‘Left-Wing Madness’

Conrad Landin · Momentum, Reselection and the Press

‘Online intimidation of Tories brings call to curb Momentum,’ a headline in the Times said on Wednesday. The article was about a new report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which ‘contains detailed criticism of “fringe groups” that have a big impact on the tone of political debate’. The report doesn’t name Momentum, but the Times is confident the left-wing Labour group is its target. But what about the right-wing press? Yesterday, the Daily Mail attacked a number of Conservative MPs on its front page for voting to give Parliament a say on any final Brexit deal. Most of them were among those branded ‘mutineers’ by the Telegraph last month. Some of them have since received death threats.

Meanwhile, the Conservative MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, David Morris, told Granada TV that he was ‘questioning the validity’ of a story on child poverty in his constituency because the ‘reports always come’ from two primary schools with ‘very strong links to Momentum’. The schools denied having any such links.

According to George Osborne’s Evening Standard, the London Borough of Haringey offers a prime example ‘of the left-wing madness consuming the Labour Party’. A recent editorial railed against ‘Corbynistas’ for plotting to oust council leader Claire Kober, ‘a face of sensible, Centre-Left social democracy in action in local government’.

Kober, who survived the attempt to de-select her ahead of the local elections next spring, is under fire for championing the Haringey Development Vehicle (HDV), a 50-50 partnership between the council and the Australian property developer Lendlease. Her supporters on the council say it's the only way to fund new housing. Her critics – from across the political spectrum – describe it as a ‘£2 billion gamble’ which will hand an unprecedented swathe of public land to speculators.

The council leadership disputes this figure: ‘£2 billion was a 2015 estimate of the value of the land once it has been developed,’ according to a ‘mythbuster’ fact sheet. ‘In fact, the council’s assets are valued in the tens of millions.’ It also denies that residents will be pushed out of the borough, and that the HDV will be ‘unaccountable’.

These assurances weren't enough for Labour members, who voted to ‘trigger’ a number of existing councillors who support the HDV. Under party rules, sitting councillors are automatically reselected unless their local branch votes to reopen the process. For all the talk of Jeremy Corbyn instigating a ‘purge’ of moderate voices, it has actually got harder to get rid of incumbents in local government. Ahead of the last London borough elections, when Ed Miliband was Labour leader, councillors were subject to ‘mandatory reselection’ and entered the process on a more or less equal footing with new hopefuls.

Getting triggered doesn't mean you've necessarily lost, but many Haringey councillors have taken it as a premonition of defeat, and pulled out. In their place, members have largely chosen left-wingers opposed to the redevelopment scheme. The group of Labour councillors once had a 29-21 majority in favour of the plan. According to the Stop HDV campaign, 45 of the new candidates are opposed, and just 12 are still in favour (there are more candidates than councillors, as a number of seats are held by the Liberal Democrats). This means that after the local elections next spring, Kober is unlikely to have the support to carry on as leader.

One councillor who withdrew from the process was James Patterson. As a Green candidate in 2008, he argued that ‘public services should be publicly owned and be publicly accountable.’ Saying he would ‘reverse the drift towards privatisation’, he accused Labour, along with the other main parties, of ‘promoting the interests of multinational corporations’.

Now he is a vociferous supporter of the HDV, and has accused Momentum of using ‘the HDV as its Trojan horse to take over the local party’. The left's social media campaign, he says, ‘seems to have been inspired by Militant’. He qualifies this rather odd historical analogy by comparing anti-HDV tweets to ‘anonymous poison pen letters’. The Trotskyist entryists of the Militant tendency, who had been expelled from Labour by 1991, certainly had controversial tactics. But they were never known for ‘poison pen letters’. Joyce Gould, Labour's self-described ‘witchfinder general’, recalls that it was she who was accused of relying on anonymous denunciations for a report she compiled against Militant.

Comparisons with Militant have been commonplace since Momentum was founded out of Jeremy Corbyn's first leadership campaign. They have been rejected by Peter Kilfoyle, one of the most prominent opponents of Militant on Merseyside. Momentum's clear lineage is in the party's longstanding ‘Outside Left’, which, while in favour of extra-parliamentary action, has always been suspicious of Trotskyism.

In any case, disquiet about the HDV goes way beyond Momentum. At least two Labour councillors opposed to the plan were reselected even though they called for Corbyn's resignation last year. The Lib Dem leader, Vince Cable, has referred to the Haringey debacle as ‘#Momentum infiltration and destabilisation of moderate #Labour councillors and MPs’. But his own party in Haringey is bitterly opposed to the HDV, as is the local ‘moderate’ Labour MP, David Lammy.

But if the anti-HDV campaign is successful, Momentum may soon want to claim credit. It could well mark a turning point against the sort of ‘regeneration’ championed by councils of all parties, and criticised as ‘social cleansing’ by more than just the hard left. ‘For the first time the power of the Labour party in selections has been representative of the local community’s views, and stopped a redevelopment,’ one newly selected Haringey candidate told me.

Labour authorities claim that building large numbers of unaffordable flats is the only way to fund new social housing. But it only exacerbates the housing crisis, even if developers fulfil their pledges for ‘affordable’ quotas – and often they do not. Councils encourage speculation by allowing luxury homes to be sold ‘off-plan’ to investors, and rents soar while flats sit empty. As Anna Minton writes in Big Capital, ‘this viewpoint frames the housing crisis as being caused by a lack of supply alone, which it is not.’

The Haringey campaign's next task is to stop the council leadership from giving the HDV the green light before next year's elections.