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This Month in British Politics: The View from Momentum

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The past four to six weeks in Britain has been dominated by the Conservative Party’s succession battle to replace Theresa May as leader of the party (and, hence, Prime Minister). But you would never know it if your feed was dominated by Plymouth Momentum’s observations.

For those not fully immersed in the left / hard left of British politics, Momentum are more or less a party within the Labour Party. It originated out of the campaign to elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader in 2015, and has continued on as the key faction within the party since. Momentum has a fairly banal mission statement here, but in reality they are the driving force behind the hard left finally assuming control over the national structures of the party. They also serve(d) as a useful and effective voting heuristic for internal party elections. A Momentum “slate”, exemplified by the well devised and brilliantly executed #JC9 slate for election to the Labour Party National Executive Committee (the ruling body over the entire party apparatus), can (could?) be expected to carry the day. In a party with a membership of over 550,000 at its peak (now estimated between 400K and 450K), it is bonkers to expect that all members are attuned to the minutia of internal party politics. Slating such as this signals that these are the people in favour of Jeremy Corbyn, who is the reason you joined the party, so vote for them, even though you’ve never heard of them, nor have you really ever heard of the internal position you are voting on.

Momentum is a lot more than just a useful heuristic for internal party elections. Local branches exist in parallel with the formal party structure (more or less); here in Plymouth they have a city-wide organisation that mirrors the unitary local authority, which spans two and a half parliamentary constituencies. Membership is suitably murky, but it peaked around 35,000 to 40,000 when overall Labour Party membership peaked in the wake of the 2017 General Election. Active members of Momentum are a sort of Republican Guard for the Corbyn “project” within the Labour Party. And it is the Labour Party that they are more interested in — they seem to hate Tony Blair, Blairites in the Party, and other non-believers considerably more than they hate the Conservatives, Boris Johnson, or Margaret Thatcher. Momentum conveniently launched a national campaign to deselect sitting Labour MPs in advance of the next General Election at the height of the fallout from the Panorama piece on anti-semitism in the Labour Party that ran last Wednesday.

Reviewing the Plymouth Momentum feed on facebook (as well as twitter) provides evidence to support that their primary obsessions are internal. I counted 61 posts in the past month, give or take. I coded them in a not-at-all rigorous fashion (I’m a quant guy; I’m aware that qualitative methodologies exist because I have books in my office that tell me that they exist, and how real professionals do them). I broke the posts down into six general areas, plus an entire subset dealing with anti-semitism in the Labour Party:

There are nine on positive messaging (about our policies, or just to get together to have a socialist picnic.). There are 12 posts railing against the vast conspiracies (foreign and domestic) working feverishly to bring down Jeremy Corbyn. Six posts bluntly criticise Labour Party politicians (non anti-semitism category). Two sing the praises of automatic reselection of sitting MPs. And only six are explicitly critical of the Conservative Party, its MPs, politicians, or policies.

24 of the 61 posts (over 39%!) I coded deal with anti-semitism in the Labour Party (or, according to Momentum, how it’s a giant conspiracy to bring down Corbyn). 14 of these are supportive of Chris Williamson, MP, who is currently suspended from the party pending an investigation into charges that he has brought the party into disrepute due to his own alleged anti-semitism. Two posts argue that anti-semitism is, at best, overstated in the LP, and that the LP could not possibly be institutionally anti-semitic. Four are some variation of how the Panorama program on the BBC that aired on Wednesday 10 July (it’s worth a watch) was a “hatchet job . . . (and) a farce”. And a further four are explicitly critical of existing Labour Party MPs who did not toe the party line on the issue of anti-semitism and / or the Panorama program (i.e., they dared to suggest that perhaps, maybe, there is a problem, and that as the Labour Party we might consider taking it somewhat seriously, given we are supposedly anti-racisim and all).

Finally, there are two (surprisingly to me, only two) that deal with fringe foreign policy issues that only appeal to a tiny minority of the British electorate.

Let’s review. Of the 61 posts, only 15 (or not quite 25%) are classic political messaging — either positive stories about our policies or negative stories about the opposition. More space is dedicated to criticising other LP politicians for their lack of purity or Blairite tendencies at 10 posts than those critical of the Conservatives, at six. Less than 10% of the overall output concerns the Conservatives.

Let that sink in. If we combine the reselection posts with those critical of other Labour Party politicians, twice as much time is devoted to attacking the Labour Party itself than the Conservatives. If we further include those posts defending Chris Williamson, and how his suspension is illegitimate, Plymouth Momentum spends over four times the energy attacking the Labour Party itself as it does the Conservatives, whom I naively believe to be the real opposition.

The Maomentum account shown above is satire, in case anybody doesn’t get it. I wish the following was, which was left as a response to one of the posts dealing with the vast conspiracy arrayed against Jeremy Corbyn, but I believe it’s sincere (and completely in line with attitudes I’ve heard expressed often):

But, it’s not a cult.

One reason why this post might be a bit ranty and less analytical is that the social media officer of Plymouth Momentum is working behind the scenes to deselect our MP. I’m a core part of the team that is responsible for re-electing our MP (or electing our candidate should he be deselected). Our MP is favoured enough by Jeremy Corbyn that he’s been promoted a couple times — he’s now a shadow minister. While not on the shadow cabinet per se, it is a vote of confidence by Jeremy Corbyn. But this doesn’t demonstrate enough ideological purity for Momentum. What this means, of course, is that we will expend a lot of time, effort, and energy into ensuring our MP does get reselected; that’s energy that could otherwise be used taking the fight to the Conservatives. At least now I’m well versed on the current re-selection rules and procedures of the Labour Party.

While Plymouth Momentum have a lot to say about the Labour Party, there’s not a single post about Boris Johnson in the past six weeks. However, in the time it took me to write this post, a new post defending Chris Williamson did appear. Of course.


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