- Interview by
- Ronan Burtenshaw
This weekend marked one year since the founding of Momentum, the organization which grew from the campaign to elect Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader.
In its first twelve months the fledging political movement made plenty of enemies: from being dubbed “a rabble” by party deputy leader Tom Watson to a millionaire Labour donor’s comparisons with “Nazi stormtroopers” and even undercover investigations by both Channel 4 and the BBC.
Despite these attacks, Momentum has quickly developed into one of the most important institutions on the British left, mobilizing thousands as the driving force behind Corbyn’s successful re-election campaign.
One of those central to this rise has been James Schneider, a founder of Momentum who went on to become a national organizer for the organization. Jacobin contributing editor Ronan Burtenshaw sat down with him to discuss his life in politics, the development of Momentum, and whether he really is a part of Jeremy Corbyn’s “praetorian guard.”
Tell us a bit about how you first got politicized and your early political activities.
I was fifteen when the Iraq War began and that made me start to look at politics. At that time market liberalism was triumphant, Labour were in government, and I had a privileged upbringing, so it wasn’t the economy that mobilized me then but war and civil liberties. In my mid-to-late teens I was opposed to the war on terror, detention, ID cards and issues like them, so I became a Liberal Democrat.
At that time the Lib Dems positioned themselves to the left of Labour on international issues, such as the Iraq War, civil liberties, and even some economic issues, such as a higher top rate of tax and state intervention. They seemed to me to reflect the softer side of what I now think of as the post–social-democratic consensus. It was quite a bit later before I broke with that way of seeing the world, especially since I had studied economics, which really defined market rationality as the only legitimate worldview.
It wasn’t until I was at university that I moved away from liberalism. I began to become more critical, and started reading anarchist and Marxist material. Then the financial crisis hit, which threw everything up in the air. By December 2008, trying to get my head around money and finance, I was reading libertarian socialists like Silvio Gesell and finding out about script currencies and demurrage. I studied the Great Depression and began to realize that the way we were taught to see the world was pretty flimsy. It only functioned under very specific circumstances, and it was justified by ignoring a series of historical injustices which underpinned the system.
When I finished college, the office where I worked was about thirty seconds away from Occupy in London. I would walk down and speak to people two or three times a day. I wasn’t part of it, I wasn’t an activist. I wanted to be involved in some kind of political activity, but I didn’t really find an avenue. I looked at the work of groups like UK Uncut from afar and admired what they were doing, but I didn’t involve myself properly until a few years later.
How did you feel about the Labour Party at that stage? Having been politicized by the Iraq War, was that still how it was defined for you?
If your political mind switches on, as mine did, in the second term of New Labour, it is hard to break from the Iraq War. You didn’t remember what a Tory government was like. And you didn’t get to see the windfall tax, the Human Rights Act, the national minimum wage, the abolition of section twenty-eight, the positive aspects of the first term.
But the second term was bad. In addition to the Iraq War there was the attempt to introduce ninety-day detention, the proposed ID cards, tuition fees, and the commodification of the NHS. My view of Labour was one of a fairly authoritarian party and, as I shifted to the left on economic issues, I didn’t think that’s where they were either. I remember Labour spokespeople saying they were the party of workers, but defining that as meaning we don’t represent people out of work. That went against what I understood to be progressive politics. It seemed to be saying, “anyone who’s doing just about okay we’re fine with but anyone who’s not doing okay, we’re going to demonize.”
Then, when Labour were out of office, between 2010 and 2015 there were a lot of disappointments. I didn’t really feel many of the lessons had been learned. My partner was urging me from 2012 to join the Labour Party, telling me that was where left-wing politics could happen, but it took some time. One of the reasons was that I made a decision to work in Africa, which was a formative experience for me.
What was your work in Africa? And how did it influence your worldview?
I worked as a journalist, an editor and a researcher, first at Think Africa Press, which sadly no longer exists, and then at New African Magazine.
It helped me see things in a longer term, historical view of global development, to see relationships between regions and how those can change. I began to ask questions like, “What are the structures that make Nigeria’s biggest export to Britain unrefined oil and Britain’s biggest export to Nigeria refined petroleum? How does that continue to happen?”
It helped me to see through a dominant form of analysis in elite British politics, the kind that you find in the Economist, that tries to explain war, poverty and underdevelopment without actually engaging in the real historical context. Instead there are these stories that you can fall back on, North versus South, Christian versus Muslim, ancient ethnic rivalries, anything to prevent you from talking about capitalism, imperialism — the bigger picture, but also the real local context and complexities.
I remember at one stage I was interviewing people for a new project in Think Africa Press. One of the interview questions I asked was, “in Malawi, at the moment, there’s a bill going through for a state pension, where everybody would pay in and everybody gets a pension at age sixty if you’re a man and fifty-seven if you’re a woman.” I would say, “lots of people support it, all the international donors, the political parties, business, think-tanks, liberal civil society. But trade unions oppose it. What do you think?”
