On Monday 23 April the Momentum group in Lewisham (south London) held its Annual General Meeting to elect a new set of officers and plan future work.
Up to 160 people turned up. Around 30 people were not able to get into the venue as it was full to capacity, and therefore were excluded from the discussions.
Maybe 60-70 had no previous record of local activity in Momentum or the Labour Party, and/or had been mobilised simply to vote out members of the existing steering group who were standing again for different roles, and specifically members of the AWL, which for months now has been the target of vicious slanders.
Because not everyone could get into the meeting, officers of the local group proposed reconvening the meeting at a later date and in a bigger venue. This proposal was made calmly and reasonably, but there were immediate objections, some reasonable, but mostly barracking from the audience.
One person volunteered to find a larger room at nearby Goldsmiths college, and while this was being investigated Alex Nunns spoke about his book, The Candidate. Towards the end of his speech he was interrupted and the meeting was told that a big room at a local pub was available — big enough to hold everyone.
Officers of Lewisham Momentum objected because the time was late and some people had gone home, maybe because they were baffled, frightened or disgusted with the meeting, or they were not able to get in in the first place. The officers repeated the proposal to reconvene at another date. That provoked further barracking. At points, when Jill Mountford was chairing the meeting, there was aggressive and sexist jeering from certain sections of the meeting.
Eventually, with a national Momentum official now in the chair, a vote to go to the pub was held, with a majority in favour. But it was based on misinformation. The pub room was not a pub room at all, but the public front bar of a pub. Its capacity was much less than that of the original venue.
In that bar, in chaotic conditions, an election was held without hustings and a committee was elected. It was a farce, as can be seen from a video (https://youtu.be/vXPxxrGSQ-U). Yet a national Momentum official acted as teller, and thus endorsed the farce.
That committee is claiming it is the new Lewisham Momentum. The number in the pub AGM was around 60-70. Almost as many stayed in the original venue to discuss what had happened. The best way forward now is a properly reconvened AGM, with a debate and a contested election.
Over the last three years Lewisham Momentum has been active, lively, open for debate, and embraced a variety of different political strands. Unlike many Momentum groups these days, it has regular organising meetings in which its members vote on policy.
Workers’ Liberty members have been prominent because they have been active and done much work to keep the group going. We have argued our political views on many issues, from free movement through antisemitism to support for industrial disputes, but always to convince, never to impose.
We have worked with some fantastic comrades in Lewisham Labour Party to build up this group, to create a structure where democratic debate can take place and disagreements can be aired. We will continue to work with those comrades through thick and thin.
If democratic processes should put us in a minority, so be it. If there is a political transition, so be it. But it must all be properly conducted and argued-for.
The mobilisation for a takeover on 23 April came from an amalgam of groups and individuals behind a slate headed by Aaron Bastani from Novara Media, standing for Chair (in the event, so we understand, he did not show up). There was no open statement from Bastani about what he stood for, nor from the rest about the politics which united their amalgam.
Bastani had never previously attended a local Momentum event. In typical Stalinist or right-wing Labourite fashion (1), the whole campaign for his slate was organised “behind the scenes”. People on the slate denied its existence right up until the meeting itself. The slate had no common goal except the ousting of the AWL.
Its political cement is not a spelled-out political statement or strategy, but misrepresentation and artificial scandal-mongering. An alternative account of the proceedings of the evening have been posted here. That account makes a big deal of the fact that some people arrived early for the meeting (to help set up). This is one of a variety of "sand-in-your-eyes" protests now being made about the conduct of the meeting and the steering committee which have built the local group. On the point about registering people, Lewisham Momentum says: "It has come to our attention that some comrades are saying that the people who arrived early to the meeting at New Cross Learning, committee members, to help set up, were not registered. This is not so. They were registered and cross-referenced by an Momentum official for membership details, just like everyone else. We did not ask for help from Momentum officials on the night but let it not be said that they did not do a thorough job of checking Momentum membership details at New Cross Learning..."
