Momentum built an energised grassroots left. Its financial peril is Labour’s loss | Andrew Fisher

Momentum built an energised grassroots left. Its financial peril is Labour’s loss

Keir Starmer should recognise what the movement brings, instead of expelling members and blocking leftwing candidates

  • Andrew Fisher was the Labour party’s executive director of policy from 2016 to 2019
Jeremy Corbyn with supporters at Leeds City College, May 2017.

Seven years ago, Jeremy Corbyn scraped on to the ballot paper for the Labour leadership. The Islington North MP beat odds of 100-1. He was propelled by a campaign that harnessed a wave of energy and built a movement. Many of us who worked on that campaign went to work for the Labour party with Corbyn, but others created an organisation that we all knew would be needed to bolster Corbyn’s leadership.

That organisation, Momentum, has this week launched a campaign to “Keep up Momentum”, admitting that it is “struggling” financially. It has told its members starkly, “without your financial support we won’t be able to keep doing what we’re doing – and we can’t let everything our movement has built disappear”.

Corbyn won and Momentum was formed because the left addressed the material conditions of our age: low wages, insecure housing, underfunded public services and rising poverty and inequality. Those policies are not only supported by the Labour membership, but are popular with the public too – even among a majority of Tory voters in some cases.

But there are organisational factors that account for Momentum’s current problems. Starmer’s acolytes have been expelling members and blocking candidates deemed to be on the left of the party from standing as MPs. Instead of shining the spotlight on these machinations, the media has celebrated their “marginalising [of] leftwingers through a new candidate selection programme”.

As Starmer discards the platform on which he was elected leader, panders to the right on migration, and fails to stand shoulder to shoulder with workers striking for better pay in the worst cost of living crisis on record, many members of the party have voted with their feet and left. The Labour party’s membership has plummeted from 570,000 just after Starmer was elected in 2020 to 382,000 in July 2022, when figures were last reported to the party’s national executive committee.

So it is unsurprising that Momentum – the largest organisation of leftwing members within the party – is facing similar pressures. If reports are accurate that Momentum has lost one-third of its membership, it is only in proportion to the fall in overall Labour party membership under Starmer – quite an achievement given the demoralisation on the left of the party, and the attacks against it.

While the Labour party wrestles with its financial crisis, Momentum’s problems concern its fundamental purpose. An organisation whose primary function was to mobilise a mass movement around Corbyn, against those determined to frustrate the democratic will of members and affiliates, has to now find a new purpose. In 2016, Momentum formed the basis of Corbyn’s second leadership campaign, while those of us on Labour party contracts had to stand back from the fray as impartial party employees.

Momentum’s ability to mobilise members saw off the so-called “chicken coup” when the parliamentary Labour party attempted to bully Corbyn into resigning, after co-ordinated resignations and hostile press briefings. As Diane Abbott MP said: “There was only one intention: to break him as a man”, while another MP (not on the left of the party) said they had “never seen anything so horrible”. Outside parliament, Momentum had organised a rally at 24 hours’ notice. Ten thousand party members acted as a counterweight to Labour MPs – demonstrating that the mandate remained for Corbyn.

But it was just under a year later that Momentum really proved its worth. In April 2017, with the Conservatives over 20 points ahead in the polls, Theresa May called a snap general election. While the party HQ ignored the elected leadership and ran a defensive campaign sending canvassers to rock-solid safe seats, Momentum ran an offensive campaign – developing an app to direct members to “My Nearest Marginal” to campaign for Labour where it mattered. As the Guardian reported at the time, “its site was used by more than 100,000 people”, with one Momentum organiser reporting, “We reached out way beyond our own bubble”.

While I was locked in Labour HQ, local activists in my marginal constituency of Croydon Central said they were deluged by campaigners – helping to turn a Tory seat red with a 5,000 majority. Yet the London region of the party had been directing members to a safe Labour seat where the majority increased to 15,000. It was later revealed that, unbeknown to other senior officials, HQ staff had been funnelling party funds to the safe seats of Labour MPs on the right of the party. As Martin Forde QC confirmed in his report: “It was unequivocally wrong for HQ staff to pursue an alternative strategy covertly … and we consider that the anger amongst the membership regarding the issue is justified.” Momentum was a vital counterweight to that doomed strategy.

Whatever the setbacks since then, Momentum built a grassroots left that is still larger, more skilled and more knowledgeable about how to operate within the party than it was in 2015. The biggest challenge is how to reorient itself and its supporters to the new reality of life in Labour under Starmer. Many party members who joined as Labour’s membership trebled after 2015 had only ever known a party led by Corbyn. In 2020, Momentum, by then nearly five years old, was operating without a supportive party leadership for the first time. This rightward drift has been disorientating and demoralising. Understandably, Momentum has struggled to redefine its purpose, and to develop a strategy that unites and mobilises leftwing members.

The late Labour MP Ian Mikardo was fond of saying, “every bird needs a left wing and a right wing and it can’t fly on its right wing alone”. It was a truth understood by former Labour leaders such as Harold Wilson. It would be wise for Starmer to recognise that fact – especially given the enthusiasm and talent that Momentum brings together.

  • Andrew Fisher was the Labour party’s executive director of policy from 2016 to 2019