No Brex please, we're Momentum
PUBLISHED: 13:38 28 September 2017 | UPDATED: 13:38 28 September 2017
Jeremy Corbyn and his Momentum supporters have a stranglehold on the Labour Party. RICHARD PORRITT reports from Labour conference on the impact that is having on the party’s Brexit stance
A few hundred yards from the armed police that patrol the entrance to the Brighton Conference Centre a queue snakes around the block.
Young and old are waiting patiently to get in to a ramshackle building that used to house the decadent Hed Kandi nightclub, famous for its all-night raves and scantily-clad women.
But the hundreds eagerly waiting to get inside are not there to party. They want to change the world.
The World Transformed has taken over the building for the duration of Labour Party conference. It is an art exhibition, a political talking shop and a hot-bed of left-wing activism.
It grew out of the Jeremy Corbyn-backing Momentum movement and held its first four-day fringe event in Liverpool last year. More than 5,000 people attended then and this time around it will be many more.
The people in the queue appear friendly enough. Until you introduce yourself as a journalist and try to quiz them about Brexit. “I don’t like the media,” said one man, in his 60s, while a women nodded along beside him. “We cannot trust the mainstream media. They lie about Jeremy and even the slightest issue within the Labour Party is blown out of all proportion. The owners of newspapers want the Tories in power. Some of them did not mind Blair but that is because he was basically a Tory.”
The man is a new Labour member. He joined with thousands of others to back Corbyn. “I hate Blair and Brown. I’ve been to left of the Labour Party for most of my life. But not any more. I’d say though that I am a member of Momentum first. It is Momentum that is driving the changes and Momentum that has the chance to really change this country for the better.”
He doesn’t believe Brexit is a big issue: “Jeremy was right when he said we should trigger Article 50 the day after the result. We should just get on with it. The fact these negotiations are so complex and are taking so long proves we were far too reliant on Europe
“Over time the EU took away our freedoms. I voted to Leave and I am proud of that. In time I really do think the Labour Party will be able to openly say ‘we are happy about Brexit, it was the right decision’. At the moment because we still have a lot of Tory-lite MPs and members the leaders, Jeremy and John especially, have to be a bit more clever.”
At this point I was asked by a younger man to stop bothering the people queuing and told to leave. “Nobody here wants to speak to the media,” he said.
Momentum has changed the face of the Labour Party. Their activists swamped Brighton. At every fringe event the audience included very vocal Momentum members willing to put their views across, often forcefully.
Momentum’s email to delegates urging them to pick topics to vote on that did not include Brexit shows their power. Sources in Brighton suggested the reason was to stop Labour Remainers pushing through a tougher stance on Brexit which could “embarrass Corbyn”. What should now be blatant to Labour members who back Remain is their leader does not consider the biggest issue facing this country in modern times worth voting on.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer is faced with an uphill battle. One Labour MP said “Jeremy is not that bothered about Brexit and John McDonnell is a Leaver, Keir is fighting a battle to even rouse their interest in his role... he is basically doing it all by himself”.
Sir Keir is too canny to attack his leader or even Momentum. Instead he prefers to quietly get on with his job in the hope of softening Brexit.
“We should keep options on the table, we should not sweep anything away,” he told The New European. “And that includes, at least as an option, staying in a customs union and as an option a new relationship with the single market.
“The shadow cabinet is together. We have an agreed position. We worked hard over the summer to get to that position. Everything I said in my speech is agreed by Jeremy, it is Labour party policy.”
The truth is that Corbyn does not want to be completely open with the significant number of members who are anti-Brexit. For that reason he is keeping his mouth shut and hoping they let him off the hook.
The Labour Party prides itself on forming policy on the conference hall floor, driven by its members. But Corbyn has found that he can shape even that now through Momentum. He has become a strongman leader of this Labour Party with Momentum acting as his enforcers.
At conference in Brighton there were times when Momentum’s involvement felt like a coup. This is not the party of Tony Blair, John Smith or Neil Kinnock any longer. And Corbyn is happy to let Momentum push Labour further left still – even if that means, effectively, towards Brexit.