by Michael Chessum
(This article was originally published by Michael as a statement, and we reproduced it. For a reply by Jackie Walker, see here.)
Watching the public reaction to the removal of Jackie Walker as Vice Chair of Momentum’s Steering Committee has been both revealing and frustrating. The episode appears to have opened a series of debates which have been simmering for some time, but in the most distorted and unhelpful of ways – most importantly around a democratic deficit in Momentum.
Unfriendly attempts to explain the Steering Committee’s motivations are, partly as a consequence of this, warped. We are accused of attempting to stitch up a factional opponent in order to protect our unaccountable leadership (nothing could be further from the truth; I and others on the Committee who voted to remove Walker are not homogeneous – among us are the ones pushing for a democratic conference, and for a rapid opening of Momentum’s democracy). Others accuse us of being part of a “Zionist conspiracy”, or, a slender step down from this in terms of grasping reality, of being controlled by, or “sleeper members” of, the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL). Finally, some claim that our removal of Walker was at root “bowing to pressure from the right and the press”.
It is this last accusation that causes me greatest trouble, because it perhaps contains a grain of truth, though in the end I don’t think it stands up. For me, removing Walker as Vice Chair was the right and principled thing to do. I now have a duty to publicly explain my thinking and actions.
One important thing to take away from the current controversy is actually how little has happened, and how much common ground there is. Walker is still on the Steering Committee, and is being actively defended against expulsion from the Labour Party. The problem that I had was with Walker saying what she said, in the way that she said it, effectively on behalf of Momentum, as its Vice Chair.
What is the “Vice Chair”?
Walker’s role as Vice Chair (or indeed Jon Lansman’s role as Chair or my role as Treasurer) did not derive from a mandate from the movement. At the first meeting of the elected Steering Committee in February, the three of us volunteered for the roles and were appointed without even a contested election on the committee. The Steering Committee has every democratic right to remove any of us. It does not have the right to remove us from the Committee altogether, a move which I would have opposed on those grounds.
Reasons why I didn’t vote for it
There were good reasons and bad reasons to make the decision we made, and it cannot be denied that plenty of bad reasons were presented, either in discussions or in the press. In the aftermath of the events at conference, briefings flew across the press. The fact that the Steering Committee was meeting on Monday was communicated to the Guardian (as it happens, by mistake and as a result of a misunderstanding) before I knew about it.
Most damaging among these briefings were the widely reported quotes from the TSSA General Secretary, which threatened to revoke sponsorship from Momentum – including our office space – if we did not reach a particular conclusion, and quickly. This is a bad way for an affiliated union to behave. Momentum must be independent, and must make decisions based on the interests of the movement, not coercion from union bureaucracies, sects or sponsors. In the end I think we did, but these reports were unhelpful.
So to be clear, I did not vote to remove Walker in order to enable better press management, or to soothe relations with the TSSA. Neither did I vote for remove her because her actions were a “reputational” risk to Momentum. Sometimes it is our job to get flak, and ultimately to cause reputational damage, by arguing for ideas and policies.
For instance, there is a case that we should challenge a narrative that takes criticism of Israeli policy as anti-Semitism (a narrative which certainly exists), even if doing so would cause a few bad headlines.
Reasons why I voted for it
But that is not what Walker was doing. In fact, none of Walker’s reported comments have been about Palestine and Israel. Instead, she was reported saying that Jewish schools may well not need police protection; that Holocaust Memorial Day should focus on other genocides as well, or non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust (which it already does); that there was no definition of anti-Semitism that she could agree with; and, previously, that Jews (including her ancestors) were the “chief financiers” of the slave trade (which is plainly untrue).
If a member of Momentum’s Steering Committee had shown up at a Black Lives Matter event at Labour conference and started arguing that “all lives matter”, they would rightly be rebuked and asked to justify themselves. We would not remove them from positions of authority automatically, but we would expect contrition, and a demonstration of understanding that their comments were wrong, or caused offense.
So the problem for me was not just what Walker said, but the manner in which she wentabout doing it. Walker actively sought out a public controversy around her views on anti-Semitism, finding wandering journalists to talk to. She chose to attend a semi-public event hosted by the Jewish Labour Movement, knowing that the audience would be hostile and her contribution likely reported, to make the latest batch of remarks. When the news broke, rather than consulting colleagues and handling the issue strategically, she went on national TV.
This behaviour goes beyond “being a liability” or “bringing Momentum into disrepute” (which, as I say, I don’t necessarily have a problem with). It is politically irresponsible – putting one’s own personal agenda above the needs of the movement.
What made all of this worse, and what made me sure of how I was voting, was the fact that Walker simply did not accept that any of her actions were problematic. There was no admission that they had been insensitive, or had reproduced anti-Semitic tropes, or were ill-informed, or were a distortion of history.
Deeper questions on anti-Semitism and the left
What I had to ask myself was what would happen if someone in Momentum’s elected leadership had said similar things which concerned a less ‘contested’ form of racism? Why should anti-Semitism be any different? Why should Jews expect lower standards from the left? Is it because sensitivity over anti-Semitism is ‘toxified’ by debates over Israel? Then how do we explain the fact that, until it was raised as a supposed motive for Walker’s detractors, Zionism and Israel had not featured other than as a backdrop?
It is precisely because the definition of anti-Semitism can be misused that we must be clear and frank about the realities of anti-Semitism. It is precisely because there is a witch hunt underway in the Labour Party against some Corbyn supporters that we must be consistent (and therefore nuanced) about our defence of those members. If the left fails to take anti-Semitism seriously, it doesn’t just “put Jews off the left”, or “harm our reputation” – it harms our intellectual clarity and political integrity, as well as our credibility in the fight against suspensions and expulsions (including Jackie’s).
The bigger picture in Momentum
In Momentum’s internal politics, there is a very real danger that Walker’s removal as Vice Chair will become a defining moment – a polarisation between an out-of-touch centre and an exasperated grassroots. This would be the worst possible way to pose an essential question.
At Momentum’s grassroots, there is a growing feeling that the organisation lacks organisational accountability and democracy, and this feeling is broadly accurate. On the Steering Committee, I spend most of my time arguing for fresh democratic structures. Along with others, I regularly scrutinise who is making decisions and how. Over the summer, I called for the National Committee to reconvene in order to allow local groups and regions to exercise a voice over the campaign and to think about the coming months. (I was in a minority on this point, with Jackie voting against).
Even for those who are vehemently against Walker’s removal as Vice Chair, I would make a plea for clarity and separation between that action and Momentum’s wider democratic progress. Any credible attempt to democratise and improve Momentum, let alone the wider Labour movement, cannot begin by hitching one to the other.
Ultimately, I voted for Walker’s removal because I thought there was no alternative. We cannot allow the project we are engaged in building – which aims at nothing less than the total transformation of British politics – to be derailed by recurring scandals over barely defensible remarks. In that wider picture, we have to find a way of putting this episode in context, learning lessons, and working together.