Following the disappointing election result of 8 June a good deal of attention has been directed, quite rightly, at how to avoid a repeat. This has focused partly on Conservative mistakes, in particular the manifesto and decision to run a Presidential style campaign. But it has also examined the things Labour did well. In particular there has been a lot of discussion about Momentum, the energetic campaign group which is both supportive of and independent from Corbyn’s Labour Party. A range of Tories, most recently the free-thinking Robert Halfon MP, have suggested that the British conservative movement needs something similar. In this piece I will look at the opportunities – and the risks – that such an organisation would entail.
Firstly we need to understand what Momentum actually is. The group is a good deal more than a conventional third party campaigning group. It describes itself, reasonably accurately, as a ‘grassroots campaigning network’ and claims to have ‘23,000 members and 150 local groups’. Essentially Momentum has two chief functions. Firstly it promotes left-wing policies, in particular those associated with Jeremy Corbyn, within the Labour Party, and secondly it promotes the Corbyn led Labour Party to the general public. Its first allegiance is to Corbyn, and the left-wing policies associated with him, rather than the Labour Party itself, and to this end it maintains an entirely independent apparatus (membership, conferences, campaigning capacities etr).
Some, as blogger Guido Fawkes does here, have compared Momentum to either the defunct Tory youth movement Conservative Future or the youth based ‘Roadtrip 2015’ campaign group from the 2015 General Election. Neither comparison is entirely valid. Momentum is intellectually and organisationally independent from the Labour Party, and it’s hard to think of an exact parallel within modern conservatism (the closest I can manage is the American ‘Tea Party’ movement – thought the Tea Party was less centrally coordinated).
Conservative ‘Road Trip 2015’ activists during the 2015 General Election
Thus creating a conservative equivalent of Momentum will be a good deal more complicated than simply the much needed recreation of the Conservative Party youth wing. It can’t simply be created by CCHQ and if such a movement arises spontaneously any attempt by CCHQ to assume control would probably strangle it. Ideally it would emerge spontaneously from the grassroots. However, like Momentum itself, it would likely need nurturing from more established figures within the conservative family to thrive. The key question, perhaps inevitably, will be over money. Momentum is funded partly through grassroots donations for sure, but it also receives significant gifts in kind from the trade union movement, and especially the TSSA transport union which provides its office space. I suspect a conservative version of Momentum would require a similar arrangement to get beyond a certain size. However beyond this the involvement of established conservative bodies and individuals should be minimal.
The advantages of such a group are clear. It would provide an alternative to the official Conservative Party in terms of both election campaigning and building the conservative movement. Often the Conservative Party feels rigid, and uninterested in promoting conservatism on an ideological level. I genuinely can’t remember the last time I read to the end of either a letter or email from the party, and I get plenty of both. They are generally requesting money, and just about never concerned with political principles or ideas. The Conservative Party, especially in the way it treats its members, too often feels like a corporate PR machine. Instead a conservative Momentum would be interested in promoting conservative ideas. Books, blogs, social media, perhaps even a monthly or quarterly journal. The left do this sort of thing very well, and it’s one of the reasons they’ve become so culturally influential. There’s no reason why the right shouldn’t respond in kind.
Beyond this a conservative Momentum could campaign more aggressively than, and with a degree of plausible deniability from, the official Conservative Party. It could mount aggressive social media campaigns, attempt to produce ‘viral’ online videos and mount single issue campaigns on promising issues in addition to standard electioneering work. There’s certainly a good deal that can be learned from the success of various populist campaigns (Brexit, Corbyn, Trump etr) in recent years. Boldness, assertiveness and a certain counter-cultural element could be assets. Moreover it could try and rebuild conservatism as a mass movement, as Corbyn and Momentum have managed to some extent with Labour. Labour’s membership, at around 552,000, currently dwarfs any of the estimates for the Conservative Party (bearing in mind the Conservatives aren’t releasing official figures).
Momentum’s 2015 conference in Liverpool
Of course there would also be risks associated with such a movement. In particular, bearing in mind I think it needs to be ideologically independent of the Conservative Party, could it get out of control? Or perhaps find itself overtaken by people significantly further to the right (in the same way that Anne-Marie Waters is attempting to take over UKIP). This is certainly my biggest concern. A conservative version of Momentum is almost certainly going to be on the right of the Tory Party. Preventing infiltration from the hard-right, whilst maintaining open debate and a populist flourish, is likely to be the toughest challenge for anyone who establishes such a group.
I think it’s pretty clear that there are both considerable opportunities and risks associated with establishing a conservative equivalent of Momentum. All told however, I’m very much sympathetic to the idea. British conservatism is starting to feel stale, a bit corporate and unenergetic. A new ideologically curious mass movement – modelled on Momentum or Vote Leave – could form part of a successful package which addresses this.