“The trouble with socialism is it takes up too many evenings,” Oscar Wilde famously quipped. He wasn’t wrong. In a world of Netflix and Tinder what pleasures are to be found in sitting in church halls, listening to apologies, minutes and matters arising on freezing Thursday nights? Working people spend most of their waking hours working alienating jobs, stuck in traffic jams and making ends meet as best they can. Free time is precious and for many, using it in dull political processes is simply a waste, even for many members of the Labour Party.
So how does a political party that is seeking to radically transform the economic and social makeup of the UK, and which will rely on the active engagement of millions if it’s not to fail, bring ordinary people into the movement? How in essence do we build the social movement that Jeremy Gilbert and many others have stressed is so vital for the success of socialism?
Part of the answer might be found in the work of the Momentum group in the birth place of the industrial revolution, rave and the bouncing bomb. Since 2016 members of Manchester Momentum have been working consciously to create the kind of outward-looking, forward- thinking movement that might make evenings spent at political events seem like less of a waste of time.
Taking inspiration from both the Italian Communist Party and the rich socialist culture in many working class communities in Britain prior to the 1980s, they have sought to create a “world within a world,” where people can find education, friends and fun and in their own small way consciously create the kind of world they want to see after the victory of socialism.
This has led to Manchester Momentum running an, “eclectic and freewheeling,” cultural programme that has included John McDonnell-inspired Italo Disco nights, a regular Northern Soul club night, a monthly film club for people working unsocial hours, a Richard Burgon-hosted karaoke night, bingo nights and a ramble re-enacting the famous 1932 Kinder Scout mass trespass. In addition they’ve put on political education sessions with speakers such as Rebecca Long-Bailey, Costas Lapavitsas and Paul Mason, and organised a meeting on the Windrush scandal in Moss Side where Dianne Abbot addressed 400 people in the community and it was made clear whose side the Labour Party was on.
These nights have been brilliantly attended by a relatively younger and more diverse crowd and have often been people’s first experience of political activity. They’ve shown people a friendlier and frankly more normal side to the left than is the stereotype and have encouraged people to become more involved in politics in ways that both interest them and also make best use of their talents and skills.
In addition members have taken a very conscious attitude to seek out already existent progressive groups across the city and build concrete relationships with people in them, the point being to contribute to a rich ecosystem of radical/ left/ progressive groups across the city, working towards shared goals and plugging any gaps where they find them. This attitude is diametrically opposed to one that has too often prevailed in various left wing groups competing to control an ever shrinking movement. This has led to Momentum successfully working with groups such as Greater Manchester Housing Action, Acorn and the Tenants Union on housing issues and with 0161 Festival on anti-fascist work.
One of the next challenges is to use the example of Momentum to encourage the Labour Party proper to take a similar approach. There are already promising signs in north Manchester with Crumpsall Labour running a new monthly folk night & Withington Labour in south Manchester putting on their first gig.
Manchester Momentum’s strategy of synthesizing politics and culture will take time to bear real fruit but with patience, diligence and vigilance we might create the kind of movement that even Oscar Wilde would take pleasure in.