Momentum at Labour Party conference

Momentum at Labour Party conference

Momentum’s “A World Transformed”: A Playground for Politics


When I first ventured into Momentum’s “A World Transformed” jamboree—a parallel conference running alongside the main Labour Party conference—I must admit I felt a twinge of nervousness. Momentum has gained a reputation for playing hardball, even ensuring that Brexit was not discussed at the conference. Furthermore, there have been instances of journalist-bashing, with jeers accompanying any mention of the press. The venue itself, a warren of rooms, did little to quell these feelings. It consisted of a makeshift “hub” where people gathered to chat and organize, a cavernous nightclub for meetings, and some other intimidating rooms I dared not explore.

However, my apprehension was immediately dispelled when I was welcomed by a charming woman named Hilary Wainwright, who quickly introduced me to the staff. To my surprise, it turned out that Ms. Wainwright is the aunt of The Economist’s Britain editor, Tom Wainwright, although this connection was purely coincidental. The young organizers of the event were all unfailingly polite, setting a relaxed yet efficient and business-like tone. It felt almost like being at a pop festival, albeit one with a larger contingent of older attendees.

Ms. Wainwright emphasized that Momentum is more than just a political machine; it is an organism that evolves and grows from the bottom up. Unlike the trade unions dominating the main conference, which rely on top-down direction and control, Momentum is a free-standing organization founded last year at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. Now, back in Brighton, it has reconstituted itself on a grander scale. The festival has managed to sell 3,500 tickets, with many more eager attendees turned away due to health and safety restrictions. In fact, people queued for hours just to hear John McDonnell speak about Labour’s program for when they come to power.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Momentum is its diverse age range. While the movement is often associated with young activists who flooded into the party after Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader, there are also veterans like Ms. Wainwright who have rekindled their socialist beliefs after years of disillusionment. She got involved in the women’s movement in the 1970s, worked as a shop steward, and campaigned against the Iraq War. Now, her commitments also include co-editing Red Pepper, a London-based radical magazine. This intergenerational involvement brings a vibrant mix of experiences and perspectives to the movement.

These conversations with Ms. Wainwright and her comrades reminded me of a book by Christopher Hill, a venerable Marxist historian who had been my teacher at Balliol College in Oxford. Hill wrote about a radical sub-culture flourishing during the English Revolution, a period commonly known as the Civil War. Countless sects, such as the Diggers, the Rangers, and the Levellers, dreamed up schemes to abolish private property, marriage, and even the state itself. Similarly, the collapse of Blairite Labour Party dominance has revealed the existence of numerous left-wing groupuscles beneath the surface of Britain’s consumer society.

Interestingly, many of these groupuscles, within Momentum, are infused with the same spirit of religious radicalism exhibited by Hill’s sects. Momentum supporters even hold sessions where they “bear witness” to their conversion to the movement, sharing emotional stories of discovering radical politics or realizing Jeremy Corbyn’s potential to win the next election. This fervent belief is what propelled Labour to victory in Brighton (Kemptown), overturning a staggering 10,000-vote Conservative majority. With such achievements, Momentum advocates now believe they can nationalize industries and bring an end to wars.

What distinguishes Momentum from other political movements is its unique emphasis on fun, treating politics as a branch of entertainment rather than just a means to an end. Participants repeatedly emphasize that politics should be “open, participatory, recreational.” The walls of their temporary headquarters are adorned with peace quilts, a denim global justice banner symbolizing solidarity with working people worldwide, and trade union banners. Within the “hub,” a corner is designated as the “creativity chaos corner,” where individuals are encouraged to let their creativity flow chaotically. To add to the festivities, “A World Transformed” hosts fun events like a pub quiz, hosted by Ed Miliband, challenging participants to differentiate between Karl Marx and Kinnock or the New Left and New Labour.

Of course, mixing different age groups together in such an environment can present challenges. As I witnessed, rows of people in their 60s and 70s endured deafening Goth music for half an hour while waiting for Mr. McDonnell. But as the saying goes, “You can’t have a revolution without breaking a few eardrums.”

However, within the left-wing sphere, divisions have always existed. Trotskyites and Stalinists, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, reformists and revolutionaries—we’ve seen these factions clash throughout history. Now, Labour’s left is witnessing the birth of yet another division—between professional revolutionaries and recreational revolutionaries. The former, identifiable by their determination and seriousness, can be seen outside the conference headquarters every morning, selling copies of publications like the Morning Star or Red Pages—a compendium of Conference-related comment produced daily by “Labour Party Marxists.” Inside the conference hall, these same apparatchiks are present, with John McDonnell, the leader among them, a hatchet-faced man who has dedicated his life to far-left politics.

On the other hand, Momentum, the home of recreational revolutionaries, is composed of individuals who visibly derive enjoyment from their political activities. Their enthusiasm has attracted droves of new members, enveloping them in a whirlwind of political engagement.

Yet, lurking beneath this recreation-led revolution lies a darker side. Some recreational revolutionaries find their fun in destructive behaviors, with anarchists clad in black, wearing balaclavas and bandanas, deliberately causing chaos at demonstrations. At some point, politics ceases to be mere recreation and becomes serious. The politics-as-fun bubble will inevitably burst when Labour is faced with hard choices and difficult sacrifices. In that moment, only the hard men and women who comprehend the difference between a revolution and a mere tea party will be left in charge.

Update (September 26th): The original version of this article mentioned trolling by supporters of Momentum, which has now been removed. Additionally, the number of tickets sold for “The World Transformed” has been updated.