The Activists Behind the Stunning Election Gains for the British Labour Party
The leaders of Momentum, the grassroots force that drove Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpectedly strong showing, have plenty of lessons to share with egalitarians worldwide.
Blogging Our Great Divide
July 19, 2017
On June 8, the UK Labour Party and its standard-bearer, Jeremy Corbyn, experienced a stunning reversal of fortune. Widely derided by pundits only two months earlier, Labour and Corbyn almost won the British national election. Running under the slogan For the Many, Not the Few, Labour put issues of inequality front and center. Today, almost seven weeks after the election, Labour is polling 8 points ahead of the Tory conservatives.
How has Labour come so far so fast? Many observers credit the grassroots mobilization known as Momentum, a group with 23,000 members nationwide and 150 local chapters. Momentum is organizing communities across the UK and putting forward an ambitious Labour plan to “redistribute wealth and power from the few to the many, put people and planet before profit and narrow corporate interests, and build a society free from all types of discrimination.”
Nine days after the election, I sat down with Momentum national organizer Emma Rees and volunteer Deborah Waters.
Momentum volunteer Deborah Waters and national organizer Emma Rees
Q: Labour almost won. How do you feel?
Deborah: The results were beautiful. I heard it described on the radio as “the bitterest of victories for the Conservatives and the sweetest of defeats for Labour.” The winners didn’t really win and the losers didn’t really lose.
Q: When Teresa May called a “snap election” in May, how did you feel?
Emma: When the general election was called, Labour was polling at 24 percent. That’s why it was called “a power grab” by Theresa May. Quite unsuccessful as it turns out.
The conventional wisdom was, “This is going to be an absolute disaster for Labour. We should run a defensive campaign. We shouldn’t talk about Jeremy Corbyn at all.”
The initial response of some sections of the Labour Party was to run a “Stop the Tory landslide” campaign — to not focus on Jeremy, not talk about a vision for the future, nothing about transforming the lives of ordinary people. It was all about damage limitation.
When you’re polling at 24 percent, even some of us at Momentum were asking ourselves what’s the best strategy? Deborah’s political judgment was exactly spot on. In the first meeting after the election was called, Deborah was clear — it doesn’t matter what the polls say, people will change. If we run the right campaign, if we put forward what Jeremy is actually saying, cut through the nonsense and the media and all of that, then we can win.
Deborah: We knew how well people thought of Jeremy Corbyn out in the Local Momentum Groups and how willing they were to campaign for him and the Party. I think we were ready for this year’s general election because last summer we had had the experience of the 2016 leadership challenge.
That leadership fight got us prepared — but nothing entirely prepares you for the high stakes of a general election. As soon as this year’s general election was called, we were on the phones the next day. Momentum can mobilize very quickly.
Emma: You saw our map – we identified sixty-six marginals [swing districts]–anything where Labour was within 7,000 votes –for both the offense and defense. People were criticizing us, saying ‘What are you doing? You are wasting resources, diverting energy. It’s just about damage limitation.’ But we had that kind of volunteer resource. We stuck to our guns.
"We encouraged our activists to have real conversations with people. Start with what we have in common and ask questions."
Momentum national organizer Deborah Waters
Q: If you are not the Labour Party, what are you?
Emma: What we say is Momentum is a grassroots network of people and groups who want to elect a transformative Labour Party. We are utterly and completely committed to the Labour Party and in supporting it to be a transformative force. Part of our role is to revitalize and energize the Labour Party and open up the way they campaign to reach new communities. Sometimes there is resistance from the Party, as you can imagine. But we are totally committed to Labour and what it needs to win.
Momentum’s role is to mobilize — to get as many members to be as engaged and effective as possible. In practical terms, we get more people into the Labour Party — and get existing members more engaged and active and empowered to do the necessary campaigning and community work.
Q: Deborah, what got you engaged as a volunteer in Momentum and the movement to elect Jeremy Corbyn?
