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By Rohan Kon

Keeping Up the Momentum

Tea Break with Liam J Liburd, Founder of Momentum Sheffield

In the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory, left-wingers on both sides of The Pond are despairing at the violent swing to the right we’ve seen sweeping the Western world this year. Americans voted Trump while Brits chose Brexit. And as their Trump cosies up with our Nigel Farage, people ask in dismay: What went so wrong?

 

The answer for some Democrats is that Hillary Clinton wasn’t enough to inspire and unite the masses of disillusioned Americans. They say that posing a more genuinely radical left-wing option, in the form of Bernie Sanders perhaps, would have won them the vote. In the slow lead up to our next election, can the UK learn from America’s mistakes? If Farage is our Trump, is Jeremy Corbyn our Bernie Sanders? If the left unite to back Corbyn, do we have the opportunity to pose a credible alternative candidate to rising austerity, injustice and inequality?

 

Liam J Liburd, one of the founders of Momentum Sheffield, believes that the movement building behind Jeremy Corbyn gives us a reason to be hopeful. Momentum was set up as a Labour-left faction group in the wake of Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last year. Liam said: “Momentum’s aim is to ensure the ideas expressed on Corbyn’s platform, in his election last year and again this year, become Labour Party policy. More widely, Momentum exists to democratise the Labour Party.”

 

While Labour has seen an unprecedented rise in membership since Corbyn became leader, Liam joined a year before Corbyn’s emergence. He said:  “I joined because I thought Ed Miliband ought to win the General Election. I live in the Hallam constituency and we campaigned to try and beat Nick Clegg. Although we were unfortunately unsuccessful, it was a great local campaign. However, what I saw from Labour on a national level did not meet my local experience. I remember remarks such as that from Rachel Reeves, who was the Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions, saying that ‘the Labour Party is a party for working people’, actively excluding anyone who is not actually currently in work. Similarly, there were the ‘controls on immigration’ mugs. There were various things during the election campaign that made me think, ‘Who is making these decisions?’”

 

After the General Election, Liam helped set up a meeting of left-wing members of the Labour Party in Sheffield. By the time they met, Ed Miliband had resigned and the leadership contest had begun. Liam said: “When Jeremy Corbyn came onto the scene, quickly getting enough nominations to appear on the ballot paper, our meeting turned into a ‘How do we start a Corbyn campaign group?’ meeting. We organised Corbyn’s first rally in Sheffield in Tudor Square with an indoor event in the Crucible theatre in August 2015 which was attended by over 1,500 people. On that day I was told that an initiative was beginning to build to mobilise the passion of this movement – and that was Momentum.”

 

This summer Momentum Sheffield held a highly successful rally with Corbyn at Barker’s Pool with an estimated turnout of 3,000 people. Liam said: “I walked to the steps of the City Hall to meet other Momentum stewards and I looked out – not at Corbyn or any of the people on the stage – but at all the people. You couldn’t see a piece of ground. That crowd, awash with working-class people, middle-class people, elderly people, children, disabled people, university and sixth-form students and everyone inbetween, made me realise we could win. Rallies aren’t everything but it helps people to stop thinking of politics as something you do on the internet, alone. Our campaigning needs to reflect this excitement.”

 

Liam described his experience of Corbyn’s personality at the rally, saying: “Another highlight was trying to get Corbyn from the steps of the City Hall to his taxi. It took us 15 minutes to get him from the top to the bottom of the steps! I’ve never known a politician in recent British history who stopped and had proper conversations with everyone who wanted to talk to him. He is a genuinely good person. I feel like people usually say that as a prelude to ‘but he’s not a very good leader!’ But why have we normalised the idea that our politicians should be borderline psychopaths? If being egotistical, vicious and media savvy makes a good leader then… well there you have Donald Trump.”

 

After another Corbyn leadership victory with an increased mandate in September this year, the movement behind it all now faces various challenges. Liam said: “A challenge going forward for both Momentum and the wider Labour Party is, ‘How do we reach out and engage with our members to mobilise them?’ The banning of Labour Party meetings during this year’s leadership election has brewed a nasty atmosphere. All the debates that could have been had face-to-face have been had online which is just not a good place to have those debates. Bad attitudes between pro-Corbyners and Corbyn-sceptics haven’t been resolved. We need to work out how we’re going to sit in the same room again.”

 

But Liam thinks that unity is an issue which increasingly lies less with members and more with the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). He said: “An attitude we really need to reject is the whole ‘Corbyn can’t be Prime Minister because his MPs won’t work for him’ rhetoric. That’s blackmail, isn’t it? It dismays me that MPs were able to sit through all the Tony Blair years but they can’t stick a socialist. Even those who may have protested Blair did not do so to the same degree or with the same level of vitriolic outrage that they are doing with Corbyn. Surely the only issue that separates most of the PLP from Corbyn is their foreign policy issues; the rest I would hope they’d be in accord with! The shock at the number of socialists in the Labour Party has been odd… It is the British democratic socialist party after all.”

 

Corbyn’s following has been described as an idealistic cult which makes the Labour Party unelectable. Liam responded: “There are people who won’t hear a word said against Corbyn, I won’t deny it. But they are a minority. Accusations that a mass movement is a ‘cult’ is a very elitist, liberal critique. It’s a right-wing notion to look at lots of people supporting something and see an unthinking mob. That’s the same thing people said about the Chartists, the Suffragettes, and every mass movement for democracy ever. I wonder whether people inside the Labour Party using that criticism understand the significance of what they are saying?”

 

Liam declared an urgent call to action. He said: “We’ve got to be the flip of UKIP now. They’ve gone into forgotten communities and got them politically interested, as a result moving the Conservative Party to the right. We need to put a progressive, socialist alternative forward, rather than a reactionary, libertarian, violently capitalist one. We need people to be excited about politics again. You can be part of it. If you want a society where services work, where your train fare is logically priced, where you can get a decent secure job and education at a low cost, if you want positive communities where people are free and equal, you should get involved.”

 

Momentum Sheffield meet regularly at Union St. Like their Facebook page, join the group and follow them on Twitter for more information.

Rohan Kon
About Rohan Kon
Rohan is Campaigns Manager at Union St and online writer for The Huffington Post
Keeping Up the Momentum