Most people heard that and thought, “pensions, liberal support, political parties back it, it must be good.” Then I’d ask, “why do you think trade unions oppose it?” Some would talk about inflexibility, others about trade unions possibly having their own pension funds. So I’d ask, “what is the life expectancy in Malawi?” It’s fifty. That was a way of bringing home some realities about class and underdevelopment.
How did you come to see yourself as a socialist?
When I was in Africa I wrote a lot of what you might call non-dogmatic socialist analysis, looking at political economy, looking at power relationships, but in a way that was designed to be for a popular audience. At the time I would have just said I was on the Left. It wasn’t until I joined the Labour Party, in 2015, that I would have consciously identified as a socialist.
I was surprised by how fucked up I was by the 2015 general election. Not just the result, although that was a real shock to a lot of us, but the whole process. I woke up on the morning and walked to my polling station. I got the tube, got to work, and it could have been any other day. No one was talking about it. It felt to me like a moment when big things were happening in the world, an economy was failing a lot of people, a political system was broken, but there was no sense that we were making any collective decision about the future. It seemed like a hollow democracy.
I joined the Labour Party on the Monday after the general election. I did that without an expectation that things would shift dramatically more towards my kind of analysis. Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t even a rumored contender, let alone on the ballot. Everyone assumed that the party would move rightward.
At first his campaign appealed to me because it was populist, everyday people versus the elites who governed them. As he began to be attacked it was clear that this was about democracy and our right to choose something different. But I had a lot of more developed ideas by that stage and when I heard Jeremy and John McDonnell explicitly calling themselves socialists, I think a generation of us began to say, “Okay, they use that term and it represents what I think too, I’m a socialist.”
Labour already had an established socialist tradition in the Left of the party, epitomized in recent times by Tony Benn. Did you feel any affinity with that kind of politics or were you more attracted to the newer, networked politics that arose after the crash?
To me, the most exciting things about the history of the Labour left were many of the same that attracted me to newer left-wing politics. At its strongest it was a movement of the organized working class of Britain. Whereas it was portrayed as dogmatic and procedural, it in fact was a living movement, on the streets, in the unions, in communities trying to win socialism. You had a huge strike wave, you had fourteen million people in trade unions, you had the rise of feminism, and antiracism. These were crucial to the Labour left’s development.
There are, of course, differences in perspectives between people engaged in the Corbyn movement. Many of those whose politics were formed by the Labour left have a deep and long-term understanding of the party, shaped by theorists like Ralph Miliband, and see this as the latest chapter of a long struggle. A lot of newer activists don’t really have those reference points. They see themselves as part of a post-2008 movement that has engaged with the Labour Party to change politics.
I see my role in Momentum as a dialogue between those two. I’ve read Miliband, I learned from his critiques, but I don’t come from his tradition. He helped me understand the historical development of the Labour Party and concepts like Labourism, but he was also writing in a different moment of history. The direction of history and politics, the nature of the economy, and technology’s role in society is quite different today. Our job is to adapt to that and to build coalitions that can win social majorities for change.
One of the tasks is to unite these two camps. That is the nature of a movement-party, combining the benefits of a tradition with the innovations of newer movements. What we have seen over the course of the year since Corbyn’s election is each group learning a lot from each other. They have become stronger. If you’re going to build a mass organization today, and repoliticize society, you need new ways of organizing, thinking, and communicating. But if you’re going to win the change you want to see, to be the government, to be in power, you need to engage and win with a party.
How did you get involved in the Corbyn campaign?
I turned up and walked in the door! When he said he was going to try to get on the ballot I messaged the Twitter account and said, “I really want to help. What can I do?” Then I literally just turned up. It really is true how open and welcoming to new people the campaign was.
My first real involvement was flyering a People’s Assembly demonstration for Corbyn, engaging with people about why we needed a left-wing Labour leader and how they could help. It was clear that there was support for what we were doing. Over time it became more organized, Kat Fletcher was the head of volunteers and a few of us became her deputies.
It was a fun campaign. At the beginning I thought, “we can maybe get 15 percent, that would be a serious advance.” And it would have been a serious advance. But when we were phone banking it became clear that something significant was happening. At first around 25 percent of people were keen and another quarter were dead set against. In the middle there were people saying, “I have to go with my head not my heart, he can’t win” and some who just laughed at the idea.
Then the Welfare Bill vote happened [when the other candidates abstained on cuts] and the first camp, of Corbyn supporters, just became bigger and bigger, the middle ground began to change and no one was laughing anymore. This was late July and I thought, “even if we don’t win we’re going to get a massive vote, maybe 35 or 40 percent.”
Then the Camden rally happened. Jeremy had to speak in three different rooms and on a fire truck outside because the crowd was overflowing in the town hall. I had never seen a political meeting like that here. I don’t think anyone else my age or younger had. But I also felt like it didn’t come from nowhere. We had seen Occupy, Greece and Spain, the Scottish referendum, and we just felt that this was our one.
From the campaign you helped to found a new organization called Momentum. What was the vision behind it?
