Written by Charlotte Austin, OULC Ex-Officio Member and MT18 Co-Chair.
Inspired by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to the Party over the last few years. Our membership now stands at around 540,000. I have seen first hand, in Oxford and in my home of County Durham, how new members have totally revitalised the Party. Attendance at campaigning and meetings has rocketed and I am seeing new members stand for roles and, crucially, organise in their communities. Things like an anti-racism reading group and a women’s local history project have been set up by new members in my area, taking the political education they have gained in the Labour Party and using it in their communities. That is why I was really excited to see Labour launch a new community organising unit in January.
The 2017 General Election was a triumph for popular engagement, turning around a massive deficit in the polls. Instead of relying on press releases and interviews (although Corbyn scored an emphatic victory when May refused to take part in the TV debates) we got creative on social media and got reams of activists out on the doorstep. Open-air rallies featuring Corbyn and members of the shadow cabinet felt more like rock concerts than political speeches (which became quite literal when Corbyn first came on stage at a Libertines gig). The rally I attended at Gateshead attracted around 10,000 people – many of whom were my age – all totally buzzing for what the politicians had to say. It felt a million miles away from what politics had been in 2015, when Labour were offering a slight reduction in tuition fees to £6,000 and putting ‘controls on immigration’ on a mug. There was real hope that in government we weren’t just going to be tinkering around the edges, but that we would radically change society.
Before the next general election, Labour needs to build this appeal by continuing to roll out popular, left-wing policies, but also by continuing to build this mass movement. Doing so, however, can be quite difficult when there isn’t an election looming. It’s too early to tell what impact the community organising unit will make, but it has the potential to solve this problem; having someone on the ground who is tapped into local issues and has the time to build something from the grassroots up is invaluable.
Nevertheless, there are plenty of ways in which I can imagine a community organising unit falling flat on its face. First of all, the job of community organiser must be treated differently from a typical party job. It is probably not suitable, say, for most university graduates looking for the first step on their career ladder. It would be much better going to someone who is already well rooted in their community and the local Labour Party. Secondly, it must be someone who is able to be critical of the Labour Party where it is important to the community. Take Oxford on the issue of homelessness; it would be unwise to have a community organiser who sided uncritically with the City Council in spite of important community campaigns – such as OULC’s Severe Weather Emergency Protocol pledge. Thirdly, the organiser should probably have a trade union background. The surge of people joining the Labour Party hasn’t been matched with a surge in trade union membership. This is something we crucially need to build up to restore collective bargaining in government and provide a buttress against the Tories when we are out of it.
Many people had hoped that Momentum would provide this link between the grassroots, the trade unions and the Party when it was formed in 2015. However, the organisation is becoming more and more centralised and seriously risks becoming like all of the other factions in the Labour Party. While individuals in their local groups are doing excellent things, the organisation nationally has abandoned much of that grassroots energy in favour of big names on twitter. Momentum’s conference fringe, The World Transformed, always has a few great speakers every year. However this year the programme also contained things like “Deconstructing Neo-Liberalism: An Early Morning Reading Group” and “Decolonising Yoga.” I am all for diversity and breadth in our events, but if I went home to County Durham and told people I’d been to “Decolonising Yoga” in Liverpool I’d be laughed out of the house. We need a grassroots organisation that speaks to working-class people in our communities; Momentum has neglected this in favour of internet celebrities and telling people to vote for slates.
The movement that Momentum sprang from, the 2015 campaign to elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader, was started by a few people who almost exclusively did not work in politics but cared about the fight for socialism enough to devote all of their time to the campaign. It developed organically, through volunteers making things happen in their part of the world. Rallies sprang up everywhere without the compulsion of a top-down structure. A community organising unit that doesn’t channel the passion and energy of our grassroots would be a community organising unit that fails.