How Momentum came together

Three founders of Momentum talk to Ashish Ghadiali about the two years that have transformed their lives and the fortunes of the British left.

January 16, 2018 · 16 min read

As Momentum marks its second anniversary, two of its national organisers, Emma Rees and Adam Klug, have stepped down, leaving only one of the organisation’s original founders, Jon Lansman, in place. The three of them talk to Ashish Ghadiali about two years that have transformed their lives and the fortunes of the British left.

We’re going to talk about Momentum past, present, future. Why don’t you start, Emma. How did it all kick off?

Emma Rees: I suppose it starts with Jeremy’s first leadership campaign, which saw the coming together of all sorts of different people. Jeremy managed to mobilise people who hadn’t just been disengaged with the Labour Party but had been disengaged from politics full-stop. What we tried to do with Momentum was build an organisational form that met the aspirations of those groups.

Jon Lansman: I think that’s how we perceived it at the time, but looking at it more analytically, it’s actually more complex. You had the pre-existing Labour left, which was tiny, of course. But they had influences. Then you had a left that was outside of the Labour Party but was part of the traditional left. Stop the War was part of that. Then there were lots and lots of returners who had left at all sorts of times. People who had left in the 80s and the 90s and over the Iraq war were coming back. Then you had these people who were completely new to the Labour Party. Most of them had not been in other left parties, or if they had it was the Greens, and the social movements.

We say they came together. They didn’t actually come together. What happened was, you had local groups springing up for Jeremy. They came together in the sense that they supported Jeremy but in no other sense did they really come together. There wasn’t a common vision in any sense of what we were building. There were a lot of differences, and for many people there was no clarity. From my point of view, I knew that this was going to be very different from anything that had come before.

Where, politically, were each of you coming from? How did you end up on Jeremy’s first campaign?

Jon Lansman: I came from the traditional Labour left. I worked for Michael Meacher. And he was encouraging me to organise the left.

Emma Rees: I was a teacher. I didn’t have any relationship with the Labour Party or the wider Labour movement but when I heard that Jeremy was trying to be on the ballot paper, I thought that was incredibly exciting. I was sitting in my lunch-break as a teacher sending off letters to the MPs that hadn’t yet declared who they were going to nominate.

Adam Klug: I was also teaching, in Birmingham. I remember the 2015 election, watching it all unfold and quite liking Ed Miliband and thinking he was a decent guy and that he was trying to move society in a more progressive direction but also being utterly frustrated by the incrementalism of the approach – cut a bit less and a bit slower.

Having been on the front line for a couple of years as a teacher, but also having been a youth worker, a teaching assistant, having done a range of different jobs, I was feeling incredibly disillusioned about the direction of travel. Thinking about climate change and the crisis facing our society and thinking that there was no real alternative being offered at all.

I had a plan to go and live in Barcelona and teach some English. I basically wanted to enjoy the sunshine, take stock and try to make sense of what on earth I wanted to do with my life.

My sense was that the education system was suppressing free expression. It wasn’t encouraging critical thought. It wasn’t empowering children. Teachers were under immense levels of stress and pressure. It was teaching a kind of robotic culture, and the psychological repercussions of that made me feel very demoralised.

I remember children coming up to me and wanting to talk to me as a human being, telling me about their life at the weekends. But the nature of the role meant that I would have to use that opportunity to be sort of like, yeah, let’s get that book out, and get them to write certain things so that when someone more senior to me looks through the books they see that that child has achieved something and therefore my back is okay.

Following the 2015 general election, as I saw the exit poll come through, I felt more despairing and powerless than I remember ever feeling about the state of British politics.

Emma Rees: You started watching all those old documentaries about Tony Benn…

Adam Klug: I was trying to gain a better understanding about why we were in this desperate situation. It wasn’t a logical conclusion. If you look at the decency of human beings and the kind of society people want to live in, what was being offered by all the main parties was so far off that it didn’t make any sense.

The difference for me came after I spent a day in Holborn making phone calls for Corbyn’s campaign. I felt this sense of purpose in being there, phone-banking, calling people up, being part of a team. It was a collective of people coming in from a diverse range of backgrounds with different reasons. But everyone had a shared purpose of doing their bit as a citizen. That sense of being with people, seeing them volunteer, making the calls myself, having a lunch break, chatting with others, people getting each other coffees, bringing them in. It was an amazing feeling. I came back. I ended up volunteering every day.