Deborah: I’m a member of the Labour Party and have always voted Labour. I volunteered for them during the general election campaign of May 2015. Then when the subsequent leadership election was called in the summer of that year and I heard that Jeremy Corbyn was running for leadership of the Party, I thought, “Jeremy Corbyn? The bloke from North London? That’s fantastic.” And I started volunteering for his campaign a few days later.
During that campaign, I met many of the people with whom I now volunteer at Momentum. After Jeremy became leader of the Labour Party, someone asked how we could keep the enthusiasm of this going. There were about 30 of us who met in an old church building to talk about ideas for maintaining the momentum of the campaign. Everyone offered to volunteer in various capacities over the following months, with a half a dozen or so in a position to be able to volunteer full time. But we needed a “home.” A supporter offered us a small office in a disused department store in the East End of London, literally in the garret of the building. So in October 2015, we moved in, to a room where there was nothing — no furniture, no heat, no lightbulb.
So we bought a light bulb and sat on the floor with our own laptops and mobiles. We started to call up people we knew around the country from the leadership campaign. That was the beginning of getting Momentum organized nationally.
Q: What is it about Momentum that gets people engaged? What is the spark?
Deborah: It is entirely because of Jeremy Corbyn and the effect he has on people. Momentum isn’t the people in the office, it’s the members and supporters out there — in the shires, in the small towns, in the back ends of cities. That is the spark.
The Local Groups are at the heart of the organization. We have some simple guidelines for setting up a group for the purposes of organizing nationally. For example, we require that committees have gender parity, a meeting space with disabled access, a Facebook page, and a group email address. But how the Local Groups otherwise choose to organize is up to them. It’s been a steep learning curve, but we had an idea of what we had to do to get things started. And we have learned much from the groups in return.
We are very fortunate in that we have many wonderful young people who have come in to the organization who have boundless energy and who are very media-savvy. The work of the social media team was crucial during the general election campaign.
We also had help from a number of young people who had worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign in the States. They led a number of very well received training sessions for us around the country. The campaign was fortunate to have them over here.
But we took nothing for granted and so we were genuinely stunned by the impact of almost getting Jeremy Corbyn elected last week. And it’s all down to the local activists. They’ve done the hard work of knocking on doors, talking to people, setting up trestle tables in the markets, and chatting with people about what’s important to them. They reported that the same conversations came up time and time again: the attacks on our National Health Service and the effects of austerity.
Q: Who are the people that make up Momentum?
Deborah: Momentum reflects the shifting support for Labour and left politics.
The traditional working-class, which is my background, is the historical base for Labour. But many of the younger people in Momentum aren’t from the traditional working class. For them, their politics is more of a studied thing rather than being a way of life. But the fact that the younger generation is more socially aware can only be a force for good. Our movement is stronger for bringing together those from different classes and generations.
We made a great push to get students and other young people to register to vote, and that has made a difference.
And, of course, Emma as national organizer has been so important in making the campaign, in making this organization, successful. The Momentum team in the office is likewise committed and hard-working. and it’s a privilege to be able to volunteer with them.
Q: What did you do differently than in the past?
Emma: What Momentum did best was energize and mobilize people and lower the bar to participation. At every single training session — we did 33 — half the people who attended had never knocked on a door. They were completely new to politics.
Deborah: Our approach on the doorstep was also different from the traditional Labour Party approach. I know this is true because I’ve canvassed for the Labour Party in a number of elections. You get the instruction to knock on the door and ask for their voting intention, but are told not to engage with them. I can’t do that!
One activist from Lincolnshire reported that someone had said, “Thanks for knocking on the door. The other parties haven’t knocked on our door.”
We encouraged our activists to have real conversations with people. Start with what we have in common and ask questions. And it doesn’t matter what part of the country you are come from, we all use the NHS and we have all felt the effects of austerity.
