ty, but also reach­ing way out­side the Labour Par­ty through a lot of social media. Doing those three things quite suc­cess­ful­ly, I would say, that’s the most sig­nif­i­cant thing. A lot of the things we did weren’t actu­al­ly new ideas, but for var­i­ous rea­sons we were able to make them real.

There were always peo­ple on the Left who talked about hav­ing a social media strat­e­gy but they nev­er had one, they did­n’t know how. Or there was­n’t the right col­lec­tion of peo­ple to make it real. But Momen­tum and Jere­my Cor­byn kind of allowed that to hap­pen, because it just brought those peo­ple in. It gen­er­at­ed that belief that some­thing was achiev­able, real­ly, which led a lot of peo­ple to go the extra mile.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a pod­cast on iTunes. Not to be reprint­ed with­out permission. 

Sarah Jaffe is a for­mer staff writer at In These Times and author of Nec­es­sary Trou­ble: Amer­i­cans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kel­ley called The most com­pelling social and polit­i­cal por­trait of our age.” You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @sarahljaffe.
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