Then Emma and I ended up organising Jeremy Corbyn’s arts policy launch in Dalston. We got some comedians and musicians and poets and artists together. We had a few different speeches or performances, talking about the arts. We also compiled a video. Basically, people from around the country talking about the arts and why they’re important. We got given contact details for Maxine Peake, Ken Loach, Lemn Sissay, a few other people.

Jeremy and other people on the campaign enjoyed the atmosphere of this arts event and thought that whatever organisation grew out of the campaign should have that sort of feel to it where it was music and dance and new people coming in. That’s why we first got asked if we could stick around.

Where were you in that, Jon?

Jon Lansman: Well, I joined the Labour Party in 1977 and was heavily involved in the late 70s and early 80s. I was involved in two of Tony Benn’s campaigns.

Emma Rees: So you were probably in the videos that Adam was watching when he was soul-searching!

Jon Lansman: Exactly. The point where I would start is the national policy forum in 2014. That was the last national policy forum before the general election, which we knew was coming. It wasn’t impossible that Ed Miliband was going to win the 2015 election. It looked not too bad. And so this was the opportunity to shift the policy of the next Labour government.

We – the left – had never run a serious lobbying operation at the national policy forum before. Partly because we had been too weak. But this time we had almost 20 left-wing reps. So I went down there. I basically gatecrashed. Turned up at this thing in Milton Keynes in a camper van, which I parked in the car park, and we ran a lobbying operation out of it.

The way the policy forum worked was that lots of constituencies put in submissions and met with ministers and negotiated for whatever they could get. The unions, for example, had negotiated some quite good deals on employment rights and other things. But all sorts of things would get vetoed by Ed Balls, including any kind of serious public ownership.

We decided we would push to have a vote at the end of the forum on a motion calling for an emergency budget for growth and jobs – in other words, an anti-austerity budget. George McManus was allowed one minute to move it at the final session, after which it was voted down. I think we had about 16 votes out of 190. All of the unions, with the exceptions of the bakers’ union [BFAWU], voted against it because that was the condition of them getting their concessions. It was a party that had absolutely refused to consider any kind of alternative to austerity.

So when you got to the leadership elections, after Miliband resigned, I was desperate and Michael Meacher was desperate to find a left candidate. I didn’t know at the time that he had cancer and that’s why he didn’t stand, but he had been a possible candidate. John McDonnell wasn’t willing to stand.

We went round, I went round. Jon Trickett, Ian Lavery, some other names that I now feel very embarrassed about! Jeremy didn’t actually spring to mind.

It was Byron Taylor, who was then national officer of TULO [the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation], who said, ‘I think you should go for Jeremy’. Jeremy? It kind of clicked. He’s got no enemies. He’s by far the best to get on the ballot paper, and of course that made total sense to me. So I spent the next three days, once Jeremy had agreed, trying to lobby for him.

That’s how I got involved. I thought, if we could get Jeremy onto the ballot paper, we could shift the ground of the debate. I also thought that we could build essentially a left Progress [the New Labour pressure group]. That was the objective.

Emma Rees: Of course, everyone’s wildest dreams were totally exceeded. Jeremy won a historic mandate. The party membership doubled or tripled. And the whole thing had happened in a two-month period.

So you were coming from very different places. You, Jon, were explicitly trying to organise the left, while you, Adam and Emma, were coming in really as volunteers and found your voices, it sounds like, as organisers of a new kind of politics. Things came together very fast. As that evolved into the founding of Momentum, were there tensions for the three of you when it came to working together?

Emma Rees: I find it so interesting listening to Jon talk about the starting point because we each enter the story and for us that feels like a starting point. It’s an important lesson that there is never one origin and there is never one starting point. I think some of the earlier tensions – between us, but also more broadly in and amongst the movement – came from the fact that there were lots of people who were suddenly really passionate and really trying to make it work but who had very different entry points and very different levels of experience. And yet everyone felt some ownership over it and that did cause friction.

I remember some of the early conversations with Jon where he was saying we need to defend Jeremy. That wasn’t something I could entirely understand. In my mind, Jeremy had won and now was our opportunity. The party membership had doubled. There were all these people getting involved who had never thought about being involved in politics before. I think I underestimated the level of hostility that Jeremy would be under and the struggle that was going to take place within the Labour Party.

What did you want Momentum to be?

