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Why a 'Tory Momentum' Will Never Work

You can't create a mass grassroots movement that doesn't exist.
A meme that Activate UK quickly deleted

A few days ago, "Activate UK " announced itself to the world. First, with an electric-blue Union Flag logo in which the "v" in "Activate" was replaced with a square root sign, in reference to the famously cool discipline of maths. Second, with a hyperbolically stupid 2010-style meme, contrasting a picture of Jeremy Corbyn with what amounts to a pouting film-reference "nuh-uh", helpfully hashtagged "#activatebritain #meme #retweet #rt". (When viewed on Twitter, the meme was helpfully cropped to show just a blue-tinted Corbyn.)


It looked like a sort of "Tory Momentum" – a grassroots mass campaigning movement for the party that impoverishes the masses.

On Wednesday, however, we learned that it's more than that: we learned that young Tories are actually deeply unpleasant people. Screenshots of the group's internal WhatsApp conversation were leaked that show senior Activate members jokingly describe themselves as Nazis, talk about "gassing chavs", "shooting peasants" and performing medical experiments on the poor. A few days from now, nobody will remember it even existed.

That leaked WhatsApp conversation

There's already another Tory Momentum: something calling itself Our Conviction, which describes itself as a "new independent young grassroots Conservative movement. No relation at all to @ActivateBritain." Where did it come from? Why does it exist? Does it actually, in any sense, exist? It's not clear. Right now, they could be talking about strangling Sikhs or pushing wheelchair users off a cliff. The cycle spins on, in movements unknowable to human consciousness.

According to Activate's constitution, members of the group are "expected to be members of the Conservative party". The only problem is that, according to its latest figures, there are 149,800 Tory party members in the country – less than a third of Labour's membership, and significantly less than the number of registered Momentum supporters. There's a reason for this: mass social movements are simply not a necessary feature of right-wing politics. Conservatives have the inertia of existing conditions and class power behind them; they're propelled by media barons and vested interests. A mass-membership youth group, full of people trying to articulate their own vision for the future and bring it into being, isn't just impractical for the Tories; it would be actively harmful.


The Conservatives are out of ideas and they're reduced to stealing them from the left. Momentum's politically engaged membership managed to tilt an impossible election towards Corbyn, so why can't the Tories do something similar?

It won't work. Before Momentum even existed, it had thousands of members; the group started out as an umbrella bringing together all the haphazard and provisional local campaigns for Corbyn during the 2015 leadership election. It had a social base first, and then it tried to organise them. Trying to copy the idea, the Tories simply made a website and a Twitter account for something that described itself as an "independent national grassroots campaigning organisation", and then started posting bad memes. It didn't really, in any meaningful sense, exist.

All these attempts to build a Tory version of Momentum are based on a fundamental misapprehension of what politics actually is. Many Tories – and plenty in Labour too – see it as a struggle for dominance between two organisations, each with their leaders and their memberships and their Parliamentary contingent, who have a vaguely different set of broad ideals but can and should copy tactics and policies from each other. That isn't politics – that's just Westminster. Politics is the struggle for dominance between different social constituencies; it's an expression of the agonistic relations that actually exist within society. Because society is uneven, there are ways of doing politics that will only be possible for some of these groups. Business owners cannot organise a strike. Pensioners cannot mount urban guerrilla warfare. And the Tories cannot ever have something like Momentum.

In the 1970s and 80s, a group of reformers in the Soviet Union decided that actually existing socialism should try to provide the same kind of consumerist lures that the capitalist societies in the Western bloc did. Many of them had visited the United States and seen the terrifying array of products advertised on the TV: all those commercials seemed to really be advertising capitalism itself, its immense collection of commodities, its monstrous concentration of wealth. Why couldn't the Soviet Union do the same? But Soviet marketplaces weren't dominated by competing brand-names; the conditions that gave rise to TV advertising weren't really in place. Instead, Soviet TV started showing adverts for generic commodities: adverts for lemons, or spring onions, or, most disturbingly, minced chicken, set to discordant avant-garde music and Estonian chanting.

The Soviet Union wanted to ape capitalism, but this kind of thing is far more prevalent in contemporary capitalist society itself, and most visibly of all in Westminster politics. In the years after 2010, Labour tried to turn themselves into Tories, aping Osborne's austerity programme and trumpeting their desire for fiscal responsibility, never considering that people might want to vote Labour if they were different from the Conservatives, rather than the same. For decades, both Labour and the Tories were trying to be Ukip, grabbing a portion of their right-wing fury with occasional drive-by attacks on migrants.

Last year Andrea Leadsom's parliamentary supporters staged a kind of mock-protest, chanting and cheering on their march to Parliament, all dressed in suits and ties. Activate is the same, and whatever big idea the Tories come up with next will be the same – imitating the epiphenomena of functioning social movements, but without anything to give it content, pleading at the public with the mute and stupid grotesquery of form.