S&C Contributing Editor and Portsmouth Momentum member Maddie Wallace digs beneath the media smears to find out what Portsmouth Momentum is, why it angers establishment Labourites and its role in local campaigns against austerity, racism and domestic abuse.
Within a week of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as Labour leader – and with an even larger mandate than last year – two members of Portsmouth’s Labour group resigned from the party. In his resignation letter, leader of the group, Councillor John Ferrett, called for moderates to form a new breakaway party. Co-chair of the local branch of the party, Rob Smith, left shortly after, echoing Ferrett’s pleas for a new centrist movement.
The Portsmouth Labour Party’s membership has increased from around 450 to over 1500 since Corbyn first became leader. Just what is it about him that holds so much appeal for so many, but prompts others, like Rob Smith, to find him “repulsive”?
Corbyn and his supporters have garnered huge support by setting out clear anti-austerity policies, advocating a fully nationalised and funded NHS, calling for the re-nationalisation of the railways, proposing investment in national industries and promising to close loopholes in the tax system that have been exploited for too long by large corporations and wealthy individuals. As a result, Labour’s national membership has increased to over 600,000 in the last year, significantly higher than the 405,000 Tony Blair managed to attract when he was elected Prime Minister in 1997.
After Corbyn’s first victory in September 2015, the grassroots Momentum movement was set up to support the man and his policies at the local level. Despite constant criticism of the group in the mainstream media and attempts to paint the group as “Corbyn’s Shock Troops” and “Militant Reborn”, its fringe event at this year’s Labour conference showed it to be a vibrant, passionate and focused mobilisation of people from all walks of life.
Portsmouth Momentum campaigned hard to reinstate the Hayling Island Ferry this year, and were working behind the scenes with residents long before the local Lib Dems became involved. They endorse Portsmouth Racial Equality Network Organisation (PRENO) and Momentum members joined Sisters Uncut to protest at the Conservative-run council’s cuts to the domestic violence budget. Despite this, the popular image of the group remains negative, no thanks to people like ex-Portsmouth Labour MP Syd Rapson labelling them ‘alien’ in a February report in the Portsmouth News. Scare stories such as these are typical of The News’ slanted coverage of the local Labour Party since Corbyn became leader.
Far from being a militant cell out for the blood of moderates, Momentum comprises a diverse range of people with one thing in common: a yearning for a new, fairer, inclusive kind of politics that is by the people and for the people.
John Ferrett and Rob Smith have failed to grasp this. They still cleave to the commonly held belief that Labour must always move to the centre ground to win power. The belief is dubious given that Labour won the 1945 and 1964 elections on radical platforms, and that shifts to the centre by leaders ranging from Kinnock to Brown to Miliband ended in electoral defeat. But even so, what we have seen happening in the Labour Party this past year is hardly a leap to the extreme left. Corbyn and Momentum stand for social democratic principles considered mainstream in other European countries that have nationalised infrastructures, green economies and policies of investment rather than austerity.
The real risk to our community is not Momentum but politicians like John Ferrett, who has previously voted with his Tory counterparts in the Council for (or abstained from) savage spending cuts that have led to the closure of a hate crimes unit, the slashing of the Sure Start and domestic violence budgets, an increase in homelessness, and mounting social deprivation. Ferrett has tweeted that he’d rather ‘vote Tory than vote for Corbyn’ and has a personal friendship with Conservative Council leader Donna Jones. This shows him to be profoundly out of touch with the views of most Labour Party members both in Portsmouth and across the country.
While it’s always sad to see anyone leave Labour, especially those like Ferrett who have dedicated their lives to the movement, perhaps it’s now time for the local party to step into a new era rather than clinging on to the outdated ideas of New Labour.
Image by Sarah Cheverton.
This article was amended after its original publication to include that the author is a Momentum member.