Organise for a member-led Momentum

Submitted by SJW on 16 January, 2017 - 5:59 Author: Simon Nelson

Momentum was launched in early October 2015, by a segment of the organisers of the effort which got Jeremy Corbyn elected Labour leader on 12 September 2015.

Boosted by the flood of new Labour members around Corbyn's election in 2015, and a second flood around his re-election in 2016, Momentum now has 20,000 members, which probably makes it the biggest membership-defined left caucus in the Labour Party's history.

The way Momentum has been run centrally has made it harder for local groups to develop, but there are now 150, many lively and active. That is probably the biggest network of local left groups in the Labour Party since the National Left Wing Movement of the mid-1920s.

On the evening of 10 January the Momentum office staged a coup. On the strength of six votes (from a Steering Committee of 12) got in a sudden email exchange lasting about an hour, it dissolved all Momentum's existing elected committees.

The coup was organised at that time in order to forestall the Momentum conference due in February, which, after many delaying tactics by the coup-makers, had at last been scheduled by a meeting of Momentum's elected National Committee on 3 December.

The office had responded to the December NC decision by refusing to cooperate with the elected Conference Arrangements Committee, by cancelling all meetings of the Steering Committee, and by launching a manipulated online "survey" of Momentum members. With the coup, the office freed itself to cancel the conference and replace it with a rally and workshops session on 18 February, to be organised by the office so that no motions or votes will be allowed.

The "e-democracy" of the instant email exchange on 10 January also imposed a new constitution for Momentum, in less time from proposal to decision than it would have taken to study the constitution carefully.

Many of those involved in the coup have made it clear over the last year or so that they see no or little value in the local groups of Momentum. The coup cuts the local groups out of even a notional say in Momentum's overall policy (in fact they have had no real say up to now, either), and it will make it harder for them to develop.

Some of the coup-makers seem to have been terrified that the media would pick up on radical ideas debated at a conference. Their argument has been like the Blairites' on Labour Party conference - not too much debate, or else it will look bad in the media. In the first place, any serious left-wing group must be able to consider and sometimes advocate ideas which the Daily Mail or even the Guardian finds shocking: otherwise it can never be more left-wing than the bourgeois media.

In fact Labour left groups have been able to debate all sorts of things with much less media flak than Momentum has now inevitably got through the coup. The idea that large sections of Momentum were eager to turn the conference into a circus debating wild-eyed verbosities is just demagogic slander, as the record of the motions debated at national committees shows.

Debate among activists, especially new people drawn into politics, will not be just a series of press-friendly sound bites; but processes of argument, debate and clarification are necessary for a living movement.

The most important thing now is for activity to continue, and for activists not to quit in demoralisation or disperse in different directions.

The elected Conference Arrangements Committee was tasked with organising the delegate conference that was set for February. The coup has changed the situation, but we welcome their decision to continue to plan for a conference. We believe this should be an opportunity, as the CAC says, for groups to be able to “network and to politically educate ourselves as per the original NC remit".

It is not at all our intention - nor, we believe, the intention of any large section of Momentum members - that conference should be as the coup-makers caricature it, a debauch of esoteric quarrelling over detailed theses. It should discuss policy, but in broad outlines governed by what the local groups need in order to be able to campaign in a co-operative way.

The conference should be seen as a conference of Momentum local groups, allowing the local groups to communicate and co-operate, and as setting up a local groups network within Momentum, not as splitting Momentum. Many local groups have established themselves as local organising centres for left-wing activity.

Many activists have been using Momentum groups to co-ordinate activities within local parties, both campaign activity and standing for and winning positions in branch and CLPs. All of these activities are necessary both to defend the Corbyn leadership against the sabotage of the Labour right, and to build a fighting, activist left-wing party.

Where groups have done this they have done so with little help from the office. Most of those groups' activists should and will want to continue their activity. It is that activity, rather than the online pomp and circumstance, which is the real life and value of Momentum.

