Through campaigns to open up Labour’s selection processes, win left-wingers seats on the NEC, and mobilise activists to get out the vote, Momentum has proved itself to be an asset to Corbynism, inside and outside the party. But when it comes to policy, and especially when it comes to challenging the leadership, the activist organisation has been relatively mute.
That’s why the group’s decision to push Labour to adopt ambitious new policies at this year’s party conference represents a genuine departure. When Labour rocks up in Brighton this year, instead of wrangling over rules, we can expect grassroots campaigns supporting a Green New Deal, a four-day week and the abolition of all detention centres.
Moreover, it’s not just the shift to policy itself that make Momentum’s announcement significant, it’s the particular issues they have chosen.
Each seem designed to push Labour to the left, but also to re-energise Corbyn’s young and socially liberal base, many of whom have been turned off by perceived triangulation over Brexit. They also correct for what can look like oversights in Labour’s policy up to now, be that on climate, economic radicalism, or immigration.
As for the latter, it’s because of Labour’s tentative stance on freedom of movement that many see it as weak in defending the rights of migrants. And with the far-right on the rise across Europe, activists are itching to see their party take a stronger stand.
A commitment to the abolition of detention centres would be an important step in this direction. Britain’s detention regime is notoriously inhumane, and while Diane Abbott has committed to closing Yarl’s Wood and Brook House, it’s only by closing down all detention centres that Labour can stake a claim as a defender of human rights.
On climate change, Labour already has forced parliament to declare a climate emergency. However, there has been disquiet that it took two vibrant street movements, the Youth Climate Strikes and Extinction Rebellion, to force Labour’s hand.
In contrast, Momentum’s policy for a Green New Deal would mean Labour, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US, was at the forefront of climate struggle. The proposal for Labour to commit to zero emissions by 2030 would make it the first major party in the developed world to offer a climate policy commensurate with the danger at hand. Moreover, it commits to addressing climate change through measures integral to socialist values, investing in high-paid jobs and strengthening workers rights, all a far cry from Michael Gove’s bans on plastic straws.
Finally, and perhaps most strikingly, Momentum proposes Labour commits to introducing a four-day week. It’s almost ninety years since John Maynard Keynes predicted we could all work 15-hour weeks with a decent salary. However, with the profit motive trumping human need, automation has caused a decline in workers rights, not an increase in leisure time.
By pledging to increase our right to free time, Labour would show its commitment to allowing everyone the opportunity to flourish outside the workplace, and meet the growing demand for human autonomy independent of the market. It would also kill once-and-for-all the idea Labour wants a return to the 1970s.
All the above policies should be understood as a plan to transform Britain, as an appeal to the electorate, and as an intervention within the Labour Party. Momentum has explicitly said they’re engaging in an effort to stop Tom Watson’s “social democratic group” pushing Labour to the right. In terms of realpolitik, this is as astute as it is necessary.
However, and perhaps paradoxically, the policies proposed by Momentum shouldn’t be seen as opposed to social democracy, but rather as fulfilling the principles upon which it was founded.
A green new deal, a humane immigration system and a 4-day working week won’t abolish capitalism. What they will do is give people the space and freedom to flourish outside the market, without destroying the planet. If Tom Watson was really a social democrat, he’d read some Keynes and get on board.
Finally, the above policies should be understood as key to winning Labour the next general election. This is not a case of activists choosing principle over power.
Labour’s attempt to bridge the divide between leavers and remainers may be admirable, but its ambiguous position has made Labour and its leader appear shifty and, frankly, dull. In contrast, a new set of radical policies would, like the 2017 manifesto, give activists clear lines to use proudly on the doorstep.
If passed this September, a green new deal, a four-day week and the abolition of detention centres won’t be “options on the table”, they’ll be concrete promises to transform Britain.