Manchester Momentum: a ‘durable institutional left’ in the North West

Manchester Momentum has successfully mobilised political engagement through its community-focused cultural strategy. Its ethos is here to stay, says Andrea Sandor

December 22, 2019 · 8 min read

This article was previously published by our local media partners  The Meteor: Manchester’s Independent Media, with the support from The Guerrilla Foundation.

In August, three months before the election was announced, Manchester Momentum took a gamble. Its members printed pledge cards that read ‘General Election 2019’. The election was called for three weeks shy of the end of the year.

Isaac Rose, a Momentum organiser in Manchester, says they needed to lay the groundwork: ‘We were getting into people’s heads that an election was coming and there was a fight on our hands – and getting people into the headspace where they could conceive of sacrificing a lot of time to help get Labour elected.’

The pledge cards asked people for their contact information, how many hours a week they could devote to the campaign, and whether they’d be willing to door knock, phone bank, or contribute in another way. The cards were handed out at various events, including raves, football matches, book clubs and discussion groups.

By the time the election was called in late October, Manchester Momentum had already collected 400 pledges. Rose says this number quickly rose to around 1,000 through their networks. While the group’s initial strategy was to target six marginal constituencies, it was able to add two more target seat to the list because they’d mobilised so many people.

The group’s preemptive organising made them the largest mobilising force in the North West. It consistently sent 100-300 canvassers on weekend ‘away days’ to neighbouring constituencies to door knock for Labour. It also provided training, which encouraged canvassers to strike up conversations at the door by asking people what issues mattered to them and sharing their own reasons for canvassing.

A young Momentum member in her twenties told me that the group received some criticism for sending so many people to one constituency at a time, rather than spreading resources. The woman told me: ‘You go on these away days because 300 people are going. It’s an event, it’s exciting!’

On the logistical side, Rose noted that it’s more feasible to organise coaches and meals for 300 in one location than for 50 in six. ‘It’s really important to us that we take care of our activists and they’re looked after,’ said Rose. A team of #Bakers4Labour cooked for canvassers on away days.

Bakers for Labour supporting Manchester Momentum canvassers.

A cultural strategy

Manchester Momentum are an autonomous branch of Momentum and have no paid organisers. For Rose, their mobilising success isn’t down to support from MPs or ‘left celebs’ like Owen Jones, but is the result of a ‘cultural’ strategy they adopted three years ago.

Like elsewhere around the country, Corbyn’s leadership galvanised a segment of young people in Manchester who flocked to Labour and were keen to get involved. However, many found local branch meetings to be boring and not particularly welcoming.

People like Rose, who was already involved in grassroots organising and energised by Corbyn’s leadership, were concerned that the party would lose the new members and took a conscious decision to turn to culture instead.

Members started organising parties, football clubs, film screenings and discussions to attract and engage people. Engagement then started to translate into political involvement. As Rose and Beth Redmond recently explained: ‘We would organise a football game on a Tuesday and the same players would turn up to an antifascist demonstration at the weekend.’ The aim was ‘making politics fun’; creating spaces for people to come together, develop a sense of camaraderie and shared sense of purpose.

A poster advertising an event organised by Manchester Momentum in February 2019

Speaking to the 0161 podcast, Manchester Momentum organiser Billy elaborated: ‘Branch meetings can be so, so dull and are not the way to get young blood into the movement … Something we talk about a lot is this idea of ‘collective joy’ and having these powerful shared common experiences.

In the last 30, 40 years, a succession of politicians have done their best to close off these public spaces where you feel these moments of collective joy. We’re trying to open them up again for new people, so they can have these experiences that really do change your politics and change the way you think about yourself and your community. Whether it’s football or a rave or whatever, these are all really special ways of doing that. And that’s why the people who are involved are so much [more] in it for the long haul than if we’d just been going to branch meetings.’

Billy’s words evoke the concept of ‘communitas’ – the state in which a group of people feel a special sense of togetherness. Anthropologist Edith Turner said that communitas ‘has to do with a sense felt by a group of people when their life together takes on full meaning.’

Shared collective experiences like dance and sport can facilitate communitas. So can the adventure of travelling with 300 like-minded people to Blackpool to canvass for a new world order.

Traditional organising

Manchester Momentum’s cultural strategy didn’t come from out of nowhere. In many ways, it harks back to a tradition of Socialist Clubs in working class communities. The group’s immediate antecedents, however – which predate Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership – include the Manchester Spring series of public political discussions (held in 2013) and Salford Community Theatre (founded in 2014).

Rose has written about those ‘political currents’ informed Manchester Momentum, explaining: ‘Central to this current of thought was the sense that for the left to regain political power it had to harness cultural forms to become normalised and popular. Left ideas would have to re-enter everyday consciousness as something that was understood as common sense. These ideas sit at the core of the political and intellectual project for building new forms of cultural engagement.’

A ‘manifesto reading’ event organised by Manchester Momentum

On a practical level, Manchester Momentum’s cultural strategy has led to it boasting a highly competent group of organisers with experience of arranging popular social events. This has translated into the skills necessary to organise political events and manage hundreds of canvassers.

‘Our year-round movement building meant that not only were people already mobilised, but that our organisers had developed their capabilities so when the election was called they were ready,’ said Rose. Organisers also developed trusting relationships between one another over time, which Rose believes has been critical to the group’s growth and success.

Another pillar of Manchester Momentum’s approach has been developing relationships with other local left groups, covering a broad range of social issues from housing to anti-deportation to climate emergency. It has particularly close links to ACORN Tenants Union and Partisan, a co-operative arts and social space in Manchester.

For Rose, by ‘strengthening and thickening’ their networks and mobilising huge numbers of people, Momentum has become a force to be reckoned with in the coming years. Despite the election result, he believes the group is here to stay – part and parcel of a social movement that aims to change the character of politics in Manchester, which has been dominated by a right-leaning Labour Council for decades.

‘We have a durable institutional left that didn’t exist before Corbyn,’ said Rose. ‘Whatever happens, that will stay.’

Andrea Sandor is a writes and researcher based in Manchester. Images provided by Manchester Momentum.

The Socialist Olympics of 1936

Radical workers’ sporting organisations and the 1936 People’s Olympiad illustrate the role of sport in fighting oppression, writes Uma Arruga i López.

Review – You’re History: The Twelve Strangest Women in Music

Lesley Chow argues for a new kind of music criticism that re-evaluates women musicians and "meaningless" music, writes Rhian E Jones

Lying through their legacy-speak

Olympic ‘legacy’ has greased the path for enormous, upward transfer of wealth to the global propertied classes, writes Jules Boykoff

SWexit: What are exit schemes for sex workers missing?

If earning money is a fundamental reason for entering the sex industry, it is also essential to leaving it, writes Marin Scarlett

Failure to deliver

Major financial institutions have cited Deliveroo’s employment practices for its disastrous public share launch. Alice Martin and Tom Powdrill look at what went wrong and what it might mean for workers’ rights

Power on the picket line: remembering the Burnsall Strike

Almost 30 years on, Sarbjit Johal recalls supporting the strike, which consisted of mostly Punjabi women workers

Want to try Red Pepper before you take out a subscription? Sign up to our newsletter and read Issue 231 for free.