Most recently, AWL members on the steering committee Jill Mountford and Sacha Ismail have been called transphobes, a slander spread by the Stalinist meme group Red London (via their associate blog 'Check Their Minutes').
This was a rotten bloc of a mobilisation, bringing together young Stalinists, disaffected ex-Trotskyists, some of the soft-left, and individuals who don’t like the AWL for particular reasons (because of our two-states position on Israel-Palestine, for example).
The takeover was organised on the basis of witch-hunting the hard left out of the Labour Party. Both Sacha (current co-secretary) and Jill (current co-chair) were targeted as not Labour Party members because they were “auto-excluded” (without charge or hearing) by the right-wing in the run-up to Corbyn’s election as leader.
That witch-hunt has been facilitated by Momentum’s current constitution, which stipulates that non-Labour members cannot be officers or vote on any of Momentum’s decisions. Lewisham Momentum has consistently voted to say that those who have been excluded unjustly from Labour should not be barred from voting and standing in Momentum. Rightly so: to do otherwise would be to participate in a witch-hunt of the hard left started by the Blairites as they tried to prevent Corbyn’s victory. The left should be united behind getting unjustly-expelled people reinstated to the Party.
Yet now sections of the Labour left have been drawn into that witch hunt. Some of them are youth, and might have the excuse that they have little knowledge of the history of Labour, as a broad church in which socialist and Marxist groupings have always been active. Ex-Trotskyists have no such excuses.
The main target now is Tom Watson’s main target as he manoeuvred against Corbyn — the AWL. And the real objection to Sacha Ismail and Jill Mountford is not that they have been expelled from Labour but that they support the AWL.
Slanders against the AWL have come from a select and relatively small but growing clique of people within Momentum, again, many young, who have been inculcated in the mindset of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us”. Anyone who raises serious criticisms, or questions Jeremy Corbyn’s line on issues, as thinking political activists do is “against us”. Some of that group are self-described Stalinists, and some of them part of the Red London clique. Some just go along with the micro-culture created in and around that group because of friendship networks.
That culture has involved shaming and shouting down political opponents on social media as “cranks” and “splitters”, and threatening to “drive them into the sea” (for an example of that outside Lewisham, see the “debate” on Facebook after Red Labour proposed making an alternative left slate for the Labour Party National Executive).
Red London’s method is trolling, melded with Stalinism, and drawing on backward ideas, including misogyny.
In the run-up to the Lewisham AGM, Red London added another slander, via their associated blog 'Check Their Minutes'. Accusations of “transphobia” were constructed by putting together selected clips of an audio recording of Jill chairing a Lewisham Momentum public meeting held on 26 March to discuss support for reforms to the Gender Recognition Act and to build solidarity for trans rights in the labour movement. Yes, that was the billing of and the purpose for the meeting: yet Red London has systematically lied about it, presenting it as a platform for transphobes!
Some people at the meeting spoke against GRA reform on the spurious grounds that it would erase women’s rights. Local anti-trans activist Venice Allen, recently expelled from the Labour Party for her transphobic views, was also there.
Jill, as chair, controlled those speakers who were hostile to the meeting and the people who organised it. She made sure the meeting was able to continue and everyone present could ask questions of the speaker, Maria Exall, the chair of the TUC LGBT committee.
Jill made a speech in favour of transgender rights, and many other speakers thoroughly challenged the speeches against GRA reform. None of that has been reported in the selection of secretly-recorded material used by Red London.
On 23 April, slanders like that were deliberately used to draw out all kinds of (right-wing generated) fears and hostilities towards the AWL, and to demonise the AWL and the Lewisham activists who work with us and have worked with us over the last three years. Social media slurs even included calling us “antisemites”.
In the run-up to the meeting, one bright spark piped up on social media to falsely claim that the AWL had distributed a leaflet supporting transphobes and declaring “TERF is a slur” at an NUS Women’s Conference in 2016.