Possibly the Momentum office will now "de-recognise" some local groups, and refuse to "recognise" new local groups. But maybe not. Anyway, that can't stop the groups existing and being active as long as they have the will to do so, and (since local groups have had little help from the office, and little real say in the general affairs of Momentum) being "de-recognised" will not even impede local activity significantly.

The elected Steering Committee is continuing to meet, in the person of those members who reject its summary abolition. The most important thing they can do is to help the local groups to continue and to create space for those groups to cooperate and network with each other.

An analogy might be what local Labour Leagues of Youth did between 1955 and 1960. The official Labour Party machine dissolved and banned all conferences and committees linking the different local youth groups. Probably it would have been happy to see the local groups disappear. But it did not dissolve them.

So unofficial activists continued the local groups and set up connections and unofficial conferences. By doing so they continued effective activity, and paved the way for the left quickly to draw in large numbers when, in 1960, the official Labour Party licensed youth conferences again.

The young Labour activists in those years were not splitting from the Labour Party: far from it. Activists now should not split from Momentum.To do so would be self-marginalising. It would abandon the bulk of Momentum members, who will have joined Momentum because they generally sympathise with Corbyn and want a left organisation in the Labour Party to counter the right-wing MPs and factional organisers.

Because the Momentum office has had a monopoly over direct electronic communication with the whole Momentum membership, has used that monopoly in a one-sided way, and has supplemented that with scurrilous articles in the press by chosen allies such as Owen Jones and Paul Mason, many Momentum members know little about the issues leading up to the coup, or what they think they "know" is mostly misinformation.

We should seek to draw all Momentum members into local organising and activity, and in the course of that discuss the issues with them.

It needs to be made clear - and will be made clear "in life" by a vigorous continuation of a local groups network - that the issue at stake here is not fine detail of what sort of democratic structure Momentum should have. It is about whether it has a democratic structure at all. In the debates over the last year so, we, and others arguing for a democratic structure, have been flexible and open to compromise about details and modalities.

The post-coup Momentum structure is not one of instant online democracy, with every important decision made by online vote of all members, such as was demagogically promised in the run-up to the coup. Regardless of whether such a structure is really possible, or whether approximations to it would be really democratic - we think not - the post-coup constitution is no approximation at all.

Most decision-making will be in the hands of the unelected office staff and a few unelected "directors". The next tier is to be a "National Coordinating Group", meeting (or "meeting": email consultations count as meetings) four times a year, of 28 plus maybe 4 co-optees, on which only 12 are elected from the Momentum membership. Only in extreme circumstances will online plebiscites be able to block office or NCG decisions, let alone initiate new policy.

The issue is not about whether Momentum should consume itself in debate over details of policy, or focus on outward-looking activity. It is about whether Momentum should develop outward-looking activity at all - beyond acting as a database and phone-bank for Labour Party and sometimes union polls - and how it can get workable arrangements to decide the political shape of that activity, week by week, month by month.

A great missed opportunity of Momentum over the last year and half is that the office has facilitated almost no public campaigning activity. When elected Momentum committees have voted by large majorities for public campaigning for "Remain" in the Brexit referendum, for the NHS, for protest against the "Compliance Unit" purge, for defence of freedom of movement, etc., the Momentum office has scarcely even communicated the committee decisions to members, let alone campaigned for them.

Nor is the issue as another demagogic misrepresentation has it: that the coup-makers want Momentum oriented to the Labour Party, and the advocates of democracy want to dissolve it into an impractically diffuse "social movement".

At Labour Party conference 2016, Momentum, under the control of those who are now the coup-makers, organised no intervention. Instead they put all Momentum's resources into a "social-movement-y" fringe event with no clear Labour focus. Consequently the right triumphed. Only one ill-resourced subsection of Momentum intervened effectively in the conference - Momentum NHS, in which advocates of democratic structures and a campaign orientation were well placed.If the local groups continue, and are able to coordinate, they will as a natural consequence also want to, and be able to, develop a concerted intervention for Labour conference 2017.

