Behind British brouhaha over 'Trotsky tots,' effort to get parents in politics

Labour's 'Momentum Kids' daycare project has been lambasted in the press for trying to indoctrinate kindergartners. But proponents see a way to help alleviate parents' workload so that they can be more active politically.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Parents walk their children home from school in Wembley, in the northwest of Greater London, in April 2016.

Their childcare plan has been panned as “Tiny Trots,” lampooned as “Child Labour.” It has been compared to much worse: Hitler’s youth, or Stalin’s indoctrination camps.

Momentum Kids, an initiative of Momentum, the activist movement that has buoyed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and worried more moderate party members, is essentially a childcare option with a pinch of politics.

Set to launch alongside the Labour conference this weekend, it is geared to single parents – disproportionately women – who need a place to leave the kids to sing and make art while they get engaged in politics.

Sounds pragmatic, right?

Except the agenda for this weekend also includes banner- and badge-making and a “teddy bear mandate” – children will be asked to pretend their favorite stuffed animals are the leaders of the future. It was a step too far for some, who have charged Momentum with political indoctrination of the worst sort – of preschoolers.

The brouhaha itself is symptomatic of the polarization in British society after it voted to leave the European Union in a momentous decision in June and watched its political parties cleaved in the aftermath. “It’s a sign of how overheated everything has become that the idea of having a crèche [daycare] at a political meeting is greeted as weird and sinister,” penned Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore.

And, in fact, supporters of Momentum Kids argue that it addresses the very drivers that catapulted Mr. Corbyn into leadership, expected to be reaffirmed this weekend, and that saw Britain opt to leave the EU: It tackles the problems that everyday people care about.

Engaging parents, not kindergartners

Writer and blogger Alex Gabriel, a Corbyn supporter who grew up with a single mother on benefits in the 1990s, says that political parties, and in this case Britain’s mainstream left, can only win back the disaffected “when Labour starts being a relevant thing in people’s lives again,” he says. For most parents, especially mothers, the issue of childcare doesn’t get any more relevant.

That is what the founders of Momentum Kids, two moms, say they are trying to do. They did not respond to requests for an interview. But they dismissed criticism lodged at them in a Guardian opinion piece, calling their effort no more ideological than that of the Scouts. “Labour activists need to argue within our party for it to deliver on its promises once in power. A key way of doing that is ensuring our party is vibrant, welcoming, and outward-looking on the ground – which is what Momentum Kids is about,” they wrote.

Yet it is not the idea of the daycare that has kicked up the firestorm, but the activities on the schedule, in particular the earnest-enough sounding “teddy bear mandate,” which the harshest critics say is nothing of the sort. They fear Momentum Kids is one step down the path of left-wing brainwashing.

Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, says the accusations are misplaced, since the children of Momentum supporters are already exposed to their parents’ worldview at home. It is not like there will suddenly be “a bunch of otherwise rich right-wing capitalist kids suddenly coming home telling their parents that communism is the best way forward,” he says.

Instead this comes down to suspicions within the center-right wing of the Labour party that left-wingers, namely Momentum activists, have hijacked the party.

'Listen to the concerns'

But Momentum Kids has instigated some wider discussions, particularly about women and politics. Sarah Childs, a professor of politics and gender at Bristol University, wrote a report this summer about how to expand access to Westminster beyond its traditional occupant: the elite white male.

She says parenting is a significant obstacle, and it starts at the grassroots. Something as simple as a daycare can "enable people who have caring responsibilities to actually participate in politics,” she says. And that is overwhelmingly women.

Ms. Moore, the columnist, supported that view. “I am no fan of Momentum or Jeremy Corbyn at all,” she wrote, “but I applaud any political organization that seeks to help women engage.”

Momentum Kids could be a learning moment, to address the real problems people are grappling with, tackle them – and with it minimize the crisis of confidence that the political establishment is facing.

So far, however, the uproar, and its media coverage, has only served to divide farther.

“A great gap has developed between the political class and the general public,” says James Curran, a professor of the history and politics of the media at Goldsmiths, University of London.

“I would have thought the obvious thing in that situation is to embrace what is happening, and listen to what people are saying. Instead there is name-calling,” he says. “People should just listen to the concerns that people have about jobs and rent and other issues and work out policies to deal with this rather than trade insults.”

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