Forward Momentum candidate Alan Gibbons writes on the challenges and opportunities for rebuilding socialism in the North, and the role Momentum can play
The 2019 General Election was a hammer blow to the Left, which for a long time looked like capturing the insurgent energy of a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo that had been building even before the financial crisis.
The political centre is already looking to rewrite history, pinning Labour’s election defeat on years of “ineffective opposition” – never mind the record number of defeats inflicted on the Government during that time, in spite of relentless media hostility and internal sabotage.
But Labour never stood a chance of winning ‘The Brexit Election’. The issue of exiting the European Union profoundly split Labour’s electoral coalition, and our policies to rebalance power away from the owners of wealth and towards working people – which had resonated just two years earlier – were drowned out by the drumbeat of “Get Brexit Done”.
There is no doubt that in many Northern working class communities Labour’s move towards a second referendum was received badly, as I experienced first hand canvassing in Crewe and Blackpool. But this was about more than Brexit.
In these communities, trust in the party has been ebbing away for decades, even if 2017 saw a slight revival. Our regions have long been held back by a political and economic system that has concentrated wealth and power in the City of London and Westminster. New Labour’s acceptance of this, in combination with their top-down style of politics, alienated a significant section of Labour’s working class base, especially in those areas that saw little investment during this period. This finally caught up with us in 2019.
So now more than ever, it is vital that the Left organise and fight for Labour to reorient itself towards the working class; not in the abstract, but by becoming a meaningful part of working class life and culture once again.
The Walton model
When it comes to the debate on how Labour can win back the trust of northern, working class communities, a good starting point is its safest seat. My constituency of Liverpool Walton, working class to the core, recorded an 84.7% vote for Labour.
Liverpool’s fierce independence, its proud working-class culture and history, and its deep distrust of the right wing press – underpinned by the 30-year boycott of the reviled S*n newspaper – make fertile ground for socialist politics. Those conditions can’t be neatly mapped onto other parts of the country, but we have a set of organising principles drawn from the experience of local activists that can.
The CLP is rooted in our community, our workplaces and campaigns. Our members are involved in community initiatives from Fans Supporting Foodbanks to homeless kitchens and street teams. We have a Gardening Group that clears local grot spots, plants flowers and helps develop community allotments. A community-led pilot project to brighten up local alleyways helped to secure investment from the council to roll out an alley repair project across the north of the city.
Our members have been ever-present on picket lines supporting our union colleagues in dispute, including the successful campaign by the RMT to keep the guards on Merseyrail train services, and the firefighters’ campaign to prevent the overnight closure of two local fire stations. We have been at the heart of mobilisations against the far-right, kicking them out of Liverpool again and again, and have been central to Stop the War campaigning.
We take pride in our working class culture. After bringing a performance of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to a local pub, we organised a march in memory of its author Robert Tressell. Led by a brass band, a 600-strong crowd marched to the site where he is buried in a pauper’s grave in Rice Lane City Farm. Each January we host an annual memorial lecture in honour of Eric Heffer, the socialist MP who won Liverpool Walton from the Conservatives in 1964 and turned the seat into the stronghold it is today.
Our current MP, Dan Carden, is fashioned from the same mould. He recently relocated his constituency office to Priory Road in Anfield, a struggling high street at the heart of the community. Dan’s office acts as a social hub and advice centre, providing key services including Citizens Advice drop-ins and free legal advice for parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities in partnership with Liverpool Law Clinic. In support of a Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) campaign, the office hosts a recording kit which people can borrow for free to help challenge flawed PIP assessment decisions.
Of course, rebuilding our movement is more of an uphill task in some areas than others. Sometimes I would return from canvassing in one of the small towns where the tide was ebbing away from us to our Red Citadel and marvel at the contrast. In many towns, the heavy industries that formed the basis for a strong labour movement have been replaced by distribution hubs and call centres with much lower trade union density. Often the vestigial strength of trade union organisation was stronger in the bigger cities than the smaller cities and towns along with the political culture it sustained.
But we cannot shy away from this rebuilding. As the political, social and economic consequences of the pandemic become evident, it is vital that CLPs become campaigning organisations standing up for the poorest and most vulnerable in our society and for a working class that may again be asked to pay the cost of the crisis. To that end, we are involved in food banks and mutual aid groups across the constituency. Wherever working people are under the cosh of the crisis, we should be there, taking their side.
Our attempt to make the CLP an active, outward-looking force in the community, in workplaces and on picket lines has been repeated in other areas, but to effect real social transformation these approaches need to be universal across the labour movement.
Enter Momentum – the force most associated with the Corbyn revolution, a vital engine of the heroic days when the party was quadrupling in size and energising a political generation.
Tragically, that promise ran into the sand. It became more about professional messaging than grassroots organisation and campaigning in communities. Before long, decisions were being centralised in the hands of a group of officers in London, ignoring local groups and disregarding their requests for data and resources. A style of organising that prioritised ‘big names’ over the grassroots became commonplace.
When it came to selections, locally-popular working class socialists were often overlooked or actively blocked in favour of candidates with access to the Momentum bureaucracy, leading to bitter disagreements and disengagement.
An effective socialist organisation doesn’t ‘organise’ from the top-down in back rooms; it empowers working class people to organise ourselves.
That is why I joined Forward Momentum, a campaign to give back to Momentum its initial energy and openness, and translate that into success down the line. Forward Momentum has already achieved one of its aims: stimulating a debate. Even those close to the current Momentum leadership have adopted many of Forward Momentum’s ideas in their campaign, ‘Momentum Renewal’.
While we at Forward Momentum believe that for Momentum to grow and function effectively members need to play a leading role, our vision for Momentum is about looking outwards and organising in working class communities as much as in the Labour Party. In this sense, it takes inspiration from the types of campaigning we’ve done in Walton, and others have done elsewhere.
One of Momentum’s roles should be to help build the capacity and skills needed for this – especially in areas where the labour movement is weak – with the aim of supporting local groups to organise in their communities and support campaigns focused on building power and deep-rooted support for socialism. This should be done in partnership with trade unions and tenants’ unions, as well as community-based campaigns.
As we all know, many local Labour parties aren’t yet set up for this type of campaigning or they are controlled by people resistant to it, so Momentum groups can act as central hubs for this type of activity. And where groups have success, Momentum should also look to spread the lessons throughout the organisation. This should also be tied up with wider programmes of political education, aimed at building a strong socialist culture among Momentum members by sharing both new ideas and a deep appreciation for our movement’s history – as we believe we have in Walton.
Of course, Momentum should continue to focus on organising inside the Labour Party, and it is vital that we rebuild towards a left majority on the NEC. But socialism is about more than getting people elected to positions of influence. As we found out in 2019, a radical manifesto and an impressive ground campaign alone can’t win an election for socialism. Without a strong foundation whatever success we think we might have will quickly crumble away.
Momentum, working hand in hand with communities and the institutions of the labour movement, must work towards building this, especially in the former industrial areas where Labour’s support has been declining. If we can recapture some of its early energy, and direct it to new goals, we will have a powerful organisation on our hands. We have a long way to go, but the upcoming NCG election gives us a chance to take the next step forward towards realising this ambition.