Obviously being able to intervene in Labour conference requires some debate, decision, and implementation of decisions on the issues at stake there. It requires some democracy.

Some Momentum activists may be tempted to hive off a few of the feistier local Momentum groups into a new structure, or to try to bring them under the wing of one of the old groups of the Labour left (LRC, Red Labour, etc.) That would be foolish and self-marginalising.

More politically-defined strands in the Momentum membership, such as the strand around the magazine Clarion, are an essential leaven to its democracy and vigour. But they should not - and so far as we have influence, will not - react now with a short-sighted policy of trying to hive off a segment of Momentum groups under their political platform, and explicitly or implicitly abandoning the rest.

We want a broad and representative network of all the local groups, within which different political currents can and will advocate their views in a comradely temper.

We do not accept the implication of the new Momentum constitution that all those whom the Compliance Unit has expelled from the Labour Party (600-odd and rising) should also be expelled from Momentum.

On that point, in fact, one of the Momentum "directors", Christine Shawcroft, has written:

"There seem to be some misunderstandings of the new Momentum Constitution. No one is being expelled. Everyone who is a member now, according to section 5.1 is still a member. New members will need to be members of the Labour Party. The section on ceasing to be a member does NOT mean expulsions. 5.8 says if anyone ceases to be a member of the Party they MAY be deemed to have resigned. Not WILL, but MAY.

"Apparently this was on the advice of lawyers, we need to be able to exclude people who have been chucked out of the Party for sexual harassment, or racist behaviour, or other unacceptable behaviour. Even if we were to take action under 5.8, the member will have a right of appeal under 5.10. So there is no witch hunt, no expulsions (well, only under very unusual circumstances, we hope)."

Responding to a direct question online, "will Nick Wrack or Jill Mountford be expelled from Momentum?", Shawcroft replied: "No, they won't".

We should keep Shawcroft and others to their words.

Organising a network of local groups does not mean a split from Momentum, or a boycott of the post-coup structures.

Many local Momentum groups have already passed resolutions of protest against the coup. Others should and will.

In the short term the strongest protest may have difficulty shifting the coup-makers. The email announcing the coup said more or less clearly that the initiative for it came not from within Momentum but from the Leader's Office and union leaders. The prime decision-makers here will have been no-one within Momentum, but people in the Leader's Office and in union hierarchies such as Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray of Unite. (Whether Milne and Murray personally, we don't know, but surely people in their circles).

These people are insulated from rank-and-file Momentum pressure by thick walls. They are Stalinists politically. They got their positions of power in the labour movement not by distinguishing themselves in rank and file activity but via careers in journalism and union officialdom.

They probably also share to a limited extent a prejudice common in a sub-section of Momentum members, and played on by the coup-makers, that the "model" for left-wing activity now should be the NGO rather than the activist organisation.

Those political factors explain why they have resisted moves for democracy and positive campaigning in Momentum so tenaciously, and why they were so panicked by the prospect of a conference that they got the Momentum office to organise the coup. The factors also explain why they are so resistant to compromise or discussion.

Yet they are not all-powerful. As well as continuing the local groups, and helping them coordinate and create a campaigning profile, we should also keep up the pressure on the new Momentum structures and use every crack in them to promote the case for democracy and campaigning. As long as Momentum retains life, and activists do not disperse, it is not at all certain that the new Momentum regime can sustain autocracy indefinitely.

However that goes, by continuing the local groups and developing democratic cooperation between them, we will be doing the best that can be done to crystallise the Corbyn surge into an effective force.

We do not give up. We do not split. We do not abandon the battle to group the activists of the great Labour influx into a force which can really transform the labour movement, so that the labour movement can defeat capitalism and build socialism.

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