Hanging Out with Jeremy Corbyn's New Left-Wing Fan Club at their Boozy 'Jamboree'

Momentum hopes to back up Jeremy Cornby's "new politics" and stop the Labour right-wing from reclaiming the party.

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28 October 2015, 6:00am

John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor, speaks at the Momentum Jamboree (All photos author's own)

On Saturday night the newest incarnation of the Labour left held its inaugural meeting. "Momentum" is a group tasked with turning the excitement that Jeremy Corbyn created in taking his leadership title into something more than a blip, as the parties' Blairite zombies plan to reclaim the party. In other words Momentum wants to keep up the – you guessed it – momentum of Corbyn's fast-rolling band-wagon.

While Corbyn-mania might have swept up hundreds of thousands, what happens next for the newly awakened socialist sleeper cells after his victory? According to Momentum's glitchy new website, the group will be "a network of people and organisations that will continue the energy and enthusiasm of Jeremy's campaign."

To work out what to make of it, I headed down to their launch event, a Saturday evening BYOB event bizarrely labelled a "jamboree".

As I headed into the hall in a rainy in East London, I had my hand stamped for possible re-entry. Middle-class lefty types pottered around drinking plastic cups of red wine. Activist groups such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Global Women's Strike and Disabled People Against the Cuts stood by tables handing out badges, and there was a bloke trying to flog me a socialist newspaper that I still didn't want. The spot lighting and glitzy curtains behind the stage made it feel like some sort of awards ceremony for socialist of the year.

You can see why it's politically useful for the new leadership to garner grassroots support. Already we've seen Corbyn's "new politics" coming under attack from his own party, hardly a surprise given that the new leadership team sits firmly to the left of the Parliamentary Labour Party. However, Jeremy and John McDonnell, his shadow Chancellor, have long insisted that their views are well in tune with ordinary Labour Party members, as they made clear when we met before the General Election.

If a Corbyn-endorsed Momentum group can attract supporters as fast as Jeremy did, it could become an influential mouthpiece to counter the loud carping from the party's right. The launch came almost in tandem with the onset of Labour Together – a new organisation which seems to a right-wing attempt to challenge Corbyn's power. Labour Together says that "everyone in the party" can join it, but I can't help but think that an organisation that everybody in the Labour Party can join is called the Labour Party, it's just that some people are unhappy that Corbyn is in charge of that.

Guardian columnist Owen Jones takes to the stage

Despite the extremely short notice, the heavy rain, and use of the word "jamboree", hundreds of people had turned up for the event, and I decided to pick some of their brains.

"My understanding, which is not very thorough, is that this is a group to follow on from Corbyn's campaign, to keep up the momentum, and to create results," 25-year-old Lesha Shine told me, who'd come along to this as political pre-drinks with a group of friends. She argued it needed to be about campaigning, not just politicians, bypassing the party's structures and fighting on issues, an organised voice of the left in the Labour "broad church."

As speeches got underway in the main hall, I headed back out into the corridors, to find out what volunteers, hopefully more in the know, thought Momentum would be getting up to soon.

Santigo and Jack

Santiago and Jack, both in their early 20's, were stood swigging cans of Stella as former London Mayor Ken Livingstone was projected on screens around the hall. I got chatting to them about this new movement, occasionally interrupted by lost looking attendees asking where they could sneak off for a smoke.

"Momentum needs to be outward looking," Santiago told me, "we hear all this stuff in the press about how insular it could be, looking to depose MPs an take over party structures. What we want is a grassroots movement up and down the UK."

"I don't think you should have to be a member of the Labour Party to be in Momentum", Jack continued, while Santiago showed Owen Jones where he could go for a slash. "People just need to share our left-wing values, and want to campaign on these issues at every level in the UK."

This might have been Jack's jamboree dream, but what Momentum will actually look like in the future remains unclear even a few days after launch.

Whether it'll be a membership-based organisation, whether non-Labour members can join in with activities, and how much control the Labour bureaucracy will have over this new campaign group, remains the subject of an as yet undecided debate.

It's bound to be a lively and contentious one. What happens, for instance, if Momentum members want to campaign on an issue that parts of the Labour Party are culpable for? To take the example of the housing crisis: Labour controlled London boroughs, like Newham and Lambeth, have seen left-wing campaigners of the type who are likely to be attracted by Momentum up in arms. The Focus E15 mothers, who Jez and John speak so highly of, are fighting against Labour Party colleagues to fight evictions and social cleansing in the capital.

In the auditorium, I found John McDonnell, now Shadow Chancellor, who'd been billed as the headliner for this jamboree. I never knew jamborees had headliners. When he had given his speech I grabbed him for a chat.

"It needs to be a bridge between the Labour Party and civil society itself, and visa versa," McDonnell argued, when asked about the relationship between the party and this new group. But could non-members, or even opposing party members, get involved and campaign within Momentum too?

"In Momentum, you'll have large numbers of people attracted by Jeremy Corbyn's campaign, some of whom will join the Labour Party, and many of whom won't, but they'll share the core values," he continued, as adoring supporters kept popping over to say hi. "They may not become party members, but they'll be part of our campaigning on issues and talking about how we transform society."

So, it was a little unclear, but John did say that you can't stand for a different party and join Momentum.

Up on stage a woman was entertaining the crowd by taking swipes at Tony Blair – kind of like a band playing their only hit at a festival in Labour-left terms – before breaking out into some "Jeremy Corbyn inspired Harry Potter erotic fan fiction," so I made my way back into the corridor and out to the pub.

The question facing Momentum, and their founding supporters, is whether a pre-existing political party and a radical social movement can really co-exist. McDonnell was keen to tell me that this was how Labour existed at its birth; "We have to transform Labour into a social movement, as it was when it was founded," citing the success of squatters, occupiers and widespread followers that led to the development of social housing in the UK.

In that sense, Momentum perhaps has more in common with the new European left than New Labour. Syriza in Greece, or Podemos in Spain, are grassroots movements that morphed into political parties and still have to marshal a relationship between their component parts.

As the Blairite vultures circle, Momentum has a serious challenge ahead of it if it's going to produce a left-wing boost to Corbyn's "new politics". My first piece of advice? Don't call it a "jamboree".

@MikeSegalov

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