Until recently the Corbyn-supporting Momentum group hasn’t done much beyond organising canvassing days and online petitions. Now all of a sudden it’s organising protests over climate change.
Momentum wants its members and supporters to organise stunts at branches of Barclays bank this Saturday.
It says the idea is to force Barclays to divest from fossil fuel companies, depriving the industry of funding for its infrastructure. Momentum even says it hopes to force some branches to close.
That’s quite a departure for the organisation which, despite being labelled thuggish and militant by the right, has largely avoided protests and street mobilisation. Even its claims to have challenged the far right amount to no more than a token presence on marches organised by Stand Up To Racism.
But struggle on the streets—organised independently of Labour—seems to have pushed it into action.
Momentum announced its campaigning after a second day of mass walkouts by school students. It says this is a way of standing in solidarity with the protests—although it’s stopped shy of encouraging people to join the school strikers.
The truth is that so far vocal support for Labour or Jeremy Corbyn has been a minority element of this movement for change on the streets. And Momentum has been nowhere to be seen on the major demonstrations in London.
Perhaps Labour realises it needs to do more to tap into this. It seems unlikely that Momentum would organise such a campaign without the approval of Corbyn.
There are other signs that Labour’s leadership realises it has a problem. At a Labour Assembly Against Austerity rally of some 200 people in central London last week MPs called for an “extra parliamentary” movement.
Underlying it all was a sense that relentless right wing attacks and an all-consuming focus on parliament and Brexit had demoralised and demobilised Labour activists. Really the talk of action was about gearing up for a possible snap election.
What would this action look like?
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell told Socialist Worker, “We’ve recruited our community organisers—that’s stretched right the way around the country now. And we’re bringing together Labour Party members, trade unionists, community leaders and looking at individual campaigns that we’re launching and supporting.”
Other speakers at the rally suggested something more radical—MPs Dan Carden, Laura Pidcock and Richard Burgon all spoke of strikes and marches.
But it all came through the prism of getting a Corbyn-led government elected.
Carden quoted Eric Heffer, a famous 1980s left wing MP, “To achieve that new society Labour believes it should use the ballot box. But in addition it must also involve itself in extra-parliamentary activity.
“The two are not contradictory—they are complimentary”.
Yet there is a tension. Since Corbyn was elected leader in 2015, he has gradually been pulled away from action on the streets. Focus on parliamentary wrangling, trying to appease the right and trying to prove Labour is fit to govern have all played a part in that.
So Corbyn is rarely seen on demonstrations where once he would have been a fixture. There are no mass rallies like the ones of his leadership and election campaigns.
A return to mass rallies—and protests—would be a welcome change. And if they can help Corbyn get elected there’s no doubt that would be a good thing. It would mean elation across the working class and for everyone on the left.
But what happens if the movement is seen as damaging to Labour’s electoral ambitions and it tries to limit them? Then the party becomes a hindrance, not a help. A movement can’t just be about getting Labour elected—its aims have to be broader.
Activists have to fight against racism, against the destruction of the climate, against austerity and for a better world—irrespective of whether Labour leaders feel such campaigning benefits them.