I think two different projects came together. The first was Jon Lansman’s plan to unite the various factions of the Labour left. He felt there needed to be some kind of organization to bring together what were sometimes disparate groups in the left-wing of the party to support Jeremy’s leadership and fight for the platform he had won on.
Then there was the volunteers’ office. We were saying, “What’s the failure of any good campaign? It demobilizes. How are we going to prevent that? We’ve got seventeen thousand volunteers, what are we going to do?” Myself and a couple of other people wrote a paper for a new Labour-aligned social movement. We were looking at things like how we could support tenants’ and carers’ unions, struggles against cuts, and how we could use Corbyn’s victory to empower movements.
I don’t think either of those visions would have survived on their own. If we simply focused on the Labour left we would have been neglecting the huge explosion of new energy that had happened in the campaign. But if we didn’t engage in the party then we would have been divorced from the victory that movement had won. We wanted a grassroots organization, one which did more local campaigning, but that was also umbilically linked to Labour.
Momentum has just passed its one year anniversary. Are you happy with how it has developed?
In many ways, yes. We now have 20,000 members, approaching 200,000 supporters and over 160 local groups. We have just finished fighting the campaign for Jeremy Corbyn’s reelection as Labour leader, during which we mobilized more than twice as many volunteers as we had done a year ago. It was more organized, more efficient and, ultimately, more successful — his mandate is now larger.
We also managed to put together The World Transformed in Liverpool during party conference. That pointed a way to what we would like to do: bring people together to build a vibrant movement that takes seriously the question of what the future will look like.
We have some thinking to do about structures. For that to happen there will be a national conference in January or February. Proposals are being debated by Momentum groups currently and these suggest that delegates will attend as well as it being livestreamed online to allow for maximum participation. In addition, there is support for an all-member voting conference where members can submit proposals for structure as long as they’re backed by a designated number of groups or members.
I think some of our difficulties here, with democracy and accountability, comes down to trying to establish what exactly we are. We’re not a political party or a trade union, we’re not just a social movement, so there isn’t a model for how we should be structured. Personally, I think we need to try to become more democratic, to allow for direct input, regular voting, and the election of senior staff. The relationship between the people who take decisions and the people who do the work in the local groups should be more direct.
In terms of our aims, Momentum has a dual strategy. We want to make the Labour Party more open, participatory, and democratic. We want it to be an activist party, organizing to win in every community, standing for Corbyn’s platform. We want to transform the party so that it can transform society. But we also want to provide a point of connection between the movements and the party, to use this moment to build popular power and increase capacity at the grassroots level.
The Labour Party should be a giant lever for all popular struggles, raising them up and uniting them, providing them with a strategy to take power and win. To do that it we need a party strategy and a social strategy, in concert with each other.
What have you made of Jeremy Corbyn’s tenure as Labour Party leader?
I think in his year as leader Jeremy has changed a lot about British politics. He has helped to develop a new center on the economy — by fighting against and winning battles like those over tax credits and Personal Independence Payments, by insisting that austerity had failed and outlining a strategy for investment, by clearly foregrounding workers’ rights and talking about injustices in the workplace. The Tories under Theresa May have adapted to a lot of the proposals Corbyn put forward. It may only be in their rhetoric that they champion the state and social justice but it is significant.
He has also helped to position Labour against war, allowed people to see a more genuine, less hollow kind of politics and demonstrated that it is possible to elect someone who will fight for you against powerful interests. He has been tougher than any of us could have hoped, given what he has had to deal with, and deserves enormous credit.
There have also been some weaknesses, I think we’ve got to recognize that. But we have to see these in the context of a leader operating without the support of sections of the parliamentary party, without the control of this enormous organization. Jeremy has had to work with only around half the number of staff Ed Miliband did because of these constraints. And then there is the rapidly-changing context, which everyone in politics is struggling to adapt to. It is a steep learning curve and there have been unforced errors — but things are improving.
Given how difficult it has been for Corbyn to operate in those conditions, how do you rate your prospects of winning over the center of the Labour Party?
To a certain extent, we have already won over the centerground. Not only because we won a super-majority in the leadership election, but because even the other candidate supported most of Corbyn’s platform. Commonsense has shifted in the party.
I think attitudes towards our movement have changed. Owen Smith ran a really well-resourced and well-staffed campaign, with a lot of experienced operatives, and we managed to beat them comprehensively. That, and the success of events like The World Transformed, has made a lot of people in the party realize that they have to take us seriously. They don’t have to like everything us, but we’re interesting and effective and they should engage with us.
There has also been a reorientation of opposition to Corbyn. The huge vote he received from the electorate sent a message to people who oppose us politically — disagreements on policy are welcome in a broad party, we need to have debate, but you can’t spend your time trying to dislodge the elected leadership.
The lines are beginning to move in that direction and it suits us. On policy issues like investment-led growth, increasing social rights, public and democratic power in the economy, I believe we can win people over. This is a movement that can win the battle of ideas.
The Tories and their mates who run Britain are running it down. Wages have fallen 10.4 percent since the financial crisis. That’s the same as Greece. We are ambitious for Britain and are building a real alternative.