Why UK Labour lost?  Part 7: Momentum and the Corbynistas

The previous post looked at how those who opposed Corbyn contributed to the election loss. Corbyn’s allies also contributed to Labour’s loss. The factional organisation Momentum was formed after the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader in 2015. It is headed by longstanding party left activist Jon Lansman. Jon’s role as Chair of Momentum is not elected, something that has raised the ire of both friend and foe within Labour. It is particularly galling when Momentum’s stated aim is to democratise the Labour Party.

Jon Lansman at the 2019 Labour conference made the clumsy and damaging error of calling for the Deputy Leader position to be abolished. This was in response to Tom Watson using the position as a platform to voice factional views as outlined in the previous post. But Jon Lansman putting up a last minute motion at the NEC to scrap the whole position was infantile and divisive. The fact that Corbyn had to come out and oppose the move and side with Watson demonstrates the level of ineptitude of Lansman’s actions.

Image result for Jon Lansman
Jon Lansman, Chair of Momentum

Jon also serves as a member of the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC). As part of this committee he supporter the Trigger ballots compromise regarding open selection of MPs. Basically the so called compromise was instead of every Labour MP facing open selection before every election, members would have the chance to vote to Trigger an open selection if they felt there was the need.

Many other social democratic parties throughout the world have open selection. In fact it is fairly common in many major political parties operating in an established democracies. In most cases the MP or representative will be re-selected unopposed. Generally for a sitting MP to be deselected the following criteria would or should apply:

  1. The MP does not represent the Party’s policies or values
  2. The MP does not represent their constituency or community
  3. The MP is not considered electable, and an alternative candidate would stand a better chance.

Generally to deselect an MP, all three of the above are in play.  Added to these factors,  there needs to be a strong candidate who demonstrates that they are viable alternative.

Trigger ballots process meant members wanting to trigger a selection, had to try and demonstrate the above 3 in order to gain support. Further, the rules forbade other party members declaring their intention to stand prior to a successful Trigger ballot. So in effect you have a full on campaign to try and deselect and MP, without being able to (openly) promote viable alternative.

Many in Labour, even those not aligned to Momentum or the left, support the concept of open selection prior to each election. Many felt betrayed by the NEC and in some cases by Momentum for accepting this compromise.

In the weeks leading up to the general election being called, a number of Constituency Labour Party’s (CLP’s) were in the midst of these bruising Trigger ballot campaigns. Few were actually successful in forcing open selection, but they did successfully divide local Party’s and cause distrust and hurt. The result was that by the time the election was called, many party members couldn’t stand to be in the same room as each other.

One of the other weaknesses or errors of the Labour left was that they fell into the trap of personality cults. Whilst many felt a strong sense of loyalty to Corbyn and his leadership of the party, this should never have been the primary focus. The right and the media were quick to smear Corbyn, some of it justified, much of it not. While a defence of an elected leader is important, the more important task was to sell the policy manifesto and vision of the Labour left. It would be wrong to suggest the latter didn’t happen, but often personality and loyalty got in the way of actual politics. This in my experience happens a lot in politics, and can often lead to poor judgement and being blindsided.

Labour’s position on Brexit was confused and unclear. Momentum’s membership were generally from the remain camp, or at least the more active or vocal members were. Certainly paid officials and those in the inner clique were more sympathetic to a remain position. So while the likes of Owen Jones knew that calls by Progress and Labour First MPs for a second referendum were electoral folly, they eventually succumbed.

For factional leaders and the party as a whole need to understand that it is not just what the policy is. It is as much if not more about how you present the policy and engage and win over the public. Constantly framing the Party Manifesto as Radical in a country that is traditionally conservative is not clever politics. Especially when most of the policies are just mainstream social democratic positions. In short, it is not just what you are debating, but how you conduct the debate.

An example of an important debate being conducted poorly was the private schools remits at the 2019 Party conference. Many would agree that private schools should not get the state support that they do in the UK. But the way this issue was raised at the 2019 UK Labour Party conference in Brighton wasn’t clever. At the conference policy remits were put up and passed which would effectively abolish private schools, and force them to integrate into the state system. Many voters have sympathy for this, but also recognise that this is a significant change to the way education policy has been in the UK.

Timing wise, by September 2019 it was clear an election was imminent. Trigger ballots were happening throughout the Labour Party. Parliament was in dead-lock over Brexit and little else was getting discussed on a national political level. The 2019 conference would have been an opportunity to show unity and support for the popular policies in the 2017 Labour Manifesto.

Yes conference is the chance for active party members to debate policy at the highest decision making body in the party. But it is also an important PR event for the Party, especially at a time when Boris Johnson had Prorogued Parliament. Throwing private schools into the mix at this time was naive and foolish. There was not the proper opportunity to discuss and debate this policy. The media were generally dismissive  and didn’t take the debate seriously. The private schools debate was framed as the Labour Party left being detached from reality – ie they are debating “weird left stuff” while the country is in crisis over Brexit. The optics of it were rubbish.

Putting forward remits at a Party conference should come after a long debate both within the party and outside. Broad support should be won for a position, so that Labour (or any other Party) can feasibly gain support by taking this position. For example the campaign to bring British Rail back into public ownership had been rumbling on ever since the Conservatives sold it in the 1990s. When Labour included it in the 2017 manifesto, it won them support.

To win support for ending state support of private schools there needs to be a campaign involving teachers, students and the broader community. This campaign should be focussed on the type of education system thats needed in the 21st century, and part of this would be questioning and challenging the role of private schools. From this Labour could then pick up the mantle and take a position opposing the current private school set up.

Momentum played an important role in 2017 producing some every clever social media content and winning over a layer of young voters. In 2019 it tried to do the same, but in a much tougher climate with limited success. As a movement within Labour, it still seems to be in its infancy. It cannot seriously change Labour’s democratic structures with much credibility until it fixes its own. And in winning political battles, Momentum and its supporters need to find a way of selling genuine social democratic politics to a conservative English public.

Previous posts in this series

Why UK Labour Lost? Part 1: Historical Context

Why UK Labour lost? Part 2: UK Labour’s strange loyalty to First Past the Post

Why UK Labour lost? Part 3: Its Brexit Innit

Why UK Labour lost? Part 4: Oooo Jeremy Corbyn

Why UK Labour lost? Part 5: Antisemitism

Why UK Labour lost? Part 6: New Labour and Blairism

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