Momentum grassroots conference: an opportunity almost missed


Simon Nelson and Sacha Ismail

Two hundred Momentum members, including about 80-90 delegates from local groups, attended the 11 March national grassroots networking conference held by the organising committee appointed by the old, pre-coup Momentum National Committee. For a fairly comprehensive factual report of what happened, see here.

The outcome of the conference was overall a positive one, but there were a number of problems that marred what could have been a much better event.

What formal discussion we did have on the political direction for Momentum and Labour was over in about an hour right at the beginning of the day! This was nowhere near enough, and future events must give more time for structured discussion.

This discussion revolved around the document circulated by email prior to the conference 'Who We Are and What We Fight For' with ad-hoc amendments and additions being made solely from the floor. Some things like clarification on defence of migrants’ rights and agreeing to campaign on the huge school cuts were positive additions. Another, to add to the existing statement of opposition to unjust exclusions a line about fighting an "anti-semitism witch-hunt”, was not. (See the footnote below for more on this, including issues about the wording we voted on.)

The incoming committee should seek to build on what was agreed and facilitate the delivery of campaigns, as well as building up the grassroots/groups network.

It was unfortunate that we had such a chaotic order of business. No motions could be submitted in advance and it was unclear what passing the Where We Stand document would even mean. The agenda was poorly constructed and not even stuck too. There were planned interventions from the top table for many of the sessions, that in our view would have been too long anyway, but they completely fell off the agenda. The conference was not informed why for example the morning session was changed and why two speakers were held over till the afternoon.

The conference itself sometimes sank into confusion, and the fact that the chairs themselves seemed to be making little effort to stick to the agenda, or even to tell the conference when they departed from it, did not help.

This was not a recipe for well-functioning democracy. Neither was the confused process for making and agreeing proposals, or the hostility to people attempting to raise things from the floor. All these things helped disrupt the previously-planned agenda but also led to a sometimes fractious and needlessly confrontational atmosphere.

The options presented to conference about electing a committee was not very clearly differentiated, and there was point blank refusal to accept a procedural motion that would have allowed the options to be moved in parts. Indeed, almost all attempts to ask questions or raise points of order were treated with hostility by the top table and left bad feeling across the hall.

Without accusing anyone of bad faith, the practical effect at least of the proposal that was narrowly defeated – a six-strong national coordinating group, with each position elected individually – would have been a narrow, tightly controlled but probably dysfunctional organisation. Moreover, there seemed to be determination from some to preventing the conference from voting for both a broader committee and regular national meet ups of delegates from groups. That, however, is what the conference went for, electing a reasonably diverse, gender balanced committee of 20. (We proposed it be elected by STV, but were defeated on that, again in a fairly inadequate debate that did not allow for the case to be properly put).

The committee has its problems. There are only three people under 30 on it, and a big majority are from London and the South East. Nonetheless it represents a step forward and, if the committee starts functioning and working well, means there is a possibility of coordination of work by local groups and a push for Momentum to be an active campaigning force, not dictated to by an unaccountable national office.

Unfortunately, disagreements about how to relate to Momentum were not debated seriously. There were repeated comments to the effect that “Momentum has already split”, but nobody argued straightforwardly for founding a new organisation. There was some implication, though it wasn’t clear, that the vote against a small committee was a vote against splitting from Momentum. Certainly the majority of those pushing this defeated proposal seemed more sympathetic to leaving Momentum, while the majority of those elected to the committee oppose a split.

We are pleased that, on the initiative of our comrade Jill Mountford on the organising committee, two striking school support workers from Derby and a Picturehouse striker spoke. They went down very well, it set a tone for the conference and the network it established, and a lot of solidarity organising was done during the day. Jill felt that she was not able to have much input into the shape of the conference, due to the way the organising committee functioned, so this was really the only part of the agenda she was responsible for – and even that required some argument. That doesn’t fit with the chair saying from the platform that, on the organising committee, there was agreement on all aspects of the conference. There is nothing wrong with admitting there were serious disagreements about the purpose and format of the conference!

Despite these difference it was good that the conference responded warmly to newly elected NCG members Sahaya James and Rida Vaquas. It is good that they were elected to the NCG (and now to the grassroots NC) and that they were there, boosting the grassroots and using their position to strengthen our struggles. It is also positive that a third left NCG member, Yannis Gourtsoyannis, will be able to publish reports of what happened at the NCG meeting on the same day. Obviously this is a legitimate tactical disagreement, but the argument for boycotting the NCG election looks pretty threadbare, though not as threadbare as the idea that anyone who supported left candidates must be “conciliating” Jon Lansman.

The new committee needs to push forward quickly on the proposals agreed, with some simple but properly carried out campaigning initiatives on issues like school cuts. It needs to work to solidify a grassroots Momentum network, including local groups. It also needs to find ways to kick-start the discussion not had on 11 March about how the left can push forward in its fight to transform the Labour Party and turn the labour movement’s fortunes around. Our comrades elected to the leadership of this new network will try to work seriously, constructively, and in cooperation with others, to make that happen. We hope to work with other leaders and supporters of the new network on these things while continuing to debate our disagreements.

Footnote: On the "anti-semitism witch-hunt"

An amendment was carried which was written down on a flipchart on the platform (illegibly to many) as "opposition to the antisemitism witch-hunt" and read out (inaudibly to some) as "opposition to the false antisemitism witch-hunt".

This was done without debate, and with a fair scattering of abstentions, votes against, and people just not voting.

Why? Most people surely voted for the amendment because they oppose the Compliance Unit's arbitrary ways, know that some charges of antisemitism have been invented or inflated arbitrarily, and anyway believe that prejudice is best dealt with primarily by discussion and education.

However, the term "antisemitism witch-hunt" is ambiguous and slippery. In some of the arguments elsewhere of those backing the amendment, it is taken to mean that any charge of antisemitism against anyone on the left must automatically be assumed to be witch-hunting invention motivated by hostility to the Palestinian people.

That is not true. There have been streaks of antisemitism in the left throughout our history - and, where Stalinism has been influential in the left, more than a streak - and the best sections of the left have sought to clean up that antisemitism and educate ourselves, rather than wave away all concerns as fabrications by the right wing.

We have called for an amnesty for all those summarily suspended or expelled by the Compliance Unit. We have opposed the suspension of Jackie Walker. Those stances can and must be combined with a proper recognition that the left must put our own house in order on antisemitism, and that someone being targeted factionally and arbitrarily by the right does not make everything they have said automatically ok.

There was another problem with the amendment. A number of people have been suspended on charges to do with antisemitism. Mostly they will get a hearing with at least some rules and safeguards. Some have had their suspensions lifted.

The far bigger section of the victims of the Compliance Unit are those excluded just for being left-wing, for allegedly sympathising with Workers' Liberty or Socialist Appeal or Left Unity. Almost all of them have been denied a hearing, or an appeal, or even what would in any halfway fair system be considered definite charges.

That is the larger part of the Compliance Unit's work. An amendment which just said "opposition to the witch-hunt", reinforcing the already-included "opposition to unjust expulsions and suspensions", would have been much better.

Tony Greenstein and Gerry Downing - in their different ways, the most vocal advocates on the web of the view in which the core of politics is about the heroic resistance of "anti-Zionists" such as themselves to the supposedly all-powerful, all-pervading, ever-conspiring "Zionists", and the most strident denouncers of leftists such as Rhea Wolfson ("Zionist ally of Jon Lansman") - stood for election to the committee. We are glad to report that they both failed, with Downing coming bottom.