There have been some very odd reactions to the announcement that the Jeremy Corbyn leadership campaign has now regenerated itself into a new organisation called Momentum. Some appear to think that because it starts with an M, it must be harking back to Militant while others appear to have decided that it’s clearly a front group for the Trotskyite takeover of the Labour Party. It’s a good example of another political irregular verb: I promote internal debate, you’re a factionalist, they’re creating a party within a party.
Aside from all the arguments about what an organisation that’s existed for about 48 hours will do in the future, I think it shows an interesting development in people’s perceptions of the Labour Party (and perhaps political parties more widely) and how party structures might develop in the future. Until recently, Labour had become what Katz and Mair call a ‘cartel party‘, an essentially technocratic organisation that reinforced the political system. However, the surge in its membership since the general election (especially during and after the leadership election) appears to be turning Labour back into a mass-membership party, though potentially unlike any we’ve seen before. Previous iterations of parties as mass-membership organisations developed over long periods of time with strong community structures that sustained and institutionalised that membership. This current surge is not just rapid, it comes into party structures that have been reduced and hollowed out over the years as the mass membership withered away.
What Labour reminds me of now more than anything is the major parties in American politics. One mistake Europeans often make in looking at US politics is to assume that the Democrats and Republicans are similar to our political parties, when their function is quite different. They work much more as empty shells, waiting to be filled at each election cycle with the candidate and their supporters, with the permanence of any version of the party – nationally and locally – dependent solely on electoral success. The candidate is more important than the party, and networks are just as likely to be built around individuals than they are around the party. The party becomes just a framework for candidate organisations to work in and populate, only giving it permanence after they’re successful and need it to remain in place for re-election.
This, I think, fits more with what people are expecting of political parties today and explains the need for organisations like Momentum. The old mass-membership structures were based around political parties as social organisations as much as they were political ones, but with so many other social opportunities available to fill people’s time, the desire now is much more for the political. Groups that will cut away all the rigmarole and bureaucracy of running a political party are much more likely to arise in order to allow people to engage solely with the politics and the campaigning side.
Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar organisations emerge around the Tories as well, especially in the wake of the EU referendum. it’s easy to see someone like Boris Johnson trying to draw together assorted Eurosceptics into a movement to support his bid for the leadership, perhaps with the same surprising result as happened with Labour. Conservative Party structures and membership have been hollowed out just as much as Labour’s (perhaps even more so), and those seeking to rely on insider campaigns for the leadership could find themselves in the same position as Burnham, Kendall and Cooper.