Cllr Nick Denys is Head of Policy for the Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
Jeremy Corbyn’s politics are boring. He is not relevant to the political tremors we feel today. The statist instincts which run though Corbyn’s and John McDonnell’s veins are a relic from the past. They belong to a time when everyone used to get their news at 10pm from the BBC, reported by a man in thick rimmed-glasses, while grainy coloured film showed other men wearing flares being beaten by the police.
It is Momentum’s energy that is interesting. If Conservatives fail to understand the difference between the hard-schooled socialists who sit at the top of Momentum, and the hundred of thousands of people who provide the energy to the movement, then the Tories will continue to fail to understand what is happening in politics and society.
Momentum’s energy and enthusiasm has sent a shock wave through the core of the Conservative Party’s spine. The 2017 election result crushed the Tory assumption of intellectual dominance. Most Conservatives did not see it coming because they were focused on Corbyn’s outlook while ignoring Momentum’s existence. They ignored the fact that Labour Party’s membership topped 650,000, while the self-styled “natural Party of government” struggles to attract 100,000 bodies to its club. On election day, Labour was able to flood target consistencies with hundreds of willing foot-soldiers, while the Tories did not even have the numbers to run a skeleton telling programme. Momentum set-up ‘WhatsApp cascades’ on polling day to encouraged targeted get out the vote activity, which was shared and re-shared among 400,000 people.
In Croydon Central, it was estimated that Labour’s 300-plus activists managed to knock on every door at least twice. This effort did not just increase the turnout by five per cent; it also enabled Labour activists to convince a significant amount of Liberal Democrat, Green and Ukip voters to join Labour’s anti-austerity alliance. Conservatives ignored the fact that one in three UK Facebook users saw a Momentum video during the election campaign, and that this reach to millions cost less than £2,000 spent advertising on the social media platform. While CCHQ were obsessively worried about the cost of ferrying around activists on buses, “Car Pool Momentum” enabled Labour activists to organise lifts to target seats. This did not just get the activists to where they were needed; it also created a football-fan away-day comradery among volunteers.
It is obvious why the Tories were distracted. Corbynites are a political guerrilla unit. They have been trudging around the Westminster wilderness for decades – occasionally surfacing to take a pot-shot at the latest embodiment of the neo-liberal foe or jumping on a popular bandwagon, such as opposition to Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war, before trying to grab the wheel and steer the original political expression towards socialism. Conservatives believe that they know Corbyn’s type, and think that they won the battle against his brand of socialism during the 1980s. Most Tories enjoyed the prospect of fighting another political battle on the Berlin Wall – so much so they missed the real terrain.
The lessons from election night have not been learnt. Ever since June, many shell-shocked Conservatives have wanted to rebound by focusing on everything they dislike about Corbyn’s old-school leftism. This has involved stuttering out the mantra that the case for capitalism must be made. The argument that the argument for the free-market must be won has been repeated incessantly. There has also been a lot of talk about matters that are either distant in time, such as Stalin, or distant in geography, such as Venezuela. This is all snug-politics for Conservatives, but meaningless to everyone else. Telling a person that their I-phone would not exist without free-markets is as relevant to their future decision making as the knowledge that straight roads were built under Roman Emperors. People know what exists now. What they want to know is how their lives will improve.
It is ironic that Momentum is the culmination of the competitive and open environment that exists within Labour politics, in which competing unions fund different groups and campaigns. It is and continues to be a free-market success story. Unison and Unite compete with each other as ferociously as they fight the Tories. The Conservative Party, on the other hand, is a closed shop whose instincts seem to be to batten-down the hatches rather than step outside. It showed this lack of self-awareness when attacking the Labour Party conference’s Brexit motion, which was to be discussed and voted on by delegates. A few days later, everyone could see that the main hall of Conservative Party conference had no debates, no votes – only Politburo-style announcements.
Like all good capitalists Momentum, have not stayed still since their election success. They have hosted a Digital Hub where developers and designers brainstormed what the next online political tools should be. They are considering whether the Momentum Apps can be developed to make campaign manifestos more accessible – or even interactive – swiping left or right on policies. The phone banking software can be re-purposed to train volunteers remotely or hook people with different skills to create well rounded local campaign teams. Games for the Many are hosting a game jam, where digital and campaign nerds will try to build on the success of viral computer game Corbyn Run.
For Tories, Corbyn is an out-of-date socialist, which allows them to descend into their comfort zone when attacking him. The consequence of fighting this dead battle, with a gusto and relish that often is absent when talking about people’s everyday challenges, reinforces the Conservatives’ irrelevance to the task of making voters’ world better. The magnitude of this error is compounded by the fact that Momentum and Labour get stronger with every attack, as the main agent binding all their supporters is dislike of “evil-Tory austerity”. For many Momentum supporters, Corbyn is a nice bloke who wants to disrupt an unfair system.
Capitalisms’ greatest strength is its ability to adapt by learning from the success of others. Whether it be surfing, rave, or social media, it has been able to absorb popular counter-cultures and then provide them to the masses. The Conservative Party must stop behaving like as mega-music store chain HMV did when faced with the challenge of internet file-sharing service Napster. Instead, it must harness political Spotify, Youtube, Vimeo and whatever else is happening out in the world. The future is being made. The Conservatives must be open to making it.