Emma Rees: I have always been very passionate about education in the broadest sense of the word: involving people, widening participation in the political process. That’s what it felt like I was doing when I was a teacher. Now lots of people had been inspired and reached out to by Jeremy and the sense of that first campaign was all about a new kind of politics and I wanted Momentum to continue to do that sort of outreach work – building power and capacity and getting more people politically active and engaged in the Labour Party and the wider movement.

So, Jon, that must have been really annoying – to be sat at a table with these teachers that didn’t even understand why you had to defend Jeremy Corbyn?

Jon Lansman: (Laughs) From time to time it could be annoying. I think the second leadership election actually solved most of the older problems. Most of the early problems were about the dilemma, how important was the internal battle, how important was the external? The coup [when Labour MPs passed a vote of ‘no confidence’ in Jeremy Corbyn and launched a leadership challenge] made it completely clear how important the internal battle was and it totally turned everyone to understanding that we’d got to defend Jeremy. Everybody understood that. And I think once we had won that second battle, everybody understood that now we’d got to win a general election.

What about you, Adam? What did you want this new organisation to be?

Adam Klug: All my politics, whatever I believed, the things that I wanted to campaign on, the kind of society I wanted to achieve, all of that aligned when Jeremy stood to be leader. Suddenly it was like all of these causes and all of these things that we’re trying to achieve all lined up behind actually taking power, being serious about it. Not just protesting about something or creating groups or cliques.

I wanted to rapidly build on the momentum of Jeremy’s win to link up different disaffected groups in society. Not just those actively involved in politics but people who were completely disillusioned, disengaged. I thought that was a majority. I thought it was about engaging people who were seen as apathetic but who were really disillusioned and demoralised and in fact deeply politicised.

There’s something very political in different art forms, in music, football. Take hip-hop, for example. Different groups of people who criticise the status quo and actively think about how we live and how we’re treated. With Jeremy’s election as leader I thought, wow, we can get this. I thought, we can tap into all these things and align them around this political project.

Two years on, do you feel this has happened? Has it happened enough? Or do you feel that the internal battle, as Jon describes it, has dominated?

Adam Klug: It’s interesting because I think that in many ways, the things that Jon wanted to do at the time were absolutely vital and necessary and we’ve all come round to realise that. But some of the things that the younger organisers, if you want to bridge it like that, were trying to do, perhaps we haven’t succeeded in enough. We haven’t yet built enough of a movement in society in the way that has happened in other countries.

And you two are leaving or have left the job, so is that going to happen? What is Momentum going to be moving on from here?

Adam Klug: It’s a good point. The strand that Jon wanted, what Jon saw as essential at the time, which undoubtedly was essential and was a priority, has prevailed. And it has prevailed alongside a culture that we were very much providing of mass participation and engagement and being new and not being stuffy old rooms of a small group of people but being loads of people getting involved.

However, I think we need to take that movement side of things to a new level. That’s the next priority. If we hadn’t done the things we’ve done then we’d never be where we are. We wouldn’t have been able to mobilise people to win a re-election campaign and we wouldn’t have helped local members to have their voices heard in their local parties. We had to do all those things.

But I think it has slightly come at the expense of some of the initial ideas that we had, and whilst on the one hand I see a wide-eyedness about it, I am also reflecting that they were really important things, and to take it to the next level we need to focus on them that much more.

Emma Rees: I think part of Momentum’s role has always been about changing political culture fundamentally. We, the left, have become a lot more organised. It’s increasingly becoming represented within the structures of the Labour Party, but there’s definitely still a lot more work to do with that. How do we make the Labour Party genuinely connected at the centre of the community? How does the Labour Party become connected with its social movement origins?

I do think this is one of the battles that collectively we’ve won though. The previous conventional wisdom was that the way the Labour Party wins elections is by trying to win over the median voter and moving to the right…

Jon Lansman: Triangulation.

Emma Rees: Triangulation – precisely. I think that what we’ve seen increasingly, though, through the combination of having a mass membership party and a progressive manifesto is a shifting of the ‘Overton window’ [a political theory about the range of policies that the public will accept], a genuine alternative, changing people’s minds about what is possible.

So is it the case that Momentum has found its identity as a kind of juggernaut, changing political culture within the Labour Party, while this broader task of connecting with the community is actually the role of the party, not Momentum?

Emma Rees: You have to understand Momentum within its wider ecosystem, that’s for sure. At the end of the day we’re trying to transform society. Part of that is about transforming the Labour Party to enter government. The end goal is about transforming society and building socialism. What’s the way that we’re going to do that? By electing a Labour government with an agenda and with the balance of power within the party committed to pursuing that objective.

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