Why Momentum failed (or didn’t even try) at Labour Party conference

Submitted by AWL on 4 October, 2016 - 1:43 Author: Sacha Ismail

In the days immediately after Jeremy Corbyn’s crushing re-election victory, the Labour right won a series of victories at Labour Party conference. How?

It’s true that the left-wing surge in the party membership has not had time to properly feed through into left-wing dominance in CLPs, left-wing officers, left-wing conference delegates and so on. It’s also true, and well-documented, how the right used all kinds of cynical and undemocratic manoeuvres and tricks to win their victories. These factors would have caused difficulties whatever the left did.

But it’s also true that much of the left did not try. Momentum, which bears by far the greatest responsibility in terms of weight of numbers and leadership potential, did almost nothing.

(It wasn’t just the activist – or not so activist! – left that failed. The leader’s office was also passive, for instance in its failure to organise to get left-wing/democratic rule changes put to the NEC. But I’m going to focus on the activist left here because that is what we can immediately influence.)

This wasn’t only a case of failing to effectively fight the right wing’s gambits, but one of failing to put forward any proposals or initiatives of our own. As well as being a grotesque wasted opportunity, this helped to create an environment in which the right felt confident to move.

• No or very little campaign to get delegates elected.
• No preconference meetings where Momentum-supporting delegates and activists could discuss what was coming up.
• No meet ups at conference or nearby.
• No proposals for the agenda of The World Transformed event relating to the conference.
• No lobbies or leafleting of the conference, no leaflets at or publicity aimed at conference-goers at all in fact, no organised attempt to mobilise people to speak to delegates.
• No motions promoted for CLPs to submit.

In fact, the last point is not quite true. Momentum did send out five model resolutions – five days before the deadline for CLPs to submit! For those who haven’t been involved with these things, five days before is essentially the same as not doing it at all. The period for CLPs to submit motions is six weeks and if you haven’t got stuff together and circulated a month before the deadline you’re in trouble. I'd need to check, but I don't think any of these motions were actually submitted - apart from the one on the NHS, which had a different and earlier origin (see below).

Flashes of what was possible

In fact there were initiatives, including from within Momentum, that showed on a smaller scale what was possible.

The Campaign for Labour Party Democracy did what they always do, have done for years, and produced motions for CLPs. These motions were far too moderate, but they were produced, circulated and submitted. CLPD also organised a series of conference meetings and caucuses where delegates could discuss what was going on. Good for them – no one else did that.

The Stop the Purge campaign, at very short notice, got motions on the purge submitted to the conference (they were ruled out by the party machine). It also produced a bulletin, organised lobbying/leafleting of the conference alongside activists from the suspended CLP in Wallasey, and held a street meeting and discussion outside The World Transformed.

Workers’ Liberty and other socialists wrote motions for the conference on various issues and got them submitted. Left-wing activists in Young Labour got the YL national committee to submit strong policy on fighting for freedom of movement and workers’ rights after Brexit, though unfortunately the issue area it was in narrowly missed getting prioritised.

Last but not least, Momentum NHS organised a series of activities and initiatives. It promoted the Save Liverpool Women’s Hospital march which took place during the conference, held an organising meeting, sponsored a 200-strong rally at The World Transformed with speakers including health workers and Margaret Greenwood MP and produced a model motion which it got twenty two CLPs to submit versions of – the last with little help from Momentum centrally and despite the difficulty of getting CLP meetings.

The final NHS motion passed by the conference was not as strong as it should have been due to the small number of well-organised Momentum delegates we had to go to the compositing meeting (again, a lesson there). Nonetheless it significantly shifted Labour Party policy to include an end to PFI and a solution to PFI debts, reversing privatisation, abolition of all charges including for dentistry, prescriptions and optical care, and a publicly owned care system. None of that would have gone in without the motion Momentum NHS worked hard to get submitted.

Why didn’t Momentum generalise such work?

So why was Momentum as a whole so passive? As a Momentum activist involved in some of work described above, I asked people around the Momentum office what was going on with conference a number of times and found it very hard to get a straight answer. If there were discussions about the conference, they were kept secret and didn’t influence anything. Who knows who wrote the model resolutions that were sent out too late, except for the NHS one?

This is not because Momentum staff and volunteers are not hard-working – quite the opposite! And it’s not simply about being distracted or tired out by the leadership campaign, since there were plenty of people willing to work on organising at the conference. Rather it must surely reflect a certain orientation or lack of an orientation.

To turn it around: the Momentum NHS activities at the conference, for instance, were not brilliantly organised. A lot could have been done better. But what was done and achieved reflected a certain orientation to using and influencing the conference developed quite deliberately over the last year.

There is something that needs to be explained here. Momentum’s chair is Jon Lansman, a man who for years made organising interventions into Labour Party conference (with CLPD) his main thing. Now he heads a large and influential organisation and yet its impact on the conference was minimal.

There has been constant resistance within Momentum to structured democratic decision-making in even rough detail. Part of this seems to be about nervousness about the media, about the influence of the far left and about "embarrassing" the leadership. Part of it seems to be about having inherited a more general Blairite-type conception of politics, in which policy is something cooked up in private and announced by leaders and their spokespeople, not publicly debated, formulated and pushed by a democratic movement. Perhaps part of the problem is conscious calculation; and part is an instinctive resistance to anything other way of doing things.

To be fair, this is not just a matter of the people at the "centre" of Momentum; the approach is probably shared by large sections of the movement. But at the centre it finds concentrated expression. Instead of providing leadership, what could be the leadership of the movement reinforced its most passive tendencies.

If you’re not willing to decide detailed demands and goals, then it’s very difficult to intervene into an event like Labour Party conference.

Of course, also, Momentum is new and politically heterogeneous. There are probably things it shouldn’t take a collective position on right now. But that doesn’t apply to everything. Moreover, it needs to be tested out in debate and discussion. Many opposed as decisive the effort to commit Momentum to a socialist "Remain" in the EU referendum. In the end, the position was passed by an overwhelming majority and nobody left as a result or anything like that.

There will be disagreements, tensions and problems. But an organisation like Momentum needs to develop policies and demands independent of its role as a support network for the Labour leadership. Otherwise it will be doomed to political sterility, as the performance at Labour Party conference shows. It will also open the door to the Labour right, undermining its supportive role as well.

Instead of reflecting the leadership's failings, we need to become a force pushing it forward.

Lastly, this is clearly all related to the question of democracy in Momentum.

We need to discuss the lessons of Liverpool, try to learn some lessons and move forward. In the coming weeks, as the left works to increase its influence in local Labour Parties, we cannot afford any more embarrassed foot-dragging. The right will not stop pushing their proposals. We need to develop and push ours.

• Sacha is an activist in Lewisham Momentum and was involved in Momentum NHS organising at the conference.

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