In Liverpool

Dawn Foster

The mood at the Labour Party Conference this year was markedly different from last year: after Jeremy Corbyn’s victory was announced in Brighton in 2015, there was a huge amount of jubilation among delegates, while many MPs and political advisers wandered around the bars at night with bereft expressions. In Liverpool this week, the most that supporters could muster was temporary relief as they wondered where the attack would come from next. At private parties, MPs looked resigned as they gossiped with journalists.

A lot of people pointed out that the politicians, journalists and academics who have repeatedly called for Ukip voters to be not attacked, but understood, aren’t so generous when it comes to that other recent populist movement, Momentum.

A few days before the conference, ‘Momentum Kids’ was announced: a scheme proposed by two single mothers, Natasha Josette and Jessie Hoskin, who wanted to find a way to help people with children get involved in local activism. The idea isn’t new – many left-wing movements try to have creches at day conferences – but it was a way of providing formal childcare for activists. The two women were largely ignored in the histrionic reaction, though while Josette was in Liverpool someone describing themselves as a Daily Mail reporter approached her neighbours, former partner and accountant. Momentum Kids was variously compared to the Hitler Youth, described as Stalinist, said to have been cooked up by posh boys and nicknamed ‘Tiny Trots’. What it actually involved was a small programme of activities, including Brazilian jiu-jitsu training and singing lessons, to give children a break from panel discussions and their parents an hour or two unencumbered.

Momentum held its conference fringe events in a former church hall, decked with banners that memorialised the deaths of black people in police custody, or carried messages about social justice, Hillsborough, climate change. A local co-operative bakery sold pies and coffee alongside left-leaning booksellers. Journalists, cameras in hand, examined the merchandise for evidence of Momentum’s alleged cultishness or violence, usually settling on a ‘Still Hate Thatcher’ T-shirt.

This led to wariness among the speakers, though many of the journalists and pundits who came grudgingly accepted it was a good effort, more welcoming and enjoyable that the rest of the conference. Organisers were waiting for the hatchet jobs to arrive; the best the Express could do was post a video in which someone referred to Corbyn as ‘their king’.

Eventually the problem came from within: Jackie Walker, Momentum’s vice-chair, said that Holocaust Memorial Day only commemorates Jewish deaths in the Holocaust (it doesn't), and that she hadn’t ‘heard a definition of antisemitism that I can work with’. Momentum’s steering group is likely to oust her when it meets on Monday.

Before the conference, I repeatedly asked Corbyn’s critics what their plan was going to be after he won the leadership contest. At first, they said it wasn’t certain that Owen Smith would lose. That lasted maybe three days. Then they said: ‘We stand someone else again and again.’ (They seemed to take a certain amount of glee in the fact that both Corbyn and John McDonnell are older men, as though politics were mostly about endurance, and the long game consisted of grinding down older, weaker opponents.)

But on Saturday, after Corbyn’s re-election on an even bigger mandate than last year, it was clear there wouldn’t be another leadership challenge just yet. Chuka Umunna told the BBC it was a shame that immigration had not been a bigger issue in the leadership campaign. Rachel Reeves followed, channelling Enoch Powell as she said there were ‘bubbling tensions’ in the country that ‘could just explode’. The thinking behind this tactic is straightforward: immigration is something that Corbyn will not budge on; the right of the party can then claim he is immovable, rather than principled, and out of step with public opinion, as if public opinion were a monolith, rather than changeable and influenced by political arguments and media coverage. Corbyn’s critics' thinking may be straightforward, but that doesn’t mean it’s coherent: they also say he isn’t pro-EU enough and Labour should chase the 48 per cent of people who voted Remain in the EU referendum.

Still unresolved is the central tension between the membership and the Parliamentary party. The MPs argue that a mandate from the members does not mean someone is electable: this is true. But it isn’t clear that the MPs know better than the members what ‘electability’ looks like: Labour hasn’t won a general election for more than a decade, and most Labour MPs didn’t hold their seats in 2015 because of their innate electability. Barely anyone predicted the result of the last general election; many people thought the UK would vote to remain in the EU. Perhaps the rebel MPs will now accept that if they can’t convince their members of their candidates’ worth, they’ll also struggle to win round the public. But in the meantime, expect to see immigration as a conduit for attacking Corbyn.


