Momentum: welcome and worries (published October 2015)

Submitted by AWL on 13 October, 2015 - 5:36 Author: Martin Thomas

It’s good that people from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign team have launched a new grass-roots organisation, Momentum.

At all levels in the Labour Party, from the Parliamentary Labour Party through the head office and regional organisations, through council Labour groups, down to constituency officials, hold-overs from the Blair era are entrenched.

Unmindful of democracy, they will be hoping for a poor Labour showing in the May elections for local government, Scotland, Wales, and London, so that then they can make a coup against Corbyn.

Only if the 250,000 people who voted for Corbyn, and the tens of thousands who have joined the Labour Party since, become organised, can we make democracy prevail.

Luke Akehurst, secretary of the right-wing Labour First faction, has complained that it is “strange that the winning candidate in a Labour leadership election would sustain the life of their campaign after winning, rather than seeing their role now as having responsibility to unite the whole party”.

That’s cheeky. Labour First certainly didn’t disband when the right wing controlled the Labour Party leadership, as it has done since 1983. And the other Labour-right faction, Progress, better-funded (by Lord Sainsbury), wasn’t even formed until 1996, after Tony Blair had won leader.

The launch of Momentum will help spread the example given by Labour Young Socialists, Sheffield for Corbyn, Lewisham for Corbyn, Merseyside Labour Left, Newcastle Red Labour, and similar, of the left organising to draw in Labour’s newcomers and help them to become effective in building democratic and active and attractive constituency Young Labour groups and constituency Labour Parties.

The campaign team from Corbyn’s leadership campaign has been redistributed in two directions. Some have got jobs in the new Leader’s Office. Others, maybe the more grassroots-oriented types, are now launching Momentum.

They are doing so in difficult conditions, under fire from the right, and anxious to keep the sometimes fragile alliances of the campaign, including with union leaderships like Unite’s which can be pushy about where they want the left to line up.

Those difficulties partly explain, but do not erase, our worries about the way Momentum has been launched.

It has been launched with no promise of a democratic structure. In fact, inquirers have been told in so many words that a Momentum conference (the organisers “expect” it will have one) will have no power to take decisions. There may be some “plebiscitary” decision-making by electronic referendums of Momentum supporters.

The steering groups, so far as we understand, will be put together by delicate haggling at the top between Corbyn campaigners, some existing Labour left groups, pro-Corbyn unions, and pro-Corbyn MPs.

What if Momentum activists want the movement to oppose the Tory Trade Union Bill outright, rather than offering to accept the Tory ballot thresholds in return for other concessions, as Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has done?

What if they want an urgent campaign to scrap Trident, and are not happy with Len McCluskey’s interpretation of ambiguous Unite policy? (“We won’t be voting in favour of any anti-Trident resolution” — The Independent, 27 September). What if they want Momentum to oppose Osborne’s “fiscal charter”?

Worse, the publicity launching Momentum says nothing about who’s on the steering groups. The Labour Party under Blair was undemocratic, but at least you knew who was responsible for the bad decisions (Blair), and how to change them (oust him).

A launch email was signed by four Labour MPs — Clive Lewis, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Richard Burgon, and Kate Osamor — and recent ex-MP Katy Clark. But their names do not appear on the Momentum website, and they are not running the movement day to day.

Momentum is proposed as a composite structure, with an inside-the-Labour-Party element, and a “social movement” element. At present there is no way to join Momentum, rather than just to sign up to keep in touch with it, but the plan is that non-Labour people will be able to join equally with Labour people.

Naturally enough, the Socialist Party has indicated that it will join Momentum en masse, and so probably will the SWP, the Communist Party of Britain, etc. Local Labour left caucuses organising under the Momentum umbrella will have to call themselves “Labour Momentum”, not just “Momentum”.

Unity with SP and SWP people, and even with CPB people, is desirable in campaigns where we share clear-cut aims, and regular organised debate with them is desirable where we do not.

But this pantomime-horse structure makes Momentum effectively a new party intertwined with the Labour Party. (Except with no clearly stated political programme. And except that it will not stand candidates. But won’t it? What if a local Momentum group, angry at right-wing Labour councillors, wants to challenge them next May?)

The structure of the Labour Party has, historically, given enough of a frame to Labour left organisations (local left caucuses, and wider groups too: the Campaign Group Supporters’ Network, Labour Party Socialists, the Rank and File Mobilising Committee, the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory... back to Victory for Socialism or the Socialist League) that they can operate usefully and have at least some democratic mechanisms (conferences, named committees, elections) without demanding “discipline” and without being continually convulsed by battles for control.

Those have always been much weaker and more blurred than the informed democracy which an activist Marxist organisation needs and can generate, but they have served their limited purpose.

For a notionally more ambitious operation, effectively a near-full-fledged party, to have structures which are, as some in the Labour Representation Committee group (LRC) have said, “an amorphous mess” — that makes for rancour and squabbles, not democratic cooperation.

Both the lack of democratic mechanisms, and the Rube Goldberg structure, are defended as necessary to give equal weight to sympathisers who participate only online with those who come to meetings.

The idea here is just wrong. Even if Facebook introduces an “angry” emoji as an option alongside the “Like” button (as apparently it will: Independent 10 October), capitalism will not be overthrown by millions of “angry” clicks, but only in the streets and in the workplaces, where people organise face-to-face.

Participation, involvement, getting together, discussing, debating, forming cohesion — those should be our mottos, rather than surfing on a wave of slacktivism.

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