A debate about Momentum: Martin Thomas answers Jon Lansman

Submitted by Matthew on 15 February, 2017 - 1:32 Author: Jon Lansman and Martin Thomas

This explanation by Jon Lansman of recent events in Momentum was circulated in the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. Since it contains nothing confidential, and is the only political explanation available from the Momentum leadership other than the article by Christine Shawcroft in Labour Briefing (Feb 2017), which we replied to last week, we reprint it here.

Maintaining the centre-left coalition

I wanted also to counter the lies and misinformation which are widely repeated by sectarian elements on the Left who wish to turn Momentum from a broad alliance it was intended to be, seeking to maintain the broad centre-left coalition that elected Jeremy Corbyn to support his administration, democratise the party along the lines long advocated by CLPD, and help Labour win elections into a hard-Left organisation reminiscent of the LRC designed to put pressure on Jeremy from the left.

There has been no “coup” within Momentum, though there had been an attempt over the last year by various Trotskyist and other sectarian organisations to use Momentum local groups, often at the cost of driving away non-aligned activists, as a basis for seizing control of regional networks and the former national committee of Momentum. It became very clear how wide the disparity had become between these bodies and the membership of Momentum from the survey conducted in conjunction with a pre-Christmas message from Jeremy Corbyn.

That left the national steering group of Momentum a stark choice:

• We could battle for two months in the run up to a planned national delegate conference narrowly foisted on the national committee — with some delegates who disagreed being forced to vote in favour in spite of having been elected by STV in order to preserve the pluralism of regional representatives, which would inevitably have undermined efforts to maximise left representation at this year’s conference, support local Momentum activists in preparing for CLP AGMs, and mobilise for by-elections and a possible early general election.

• We could avoid this internal battle, by calling immediate elections for a new national body based on a new constitution reflecting the wishes of members as revealed in the survey and circulated for agreement of members in the way we would have had to do at some point anyway.

The Steering Group chose the latter by seven votes to two with one active abstention and two who did not express a preference. The Steering Group then dissolved itself and the national committee whose self-imposed expiry date had in any case passed six months earlier. The minority of the steering group and the half of national committee who had individually preferred the other course then set about misrepresenting the decision and vilifying those who were party to it.

I have personally been subjected to appalling abuse to which it is difficult to respond without simply perpetuating their attempt to personalise “blame” for the alleged wrongs of which they unfairly accuse me. I regret that Martin [Thomas] has chosen to act in this way. I have worked with him within CLPD since the early 1980s. I have done so because he and his colleagues from Socialist Organiser, as his organisation was originally known, showed a genuine commitment to CLPD they never showed to the LRC or any other left organisations in which they pursued the opportunistic self-interested methods we are used to from all Trotskyist sects.

The slates he lists [for the new Momentum NCG] are, in fact, those organised by Socialist Organiser’s successor, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, an organisation that was registered with the Electoral Commission as a separate political party until eleven days after the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, though they have now made the tactical decision to back close fellow travellers and some well-known activists rather than their own full members for these elections.

I notice that Martin has never charged CLPD with a lack of activist democracy in spite of the fact that, since he and I got actively involved in CLPD, I think there has only ever been one contested election for the CLPD executive — in 1983 when we were both on the same slate, a division I later came to regret. Vladimir rightly put the effectiveness of the organisation and the contribution of people to its work first.

Like Momentum, CLPD is an organisation which seeks to democratise the Labour Party, not to operate like a party-within-a-party. Similarly, Vladimir was determined for CLPD to reach out to the centre of the party, since without doing so we would inevitably lose. The same is true for Momentum now.

Panic makes for bad politics

By Martin Thomas

Jon Lansman identifies “sectarian elements” almost entirely with us (“Trotskyists”), but at the same time finds these “sectarians” so numerous among Momentum’s 21,000 members that the clash can be resolved only by abolishing Momentum democracy. At stake here is no “sectarianism” of ours, but the issue of what socialism is and how it can be won.

The liberation of the working class can be won only by a vivid movement where each participant is a lively contributor with her or his own ideas; which is full of bouncy debate; in which even the deepest prejudices and the most revered leaders are subject to question. In a new movement like Momentum, we have reasoned patiently and tactfully, rather than bloviating.

Yet Momentum would have contributed more, not less, if it had actively promoted a left Remain vote, free movement across borders, opposition to Trident renewal. It would be stronger now if its national office as well as its local groups had campaigned in support of workers’ disputes like at Picturehouse, and for the NHS. It would have done better if (as we urged) it had organised a presence at Labour conference 2016. It would be healthier if it had had a proper discussion on left antisemitism (in which Jon Lansman and we would have been broadly on the same side), rather than trying to quell the issue administratively. All those things are not “sectarian” caprices, but would have happened if Momentum had been allowed to develop “normally”, democratically.

The “hard left” will ally with the centre where we can, as we did in the early 1980s; but to ally with the centre, rather than just being part of it, we must have our own ideas, our own criteria. We have not “driven away non-aligned activists”! Some people have stopped attending Momentum meetings. But not because of political debate. Rather, because so many meetings have been dominated by bureaucratic obstruction and battles against it. (The conference cancelled by the 10 January coup had been agreed in outline as far back as the February 2016 Momentum NC).

Part of Jon Lansman’s thinking seems to be panic. He brands us an alien sect because we were registered with the Electoral Commission up to 2015. Yet the old ILP stood candidates (latterly, only a few) up to 1974, and then was admitted into the Labour Party in 1975 without fuss. Jon Lansman himself, rightly, at the Momentum-sponsored event The World Transformed in September last year, proposed that the Green Party be invited to join the Labour Party en bloc. TWT promoted, and was sponsored by, the Morning Star, paper of the Communist Party of Britain (still registered with the Electoral Commission), yet banned literature stalls from radical-left groups within the Labour Party.

No-one has disputed the report from Suzanne Gannon (a Momentum member who disagrees with us on much) of a speaker from the Momentum office saying that they thought they “had to” do the 10 January coup to stop Momentum being instantly proscribed by Labour Party officialdom. But “Trot-hunting” will increase the appetite of the Compliance Unit, not sate it.

Jon Lansman recognises that we have been constructive in CLPD. He worked with us harmoniously in the Labour Party Democracy Task Force of 2010-11, and the campaign against the Collins Review, too. We work constructively in many other campaigns, union branches, workplace groups, strike committees. We haven’t suddenly become hellions. Rather, Jon Lansman and his associates — plunged out of their depth, I think, by the scale of the Corbyn surge, and too susceptible to pressure from Stalinist-minded sections of the Leader’s Office and union hierarchies — have wasted potential by fearing to let Momentum be more than a phone-banking and vote-mobilising database, regulated so as not to be too left-wing.

The new imposed constitution is out of line even with the (heavily manipulated) online survey over Christmas. That suggested decisions by online voting of all members. Under the new constitution, online votes can scarcely even stall office decisions in extreme cases. Real power rests with the office and with a seldom-meeting “coordinating group” in which only 12 out of 28 or 32 places are elected by Momentum members.

10 January was a coup. Imagine its analogue in general politics: Theresa May declares that, on the strength of a 50%-plus-one majority got in an hour’s emailing round the Cabinet, she is abolishing Cabinet, Parliament, and an imminent general election in favour of office rule plus a future “coordinating group” in which elected citizens’ representatives are a minority. Or, if that’s too much, imagine the analogue in any other left movement. Despite it all, Momentum’s local groups will continue to organise, and I don’t think the panic-stricken officials can stop them.