by Niall Walker
“Politics is about storytelling!”
Something in that statement felt conclusive. Not just that my interview with Sasha Josette, one of the curators of the Labour Party's The World Transformed Festival and founder of Momentum Kids, had now crept past the hour mark. Nor that the coffee in this corner of East London had turned lukewarm.
Politics is about storytelling. Behind the ideologies and constitutions and hallowed halls, something subjective drives us all to believe, to engage and to mobilise. In the past four years, it is this acknowledgement that has led to Momentum, the movement built around Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to become Labour Leader - and the organisation that Sasha belongs to - now heading the biggest political party in Western Europe.
It seems apt, then, that Sasha opened our interview an hour previously with her own personal story. “My dad was a political prisoner of conscience from Malaysia, and I came here with my mum when I was 4 in 1985.”
“Despite my upbringing, I never really engaged in politics. But there was a point in 2015, I was putting kids to bed and the radio was playing, and they were talking about Jeremy being on the ballot paper for leadership. It rang a bell, but it wasn’t until the next day when I spoke to my mum, who reminded me of my childhood.”
Sasha’s mum showed her a letter supporting the release of political prisoners such as her dad. At the bottom was Jeremy Corbyn’s signature. “For the first time in my life, something interesting was happening in party politics”.
Looking back now, that moment 4 years ago seems significant. David Cameron had narrowly beated Ed Milliband in to Number 10, in a campaign marked by bizarre political stunts and orchestrated electioneering. The highpoint of a technocratic, triangulatory era of politics had been reached; Brexit was a nebulous acronym, and party membership was at an all time low.
All was about to change. Soon after hearing that Corbyn was running for Labour leader, Sasha found herself at the launch of Momentum Latinex. “I thought it was just a party, and went for the music and empanadas.” she explains. “But then a guy who I noticed walking in, an Asian dude with cricket stuff and prayer beads, started talking about how art and culture should be pivotal to the movement. I was really interested.”
For the Many
What happened next is etched into Socialist folklore. Corbyn won by a landslide, Labour’s membership tripled in size, and Sasha was in an organisational meeting working out how to turn the ideal of creative, grassroots politics into reality.
“Party politics is quite alienating to any person of colour or migrants, in fact anyone who isn’t white, middle class, Oxbridge” explains Sasha. “We were talking about how to create political spaces that were about solidarity, and we decided we wanted to do something at conference. But let’s not call it conference: let’s have a festival”.
And with that, The World Transformed was born. Happening during the Labour Party’s annual conference, it hosted club nights, art projects and political debate. “People could come for that and stay for the politics” explains Sasha, who was tasked with curating the artwork. “At the time we were wondering which artists would buy in to this. But we had sculptors, spoken word poets performing at the end of meetings. Even Jake and Dinos Chapman gave us something...but it was a bit too much, given the publicity we were getting at the time, so we didn’t use it in the end.”
Last year’s festival had 6000 through the door. They have hosted events from Derby to Bristol, and contributed to some of the most radical policy proposals this country have seen in a generation. “Politics feels 100% more accessible and I don’t think it’s ever been like that before.” enthuses Sasha.
To portray Momentum’s existence as smooth, however, would be disingenuous. Corbyn has had to survive 2 leadership coups, while the issues of anti-semitism and Brexit have halted some of the movements, ahem, momentum. “It sometimes feel like we are constantly firefighting, jumping from one media attack to the next, as well as internal” concedes Sasha. “But then our grassroots support has been phenomenal.”
Where do we go from here?
It feels like Labour, and the Corbyn leadership, find themselves at a crucial moment. But then they have been here before. Creating an inclusive political sphere in a society that has been pulverised by Thatcherism may take generations, and the best method remains to focus on what has got them so far.
“We need to build relationships, listen to people and share experiences about yourself, while also saying we’ve got these policies that can really help” Sasha says, when I ask her how Momentum can continue to build bridges with those previously alienated from politics.
“Ultimately, culture and the arts shouldn’t be decorative. They should be absolutely central to the movement and everything we do. The real movements and revolutions we remember and hold dear have done that.”
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