  • 1 October 2016 at 1:21pm
    simon reynell says:
    I attended Momentum's 'World Transformed' event on the Saturday, and enjoyed it so much that I came back again on Sunday. There were a few bores speaking from fixed positions who you'd hate to end up sitting next to on a train, but the majority of those present were open, thoughtful, caring people who I'd happily converse with on a long journey. Most of the sessions I attended were just the sort of searching, spirited discussions that we need to be having post-Brexit, and at its best it was an inspiring event.
    I hope that the PLP, the right of the Party and the Party machine itself learn from this summer and stop trying to actively undermine Corbyn, who, for all his faults, should be given a fair chance to get on with opposing the Tories. As Dawn suggests, the right of the Party has singularly failed to come up with a coherent post-Blairite vision that addresses the politics of the 21st century. Without some such renewal the Party will wither and decline like the Socialist Parties on the continent, so in this sense Corbyn - or perhaps Momentum - are the best hope for the Labour Party continuing to be relevant.
    Dawn is correct that immigration on the one hand and Brexit on the other are likely to be the twin sticks with which Corbyn's opponents continue to try to beat him, but this only amplifies the incoherence of their vision, in that the focus on immigration suggests the Party should make concessions to anti-immigrant sentiments, while chasing the 48% who voted Remain suggests moving in the opposite direction.
    It's time for the centre-right of the Party to step back and undergo a process of self-critical recflection, though I'm pessimistic as to whether this will happen.

  • 1 October 2016 at 6:59pm
    ianjaric says:
    Re. the charge of Corbyn's opponents' incoherence over immigration: is this really incoherence or is it strategising? there might be something in a strategy in which it was shown that the (real and perceived) concerns of Brexit voters over immigration were taken seriously, but at the very least a 'hard Brexit' was opposed (and perhaps even more done). This could be precisely the strategy needed to attract middle-England voters while keeping metropolitan liberals onboard. I know - it's only half a strategy, and it won't do anything to win back votes in Scotland. People would also need a lot of persuasion, and perhaps it would be beyond any leader. By arguing for open borders Corbyn is of course staying true to his internationalist principles, but he's giving the party a heck of a job if they're to persuade Brexit England to support him in that. We saw the first clues as to the pitch that needs to be made to win people over to that point of view in his conference, and it's nothing if not bold in principle. But he seems to expect that the ire of the disgruntled xenophobe can be transformed into class consciousness at the drop of the hat. As much as dialectical materialism has going for it, Corbyn's lack of recognition that there factors to do with culture and identity at play is rather naive. And as for Scotland, does Corbyn think the same will work there too? I don't think anyone in his camp has thought this through.

  • 2 October 2016 at 12:58pm
    Graucho says:
    Never forget defence and nuclear disarmament, an issue as toxic to Labour as Europe is to the Conservatives, as it has been since the 50's. Having lived through the 80's when militiant tendency and the unions did everything they could to keep Mrs. Thatcher in power and wend her destructive ways through their gesture politics, I'm afraid that this is what momentum reminds me of

    • 2 October 2016 at 2:26pm
      simon reynell says: @ Graucho
      Graucho, Momentum are nothing like Militant, and belong to the 21st century not the 1980's. You should go out and meet some Momentum members; your prejudices would soon be swept aside. They will almost certainly never be in power but their campaigning may nonetheless shift things on the ground and help move the consensus away from neoliberal austerity. And if it does, they will have done us all a service.

    • 3 October 2016 at 2:21pm
      mototom says: @ Graucho
      Hey Groucho, ever thought of taking a leaf out of Harpo's book?

    • 3 October 2016 at 3:20pm
      Graucho says: @ mototom
      Well I do harp on sometimes.

  • 2 October 2016 at 7:06pm
    Simon Wood says:
    The dream of Britain becoming a small, socialist country occupied, so to speak, only by somehow truly English people - children of Albion, let's call them - makes me feel a bit warm and weepy. Every morning now I wake up and think, "I love Big Brother." It would be so much easier.

    What stops me is the belief that the whole of 2016 has been a dream and that I will wake up to Harold Wilson saying the pound in your pocket is worth a quid, my Co-op divi number still applies and we have won the World Cup even though the ball did not cross the line.

  • 4 October 2016 at 5:05pm
    Doug1943 says:
    If Momentum are serious they will now press on to de-select the anti-Corbyn MPs. It's not necessary to shout about this from the rooftops -- just do it.

  • 6 October 2016 at 4:35pm
    gary morgan says:
    I was dismayed to read that PLP members are apparently to attack Corbyn on his 'immigration flank' but there's another way of looking at the issue that is at once more straightforward and perhaps not so morally questionably.
    I thought this as I heard a young-sounding Momentum member being asked outside conference about the topic and she couldn't envisage any possibly problem with uncontrolled immigration. In fact she averred that in her road there were people from all over the world and they all got on famously.
    In my opinion it does no one any good to affect to disbelieve there could be anything wrong with immigration. With a Panglossian disposition like this, I fear that Labour will walk into a UKIP tank trap in the next General Election. I may be wrong but I suspect that immigration involving many races is thought by some on the left to be a necessarily good thing. If so, might it be fair to detect some inverted racism at work? If it is, I fear we will all get to know Submarine May rather too well in the forthcoming months.
    Gary Morgan.

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