Demonising the “hard left”

Submitted by Matthew on 8 February, 2017 - 12:17 Author: Simon Nelson

Christine Shawcroft’s article 'Just a Mo(mentum)!' in the latest issue of Labour Briefing (the “original” Briefing, not the magazine of the same name put out by the LRC) is the first and only attempt to give political justification for the coup on 10 January in which a few people round the Momentum office declared all the organisation’s democratic structures abolished.

The coup-makers also imposed a new constitution in which Momentum members are now voting (through a voting system which enables the largest minority to sweep the board) only for 12 out of 28 or 32 places on a committee which will meet (or “meet”, electronically) maybe only four times a year, and much-talked-about online votes will be able to block office or committee decisions only in extreme cases.

Shawcroft’s argument is that from the very first Momentum National Committee meeting in February 2016, “ultra-left [elsewhere in that issue of Briefing, ‘hard left’] groups made it clear that while Corbynistas wanted to build support for Jeremy and his policies in the Party, they were only interested in building their own little group and wanted to use Momentum to do so.”

Since the only left groups involved in Momentum are Workers’ Liberty and Socialist Appeal, and Socialist Appeal has had a low profile, this comes down to saying that Momentum’s structures had to be destroyed in order to save the city from us. Shawcroft cites nothing specific as amiss or unconstructive about the behaviour of our (few) comrades at the February 2016 NC, but describes December’s Momentum NC sarcastically as when we really “excelled ourselves”.

There were challenges over the agenda and about voting rights being given to various “organisations” which either did not back Momentum or were apparently not really organisations at all (these, for example, included Jon Lansman’s blog!) The challenges came from many more than us. I suspect Shawcroft’s real objection is not the procedural issues, but the fact that the NC voted, at last, to make definite arrangements for the Momentum conference agreed in principle at a May 2016 NC meeting (and cancelled by the 10 January coup).

Yes, we have our own ideas and we seek to convince activists to share those ideas and work with us to promote them. That helps, not hinders, the building of a broad, inclusive, and active Momentum. Our people have been among the initiators and best builders of some of the most active and regularly-meeting Momentum groups. Shawcroft portrays everyone else in Momentum apart from us as “Corbynistas [who only] wanted to build support for Jeremy and his policies in the Party”. This faux-naif picture of people who pledge never to have a thought about politics not previously approved by Jeremy Corbyn is untrue.

Momentum, as you’d expect, includes a wide variety of political slants. For example, in the first months of Momentum, we and others had to wage a battle (eventually successful) against people organised around the Momentum office for Momentum to be Labour-oriented rather than a diffuse “social movement”. Later, we had to wage a battle (in more-or-less alliance with the office people that time, but with only partial success) for Momentum to distance itself from left antisemitism.

As for procedural wrangling, the bulk of that, since the start, has come from the office faction. The same people repeatedly “sat on” or blocked committee decisions, and effectively resisted pressure from members, including us, for Momentum to organise a presence at 2016 Labour Party conference. Shawcroft says that Momentum was set up in the “euphoria of victory” and something “new and different” was in the air. This seems to be shorthand for: Momentum should not have the democratic structures (meetings, votes, committees, conferences) that have been used in the labour movement and Labour Party since their foundation.

Modern communication methods are good, but they should facilitate rather than trash the idea of a democratic grass-roots movement. A huge diversity of people had to be drawn into activity: on that we agree. The MPs who were the initial sponsors “under pressure” agreed to call a national committee. Shawcroft does not mention this, but the original plan was for a committee made up by co-option from the office. There was a small but significant rebellion in Momentum groups — and amongst those volunteering in the Momentum office — and hastily-arranged regional meetings elected delegates to this National Committee. That NC, in February 2016, elected a Steering Committee to oversee the day to day work of the organisation.

The plan was that the National Committee should meet regularly and a conference should be scheduled. Shawcroft says that all those structures were temporary, and that no membership existed at this point. (Why? Not because of us, but because the office had set up Momentum in October 2015 without creating any way for people to join it, or any plan for democratic structures). Indeed, those initial structures were temporary and inadequate. So we were in favour of a conference for Momentum which would shave voted on a constitution and some basic policy and campaign priorities. From that we would have had a properly functioning organisation and would have been able to move forward and help to transform the Labour Party and argue for socialist politics.

We were never dogmatic about the details of the conference or the constitution, but the discussion was quickly obstructed by people around the Momentum office who opposed any conference which would take votes, and argued that Momentum should never debate or vote on policy. They claimed to stand for decision-making via online one-member-one-vote. We always accepted some online voting, and the imposed constitution, which gives only minimal powers to online voting, makes clear that was never the real issue. Shawcroft, however, argues that “the usual suspects”, the “ultra-left groups”, opposed e-democracy because we can only win votes in small meetings and have no appeal beyond a supposedly unrepresentative minority of members.

Of course, being on the Labour Party NEC and an already well-known figure on the Labour Left makes it easier for Christine Shawcroft to win in an online election than new young activists who lack access to the media. A good thing about the article is that it states (where the imposed constitution is ambiguous) that those unjustly expelled, suspended or auto-excluded from the Labour Party will not be expelled from Momentum. Seemingly unironically, the article ends by stating that: “the days of a small clique grabbing hold of the steering wheel are over.”

Given that Momentum will now operate day-to-day as a limited company in the hands of its directors, including Christine Shawcroft, this appears to be far from the truth. The scare-mongering in the article is all along the lines that everything would be fine if not for the “ultra-left”, the “hard left”, or the “Trotskyists”. It seeks to “criminalise” all those who argue for greater debate, for more say for members, and for argued for strategy and campaigning that does not merely mirror support for the Labour leadership. The arguments are not new, and Christine Shawcroft knows this.

She herself was around at the time that Michael Foot debated Sean Matgamna of Socialist Organiser about democracy and the class struggle. Matgamna’s words about the witch-hunt of the left in the early 1980s are relevant now.

“‘The Trotskyists are the enemy of democracy’ is — perhaps predictably — the political standard under which Labour’s right and soft left are trying to rally forces for a counter-offensive against the serious left.

“The direct target is the revolutionary left. But the main target is the much bigger serious reformist left... The obvious intention is to confuse and divide the left which, when united, secured victories and which, if it can restore its unity, can still stop and beat back the present right-wing offensive…

“Today, the Labour right has the union leaderships and the help of the media, but it is very weak among the rank and file of the Labour Party… so the possibility of carrying through a purge of the Labour Party which will not gut it and immobilise it as an electoral force for years ahead depends on splitting the left.

“The right want to isolate and drive out the Marxists, selectively purge the fighting reformist left, and intimidate the rest of the left.”

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