News

Is Momentum a 'Cult of Dangerous Thugs'?

Or just sweet Corbynistas trying to make the world a better place?

by Tess Reidy
20 July 2016, 11:00pm

A Momentum rally, image via Graham Ó Síodhacháin

That's it, applications to vote in the Labour leadership election are now closed. If you didn't join the Labour party before 2016, or pay £25 on Wednesday to become a supporter, then you won't get a say in who leads Britain's opposition. Now Jeremy Corbyn gets set for a summer of hustings, speeches and mud-slinging to retain his role as leader of the Labour Party. He believes he'll win the vote, not just because he has the support of party members, but the campaigning infrastructure of Momentum, the grassroots group of activists who have got his back.

But what actually is Momentum? Angela Eagle described them as "thugs", Tom Watson called them "a bit of a rabble". The way some Labour MPs talk about them you'd think they hang outside Parliament in hoods, shaking up Blairites as they walk into work.

In fact Momentum is a well-organised group of Corbyn-supporting activists, holding meetings and rallies across the country. Despite recent accusations that the group is behind alleged death threats to MPs and a brick through the window of former Corbyn challenger, Angela Eagle's constituency office, the organisation is now receiving record donations of £11,000 a day and claims to have doubled its membership in recent weeks to over 12,000.

They're aware that they've been called anarchists, Trots, even a cult. But what do the actual members - those who are showing up to fortnightly meetings in town halls and community centres - think of these accusations?

Phil Keefe, 53, is a technical writer from Croydon. He became involved in the movement three months ago, after his 19-year-old daughter encouraged him to attend a meeting with her. He says the idea that Momentum is a "mob", a group of "thugs" and a "political cult" is nonsense. "There's a lot of rubbish about threats and intimidation, but these are just trolls," he says. "People are trusting Jeremy because he's honest, he's a decent man. The cult idea is ridiculous."

Alana Heaney, 45, from London, agrees. "I am a single parent. I am a good neighbour. I'm going back to college to become a building surveyor. I have worked all my life. I am not a thug. Momentum are like-minded people like me. The only thuggery is coming from Tories and Blairites," she says.

Another member, Aislinn Macklin, 33, a doctor from West Hampstead, says the press that are making these stories up. "I've been reading articles where Momentum has been disparagingly referred to as 'trots' and as a 'virus' and I thought about the wonderful people I have got to know who are giving up days and weeks of their lives to try to help others and make society more equal. These people just want a fairer world."

Rather than being overrun with political ruffians, Momentum appears to be made up of three groups. You have the long-term Bennite hard left, people who have been around for a very long time, thrilled that their moment has come again after 20 years in no mans land. "These guys are hardened organisers," says one Labour councillor from the Midlands. "Unlike the right of the party, which has always been concerned with the top-level appointments, these guys are obsessed with local level stuff - who's the branch deputy secretary in Staines, for example. For them, this is all about factions and internal party politics."

Then you've got a very small minority of people even more left wing than them, the Trotskyists and revolutionary Marxists, who want to meet young people and voters and try to appeal to them. Some of these guys were expelled in the 80s and have weedled their way back in to the party. "Without Momentum, they'd just be selling Commie newspapers to each other at obscure conferences," says the unnamed councillor.

The third type are idealists – either very young people who are alienated from mainstream politics because it hasn't delivered for the young, in terms of jobs or housing, or older people who remember the 80s with affection. The latter often own property and are comfortably off enough to take political risks. One party member says it's these guys that are running the Momentum show in Oxford. "What I've seen locally is Oxford Uni types being taught how to do politics by a handful of veterans."

All three of these groups groups have always been politically active, in various protest movements and single-cause issues. Momentum has not necessarily changed the way grassroots activity is run, but it has injected new energy into it. Elena Besussi, 50, is a teaching fellow at UCL, a lecturer in planning policy. She started getting involved with her local Momentum group in Camden in January and attends fortnightly meetings. "There are usually around 30 to 50 people in attendance. In the last few weeks, each meeting has had about ten to 20 new people coming in," she says.

But that doesn't quite answer the question of what they're actually for. Most Momentum members attend meetings, and some are active about the cause online or at rallies in city centres. Earlier this month, for instance, 3,000 attended a Keep Corbyn protest in Liverpool and a further 2,000 in Manchester. There were smaller events across the country in Penzance, Exeter, Plymouth and Glasgow.

But all of that activity is about keeping Corbyn in power. One of the biggest qualms many Labour party members have with Momentum is that it's all about Jeremy. What about the rest of the party, what about winning a general election, they say?

Momentum don't seem to offer many reassurances to these concerns. The general feeling is that Jeremy is supported 100 percent. "The role of Momentum is to support Jeremy Corbyn in his leadership election and related to that is getting him elected as Prime Minister," says Besussi. "It's a campaign group – the two most important things are Jeremy Corbyn and his policies."

A Momentum rally, image via Graham Ó Síodhacháin

Critics such as Benjamin Butterworth, chair of London Young Labour, point out that this singular focus on keeping Jeremy in power ignores facts that Momentum members would balk at. Corbyn grew up in a six-bed house, went to private school, failed his A-levels, worked for a trade union and then got a job as an MP. "It stinks of a cult, the way Momentum members jump over all the facts to paint him as a man of the people," he says.

As well as this, Corbyn has been accused of lacking policies, ignoring claims of bullying and intimidation in the grassroots and failing to unite the party. According to Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University, London, the ability to screen out awkward truths about a leader is characteristic of all sects. "We know that those who lead cults are often deeply flawed, utterly hypocritical men (and they almost always are men), but their supporters project onto them all their hopes and dreams – until they come crashing down."

Despite the community spirit of the meet-ups and the rise in people getting involved in politics for the first time, some think the extreme ends of politics tend to attract quite cultish behaviour. "People tend to be very, very committed and tend to be emotionally attached. It wouldn't be a massive surprise if some of this is going on," says Andrew Blick, lecturer in politics and contemporary history at King's College. "It's difficult to know how it will all play out, but the way things are going, Momentum could accelerate a split in the Labour Party."

It's hard to tell whether Momentum is simply full of nice, sweet activists, or whether members of the group have a more aggressive psyche. At this point, the group doesn't really have any kind of uniform character – they barely have a purpose, beyond furthering their own existence and that of their leader. But what is striking is the scale of the operation, their ability to mobilise and their resolute support for Corbyn in the face of any adversity. Owen Smith could only dream of this kind on-the-ground structure, so it's little wonder the right of the Labour Party are so scared of them.

More on VICE:
Who Is Owen Smith, the Man Who Thinks He Can Topple Corbyn?
Judging the Labour Party Leadership Candidates Based on Their Wikipedia Pictures Alone
The Electability Question at the Heart of Labour's Civil War