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Building Momentum: How Grassroots Organizers Redefined and Rebuilt UK’s Labour Party With Jeremy Corbyn

Momentum proved that mobilization is the key to change.

The People's Assembly Against Austerity, Friends of the Earth, Green Party and other organizations gathered in Parliament Square to protest Chancellor George Osborne's "emergency" budget in London, July 8, 2015. Jeremy Corbyn MP, running for leadership of the UK's Labour Party, made a wildly popular speech opposing the austerity agenda. (Photo: Jasn / Flickr)

We’re now several months into the Trump administration, and activists have scored some important victories in those months. Yet there is always more to be done, and for many people, the question of where to focus and how to help remains. In this series, we talk with organizers, agitators and educators, not only about how to resist, but how to build a better world. Today’s interview is the 86th in the series. Click here for the most recent interview before this one.

While Americans were still adjusting to the realities of a Trump presidency, across the Atlantic, the United Kingdom faced a snap general election last spring, pitting the leftist Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn against Prime Minister Theresa May. Corbyn’s takeover of Labour was aided by young activists, many of whom formed the organization Momentum to support Corbyn’s bid for leadership and his agenda, once in charge. Momentum defended Corbyn from attacks from within and without the party, and played a central role in Labour’s unexpected success in June’s election. While in London, I spoke with Rachel Wood of Momentum about the organization’s beginnings and where it is now.

Sarah Jaffe: Start off with when you started to get involved.

Rachel Wood: I was on the left, and I was reasonably active in politics but I wasn’t in the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn was actually my [Member of Parliament], but I’d never joined the Labour Party because I just didn’t see any way through which you could actually change things for the better within the Labour Party. When they lost the election in 2015, it was quite devastating; it was a blow even though I wasn’t a party member.

And when [Corbyn] threw his hat in the ring and decided to enter the race, that was a great moment…. It was quite spontaneous at that time and it just took on a life of its own. It was clear early on that they were getting lots of volunteers for the phone banking, to an extent that hadn’t really been seen before. I went phone banking a few times in that campaign, though I wasn’t that heavily involved in it.

In October [2015], after he became the leader … I joined Labour and I joined Momentum very soon afterwards, about a week after this. That was quite a few weeks after Momentum had been founded.

What was Momentum like in the beginning?

I found it incredibly positive from the beginning. In those early months, it was very chaotic. The state of the project itself was very vulnerable, Jeremy was very vulnerable, his team were trying to work out how to get things going, and as Momentum, we were quite cut off from them. And we were getting attacked quite a lot, by people on the right of the party and the media and stuff like that. I remember a very strong sensation of being in a group of very good people and very committed, very genuine people who I’ve never known before — with one or two exceptions — the feeling of being attacked and the feeling of it kind of being down to us. There was a constant feeling of, “It’s us that [will] make this happen or it isn’t going to happen.”

Over that whole first year, there were various experiences of occasionally thinking, “Maybe somebody else has got something covered,” and finding out they don’t…. As it went on, that whole first year, I think it was quite difficult because … the project … wasn’t progressing in terms of changing public opinion very much; we weren’t making any inroads to any significant changes in the Labour Party, there was quite a lot of despondency, really. But in spite of that, there was always a very special kind of energy and determination to make things happen.

What were the numbers like in Momentum at first?

In a way, you could say it kind of started with a database, because in that first week of the campaign, they asked people [if] they’d be happy to be contacted again by the campaign of Jeremy Corbyn. That became the database of Momentum, so that means that when it started, we had a database of around 150,000. They were supporters but they weren’t members. We didn’t have a membership structure ’til April or May of the following year, 2016. Then you had all of these Momentum groups springing up spontaneously around the country. That was kind of chaotic and it was quite hard for us to work out what was happening and to try to establish some sort of system to provide support for those people and try to regularize it….

We got to around 70-80 groups quite quickly, but then in some cases, there were groups formed and there were internal divisions … and after a couple meetings, people stopped coming. When we became a membership organization, we got 4,000 people who became members, and at that stage, there was a bit of a sense of disappointment as well. Because Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the Labour Party, hundreds of thousands joined the party, we formed an organization on the back of it and it’s only got 4,000 members…. And that changed quite a lot in the summer of 2016 when they tried to get rid of Jeremy, and as a result of that, loads of people joined Momentum. And also, the local Labour parties shut down for two months, so people … saw the point of Momentum, an organization that was necessary to keep things on the road.

So, there was a massive influx of people into Momentum. It took membership up to around 18,000 within two, three weeks; there was an expansion of groups as well. And the next big expansion was during and after the general election — we got a few more thousand. And then … recently, after the party conference, we got several hundred additional members. So, at the moment, we’ve got 170, 180 groups, 31,000 members. A few hundred thousand supporters on the database, but they’re not paying members.

And then we get to the moment where the Labour right decides to blow up the party. Did you see that coming, and what was the response as Momentum in that moment?