The nearest thing to that in reality is this, from text put out by the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (not AWL): “Over the past few years the political discussion and debate within the movement has been stifled and strangled. It is impossible to ask questions, explore topics or disagree without being labelled a racist, a transphobe, a white straight man… [but] in a society that is racist and transphobic it would be impossible for me not to be those things. I mess up. I do, but then I learn and change and my politics evolve. And that’s okay.”
It is indeed. But not okay is that Red London and 'Check Their Minutes' have been peddling the idea that the AWL condones paedophilia. Quotes taken out of context from a 2009 article which condemned child abuse and discussed ways to tackle it were turned into memes.
These reckless accusations have real-life implications for many people, for example, those who are parents or work with children. It is time that the labour movement outlawed Red London for this and similar behaviour.
The mobilisation for 23 April was a rotten bloc of different groups which came together to drive out the AWL because we are perceived as a challenge to the consensus of “no Marxists please, we are the Labour Party”.
That consensus, will, if it is not challenged, poison the Labour Party for radical politics for years to come. What happens when class struggle revives in the UK, and many more people are ready to declare themselves boldly as Marxists and Trotskyists?
National Momentum was invited in by the splitters, not by the elected committee. Its representatives did not play a good role.
They tried to run the AGM from the outset but they did not do a fair job. One reason people were left outside is because Momentum delayed the start of the meeting. We shall be demanding a Momentum investigation and that Momentum uphold basic labour movement standards, one of which is that only people who are eligible should vote. We believe some of those organised by the Stalinists are not Lewisham residents.
Leftists looking at this from the outside may be baffled. But they need to try to think it through for themselves. Read what we write. Don’t be content with social media connections, the here-today-gone-tomorrow bits of rumour and scandal-mongering, the blogs which casually and maliciously denounce groups like the AWL.
The people who feel despair that the left can get to this point also need to look at how these divisions have been created: in the first place by Labour’s right wing and secondly by the left, absorbing the methods and attitudes of the right, shutting down debate in Momentum and turning a blind eye to political thuggery.
Edited for clarity: 26.4.18, and with additional detail 29.4.18.
(1) We do not use “Stalinist” as a generalised term of political abuse. We use it to refer to a set of politics, including the belief that the USSR was a socialist country, or at least progressively anti-capitalist, and that some or all of the historic and current states based on its model (Cuba, China, Vietnam, North Korea, etc.) are likewise. Stalinists and individuals influenced by Stalinists also sometimes defend regimes which are backed by Putin's Russia (e.g. Assad's regime in Syria). Many of these people are integrated into the British labour movement — people like Seamus Milne have very influential positions.
But we also use the term “Stalinist” to refer to a set of organisational methods, characterised by slander of one’s opponents rather than honest debate; clique-based manouvering, and backroom stitch-ups. In this the Stalinists have much in common with Blairites.
The people organised for the “alternative slate” in Lewisham, maybe most, are not Stalinists, indeed some who would consider themselves sincere anti-Stalinists. But at the core of the mobilising were people who are Stalinists, some proudly so, particularly the people around “Red London”.
Statement from Maria Exall on the conduct of Lewisham Momentum’s meeting in support of trans rights
“I saw the article about the 21 March Lewisham Momentum on trans rights posted on the ‘Check their minutes’ website. It is a distortion of what the meeting was, and much of it is total invention.
“I was the only platform speaker at the meeting, as Natacha Kennedy pulled out that day due to childcare issues. She sent a note to the meeting. I am chair of the TUC’s LGBT Committee and was invited to speak in that capacity. I was explicitly invited to speak from a pro-trans rights and socialist feminist point of view and about the importance of the labour movement and left fighting for trans rights — which I did. To be clear, that included support for amending the Gender Recognition Act and for a social model of gender identification (‘self identification’).
“A small number of people in the audience argued for a reductionist ‘radical feminist’ position, which I answered, I hope forcefully. They were kept carefully in line by the chair, Jill Mountford, who also spoke herself from a pro-trans-rights position, as did many others of the attendees.
“This kind of misrepresentation can only damage rational debate within the labour movement on moving forward positively on trans rights.”