Q: Did this require any training and coaching?
Deborah: People think you need a particular skill. But it doesn’t take any particular skill to ask someone “What do you think?” or “What’s your experience?” You are talking about things that are familiar to us all.
The training sessions helped enormously, they made people feel more confident. It’s just like talking to someone on a bus.
When it comes down to it, we all have the same worries, the same fears for our families. Basically, it’s about reducing inequalities.
Q: You had a lot of success engaging musicians and artists.
Emma: We had the Grime artists [a genre that emerged in London in the early 2000s] get on board. There was Grime4Corbyn. Then the other music scenes were like, let’s create “Moshers for Corbyn.” These artists were promoting registering to vote and engaging their audiences. Jeremy was also on the front covers of NME and Kerrang!
The 1984 picture of Jeremy being arrested for protesting apartheid in South Africa was widely circulated in these circles. That connected with young people.
Jeremy Corbyn getting arrested in 1984 in an anti-apartheid demonstration
Q: How did you incorporate social media?
Emma: We created a ton of shareable graphics and videos and created a culture of fun. One popular meme was “Bring Your Dog to the Polls,” and people sent pictures of themselves with their dogs voting. We made politics fun and ordinary and normalized.
Social media can sometimes just be an echo chamber, but we are trying to change and break out to reach new people. Some of our videos were highly shareable. The Conservatives spent millions on dark ads accusing Corbyn of being a threat to national security. We spent like £2,000 on Facebook advertising. One in three Facebook users in the UK watched a Momentum video, 7.4 million watched one particular video.
Q: Two weeks ago, in the thick of the campaign, how many staff and volunteers did you have?
Deborah: There were a handful of paid staff members, a dozen or so full-time volunteers, and many hundreds of others who volunteered whenever they could. The office was always full. Some worked the phone banks, others as part of the social media team. Some were helping with groups and energizing local campaigns. It is lovely to meet like-minded people and create community, people you would otherwise had never known but with whom you have a lot in common.
Q: Emma, describe the electoral map and what was achieved?
Emma: We held and won all but four of the 66 marginals, the swing districts. And we were solid in other areas where Labour became the second party.
We created a website, MyNearestMarginal. You can type in your postcode and get connected to organizers in the local district. This enabled people to carpool and plug into local campaigning. We had 100,000 unique users who benefited from the information source.
In an ideal world, the Labour Party would have done this a long time ago. But we were nimble and had the energy to put into it. Our team spent seven weeks scouring the Internet, hitting the phones, talking to local Labour committees, getting the right contacts, and then manually entering the data.
And you had momentum. What if you’d had another week?
Deborah: Some speculate that if we’d had another fortnight, we could have nailed it. But looking forward, if we have another election say within the next ten months or if we have to wait the full five years, we’ll be ready. At a moment’s notice we proved that we were ready for this election, and, as a result, Labour did well.
Q What will you do differently in the months ahead?
Deborah: We will try to better support the regional organizers and local group contacts. The local groups are crucial to the organization. Also, we now know what worked well in terms getting support into the marginals and where we could have sent out support differently. For instance, some places had too many volunteers and others had too few.
We made surprising advances in places where didn’t expect to do well. And this is entirely due to the activism of the local groups. Now we know that we need put resources into those areas. For example, in Cornwall it’s possible that we could have taken one or two seats, an area that has traditionally been Liberal Democrat or Conservative. There are possibilities everywhere.
Q: What happens moving forward?
Emma: We have some new marginal districts, not just the original 60. There is new territory where we might actually compete and win. So we have to expand our map!
We are optimistic because we are getting reports from the field. We listened a lot to local Labour activists on the ground. There is an enthusiasm factor that the polls failed to catch. An intensity of support for Corbyn in large part because he is a real bloke, he is authentic. People feel they can trust him.
Chuck Collins directs the Program on Inequality at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is co-editor of Inequality.org and the author of Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good.