From the beginning, it was clear that there was a significant group of [members of parliament] who just wanted it to end. They have very significant privileged access to the media, so they could create an echo chamber which served to destabilize Jeremy Corbyn’s team, making it very difficult for him to do stuff, basically. There are people in the shadow cabinet who would be regularly briefing hostile journalists.

Before these big events, you’d see people making statements that suggested that they were kind of preparing something. The second was the local elections in May 2016, when again, Labour did better than expected — basically, they held on to all of the seats from a high point four years ago, and they won in London quite well. Again, there was this whole chitter-chatter before about … “Oh, he’ll have to go if he doesn’t get a good result,” and senior party officials briefing concern that Labour’s going to be doing badly. But again, it didn’t happen.

And then there was the Brexit referendum and they went for it. But it had a politicizing effect on the entire movement and on a lot of activists. For a lot of activists, those events framed their political perspective and will do [so] for many years. It played its role in a way, even though it was quite unpleasant at the time.

It woke people up in a significant way; it wasn’t just enough to vote for Jeremy Corbyn and then hopefully wait for him to get elected and to make nice policies — they actually had to get involved and make it happen.

Tell me about how the day-to-day organizing work was going before and after that turning point.

Ninety to 95 percent of what we did in the first year was basically responding to crisis after crisis. It was very difficult to develop any kind of strategic perspective; we didn’t have our own systems in place, and then internally, there were different people in different groups with quite fundamentally different strategic perspectives about what Momentum should be doing and what type of organization Momentum should be. And so, for example, as soon as we won that leadership election in 2016, then all of that internal stuff blew up just a few weeks after that.

Late 2016 was when we started becoming more oriented towards organizing within the Labour Party, [but] we still had a lot of unmet aspirations. We always wanted to do training sessions for activists, but we never actually started that until the election this year — then, a few Bernie Sanders people came over. Until then, we actually hadn’t done any activist training. But then the election provided a lot of opportunities to do those sorts of things.

So, then Theresa May called the election, assuming that she would win a bigger majority — and the opposite happened.

There were people who were more optimistic, there were people who were … less optimistic, but it had a unifying effect. I think we’d started unifying a few weeks before the election was called, because Corbyn’s policy team started putting out lots of very strong policies that kind of reminded everybody why they were in it in the first place.

When did you notice the difference in the conversations that you were having — that people were having during the election? When did you start to feel it?

Probably around three or four weeks into the election, a lot of activists were messaging us, saying, “We can do it, we can win this seat, we can win that seat,” so it was accumulating anecdotal stuff; obviously the polls were getting a lot better.

Even then, the result of the actual election still was better than what I would have predicted. There are other people who were more optimistic, but still.

Was there one result, one constituency result that really shocked you?

Kensington. Canterbury. Portsmouth. Those are probably the biggest ones.

The biggest, in terms of the places where we gave the most support to … for example, to Battersea — which, again, at the beginning of the election was a long way behind, had a really good candidate — so we put quite a lot in there and it was clear after a few weeks of really sustaining a lot of activists, mobilizing, stuff like that, it was really special when the results started coming in….

Tell me what it’s been like since the election. What have you been working on?

We’re still doing this Unseat campaign, so that is … specific campaigning days with high-profile Conservative ministers, like we did Boris Johnson in Uxbridge, Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green, Justine Greening in Putney, so that’s been pretty good — they’ve been getting pretty good numbers.

We’re trying to sustain the train-the-trainers scheme, so we’re training up a lot of activists so they can then deliver the trainings themselves. The party conference was quite a big deal, although a lot of the key decisions had already been taken before the conference started, but the numbers of delegates that were there and the overall atmosphere of [the] conference was incredible.

Tell me a little more about who is Momentum’s base: Who are the people forming groups, doing a lot of the volunteering? You only have a small number of paid staff, right?

It’s increased so now it’s … around 15 staff, some of those are temporary. There’s a bit of a demographic difference between the people at the office and the grassroots activists — on the whole, people on the staff are a lot younger than a lot of the grassroots activists, a lot of the grassroots activists are people who are coming back to the party [after] having left over Iraq and stuff like that. If you go to a lot of Momentum groups, there are not that many younger people, but there are a lot of younger people who are Momentum members who are increasingly active in the Labour Party through Young Labour, but they’re not really acting as Momentum.

We need to think about ways to engage different groups of people. I think it’s very difficult to have one particular type of space that engages the whole diversity of our society, really.

What’s one thing that people who aren’t familiar with Momentum should know about it?

I think it’s the first ever organization to achieve things on a distinct range of activities within quite a short space of time. So, in terms of mobilizing electorally — organizing in the Labour Party but also reaching way outside the Labour Party through a lot of social media — doing those three things quite successfully, I would say that’s the most significant thing. A lot of the things we did weren’t actually new ideas, but for various reasons, we were able to make them real. There were always people on the left who talked about having a social media strategy, but they never had one — they didn’t know how. Or there wasn’t the right collection of people to make it real. But Momentum and Jeremy Corbyn kind of allowed that to happen because it just brought those people in; it generated that belief that something was achievable, really, which led a lot of people to go the extra mile.

Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast on iTunes. Not to be reprinted without permission.

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