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Too Much Mobilizing, Not Enough Organizing

28-Oct-2020Interview with Natasha Josette, a Corbyn movement organizer and Momentum activist

You've been involved at different levels within the Corbyn movement over the past five years. Please share with us how you got involved in the “Corbyn moment” and what your experiences were.

Five years ago, in the summer of 2015, I heard on the radio about a person called Jeremy Corbyn who had a chance to become the next Labour Party leader. The name sounded somewhat familiar. As a single mother of two young children, I didn't have much time to spend on politics. However, I grew up as a daughter of two political parents. And when I asked my mother that day about this guy called Corbyn, she almost got a bit angry at me for forgetting about Jeremy. Corbyn had sent a letter in support of my father when he was imprisoned as a political activist back in Malaysia. That was at the end of the 1980s, when I was around eight years old.

So there was already a bond of solidarity, an interest and enthusiasm with Corbyn that was somehow rooted in my family's history. However, my excitement came from the changes I saw developing on the ground with the rise of Corbyn. I joined Momentum and got involved.

And you quickly immersed yourself in the movement. You were one of the organizers of “The World Transformed” in 2016, a political festival, a cultural gathering, and an open space to exchange views and meet people - something for your mind, your heart, and your soul. How did this develop?

That all grew out of the discussions when we wanted to organize a Momentum conference. But conferences are not very accessible to people. We wanted more folk to get involved and open it up for people like me, for single mothers, for working-class people, for people of color. That's when we came up with the idea to do something different. “The World Transformed” became a political and cultural gathering, opening the space for the growing number of people who were suddenly becoming engaged in politics to support Jeremy Corbyn's agenda. It became a space where politics and kids running around could be brought together.

All of that was linked to your activism in Momentum. Could you explain a bit more about Momentum? You were part of its leadership in 2018, the “National Coordinating Group”?

Yes, that's right. I think that Momentum did a great job of pushing Corbyn's agenda forward in the struggle to transform the Labour Party and advance a socialist agenda. At the moment, I'm excited to see the newly elected leadership of Momentum, coming from a group called “Forward Momentum,” a slate of candidates who ran together this year and got elected to develop Momentum further. Over five years, we were forced to focus so much on electoral politics, on questions of being prepared to be the next government, to be in power. We didn't focus enough on building the base, on political education, on sinking roots in the communities.

Now, we are in a completely different situation. We are obviously not close to being in the government any more. With all the setbacks, maybe this is a chance for us to sink those roots, to help with the necessary task of educating people.

From afar, it looked like Momentum was more a pressure group and did not organize itself in branches and did not build an activist organization from below. Is this fair to say?

We were always confronted just with the next election, the next situation in which we needed to be able to jump into the government. We did too much mobilizing and not enough organizing. We had some success in running candidates, and won some positions, but we never had enough people.

I chose to focus on community organising and campaigns which for me is more important to working class people. But I understand that the focus at the time was mobilising around elections which Momentum were able to do really well at using new digital tools and campaigning techniques.

Could you explain that a bit more, why did you never have enough people? It looked like hundreds of thousands got involved in the attempt to turn Labour into a tool to fight for the many not the few?

That's true, but it takes time; it takes organizing, it takes political education.

Five years ago, I wouldn't have been confident enough to give you this interview, to speak up and play the role I was playing over the last several years. That's a process. And we need to develop many more new activists. But this takes time. We did not have that time.

And you also need to sink roots in communities.

I became the lead digital community organiser for the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn to coordinate community outreach, building working-class power in communities. Nineteen thousand people went through our program of community organising training, to build working-class power from below. But that was just a start.

Look at Putney in south London. We had an organizer there who found out about horrible living conditions in an apartment block. She went there and did a listening outreach. She went there day after day after day. And already in the first week, she started coughing and struggled with the impact of the mold that was inflicting the apartments.

But, out of that, she developed demands with the tenants and they forced the landlord to basically accept all of them: improve the flats and dramatically change the living conditions of those tenants.

This is one example of campaigns that build roots, trust, and working class community power. That needs time, but you need such roots to stand against the corporate media, against the Tories, and to overcome the resistance that you face when you put forward a socialist agenda.

From outside of Britain it looked as if there was not much ownership given to the activists of Momentum to decide the politics of the organization, to build it up from below and to direct its course. Is that criticism too harsh?

The impact of new members on the national strategy of Momentum was somewhat limited, I agree.

The situations in different local organizations of Momentum differed very much from one place to another. Local organizations did not get much help from the national organization, not enough help. And local organizations had to raise their own funds. The local leaders were often a bit older and whiter than the majority of people coming into Momentum. Older trade-union activists, most of them white, had more weight. There was less of a focus on the input of environmental or anti-racist activists and younger people. Things were not ideal. I hope we can overcome some of those challenges in the future.

What are your hopes for the future?

My biggest hopes come from community organizing, from the movements for a Green New Deal to fight climate change, and from the Black Lives Matter movement. Can we build the roots in communities of color, amongst young people? Can we educate more people politically to stand up, raise their voice and organize, not just mobilize? If we can achieve that, we will overcome the current difficulties.

Interview by Stephan Kimmerle.

Here are additional views on the balance sheet of the Corbyn movement: