By Sacha Ismail, Lewisham Momentum activist
What is this row in Momentum all about?
In the first instance it’s about whether Momentum is a democratic organisation in a meaningful sense.
On 28 October the majority on the Momentum national Steering Committee, having repeatedly cancelled meetings of the National Committee (the body which originally elected it), voted to cancel the NC again. The NC is now due to meet on 10 December, by which time it will not have met for seven highly eventful months! Moreover those who led the push to cancel the 5 November meeting opposed setting a new date and now seem to be looking for an excuse to cancel 10 December.
The Steering Committee also voted, after the proposal was raised out of the blue at the 28 October meeting, which had been called with less than a day’s notice, to shortcircuit ongoing discussions in the organisation about how its national structures should be designed by imposing an undemocratic system in which there is no real national conference and members vote on (some) policy in online ballots
How are decisions taken in Momentum?
Momentum was initially set up “from above”, as an offshoot of and with contacts from the Jeremy Corbyn leadership campaign. In its first months, it had an office, but no structure and no system of membership. There was initially, behind the scenes, a sort of steering committee of left MPs, but as we understand it that never functioned regularly. Simultaneously numerous local groups were set up from below, some of them Corbyn for leader campaign groups that pre-existed Momentum and others set up once the organisation was established.
In January this year, an attempt to set up an essentially appointed National Committee collapsed after a revolt by many local groups and the Momentum office staff. There then emerged a system in which the majority of NC delegates were elected by regional meetings made up of two delegates from each group. This system was designed, it should be noted, by those on the Steering Committee now disparaging it.
This structure was far from perfect but it did serve to bring some coordination, networking and democracy to Momentum. The NC met in February and elected the Steering Committee. It met again in May – and then the Steering Committee started cancelling meetings.
The reason seems to be that the NC showed too much life. Moreover a number of democratic-minded socialists were elected to the Steering Committee and formed a no doubt irritating opposition there.
Since May regional delegates to the NC have been re-elected at least once and in many cases more than once. The Steering Committee elected in February was due to face re-election by the NC, but has not done so because there has been no NC meeting since May.
Now, with opposition to what has been called a “coup” by the Steering Committee, such issues seem to be coming to a head.
Is this just about structures or are there substantive political differences?
Those opposing the Steering Committee majority generally want an activist organisation based on local groups, which get people out on the streets and campaign systematically in the Labour Party, and which therefore debate the ideas and policies to put forward on the streets and in Labour. “The other side”, as far as we can see, generally wants a sort of Labour-focused version of the 38 Degrees organisation, which has an unelected Board of worthies, an appointed office staff, and members connected mostly by electronic communications from and occasional “consultations” by the office.
Related to that is how clearly socialist, and amicably and constructively critical of the Corbyn leadership and willing to build pressure on it, Momentum should be.
Isn’t this about far left groups versus the bulk of Momentum members?
No. That is self-justifying demagogy. The evidence so far suggests it is about the great majority of the thousands active in Momentum groups, and their representatives in the regional networks and the NC, versus the Steering Committee majority and a minority they have convinced or who are with them for reasons of convenience. The Fire Brigades Union is also supporting the opposition to the Steering Committee. Within two days of 28 October, four of the eleven Momentum regions had voted to condemn the Steering Committee’s actions by huge margins, with more likely to follow.
Momentum’s membership grew hugely during the coup against Corbyn. Most of its 20,000 members have never been to a meeting or an activity; some live in areas where there is no active group. No one knows for sure what they think. Democracy should mean involving them in well-informed discussions where they can shape their own ideas, not just giving them occasional electronic ballots (like 38 Degrees) on questions chosen by the office and inevitably over-influenced by the capitalist media.
But I read that the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is trying to take over Momentum.
The socialist organisation AWL is active in Momentum and influential in some groups and areas. But it is a tiny minority among delegates to the National Committee, with two members out of about 60 [this later grew to three]. Socialist Appeal, the only other socialist organisation present on the committee, has one member. The idea that these groups are “taking over” Momentum is of the same sort as the media smears which condemn strikes as being engineered by one or two Trotskyists in a workplace.
In the current row about democracy, the AWL is on the same side as many people who vehemently disagreed with it in an earlier argument about Jackie Walker and anti-semitism (as well as many who did agree with it). In fact the movement for democracy in Momentum unites a very wide range of people.
The idea that democratic structures in Momentum should be rejected because they might allow this or that left-wing tendency to dominate makes no sense except as an argument against democracy in general.
Surely Momentum’s politics need to stay broad, otherwise we’ll have splits?
Momentum is a new and broad organisation. It needs to move slowly and carefully in developing policy and politics. But no organisation which aspires to play a serious role in the labour movement and wider society can avoid formulating political positions and debating ideas. The problem with failing to do so was shown, for instance, by Momentum’s almost total failure to do anything organised inside or even on the doors of the Labour Party conference on 24-28 September.
The real divide is not between people recklessly seeking to impose a very detailed, ultra-radical program on Momentum, thus creating some sort of sectarian bearpit, and people who are more sober and reasonable. It is between those who want Momentum to discuss politics and develop policies at all, however gradually, and those who prefer the 38 Degrees model.
Momentum groups are not being torn apart by different socialists tearing strips off each other about political program – and no one who knows anything about it seriously believes otherwise. Instead division and outrage is being generated by the actions of people at the top whose fear of political discussion and debate is leading them to suppress democracy in the organisation.
A positive example: there were debates about what position Momentum should take in the EU referendum – a pressing issue in the world that demanded a stance. Some argued that it would be too divisive for Momentum to take a position. In fact, after debate, the advocates of a left “remain” vote won and the relatively small but substantial minority accepted it. That was ok – in fact it was good.
Shouldn’t we focus on campaigning, not these kind of internal rows?
Most campaigning (not enough, but most) is being done by Momentum groups, not the centre, which has done very little to encourage activity. That failure at the centre relates to the way Momentum is run, described above. Those fighting for democracy in Momentum have also led the way in pushing for national campaigning – on the NHS, in support of strikes and for migrants’ rights, for instance, as well as at Labour Party conference.
More immediately, the rows generated by bureaucratic manipulation are sapping activists’ energy, distracting from campaigning, work in the Labour Party and useful discussion about Momentum’s structures and procedures. Normal, minimally reasonable democratic functioning would allow us to redirect that wasted energy into useful work.
At the same time we have no option but to fight to democratise the organisation – which in turn will open up the possibility of more national campaigning.
Isn’t “one member one vote” the most democratic system?
Not necessarily. It depends what you mean by “OMOV”. Local general meetings of members in which everyone has a vote (which you could call OMOV) exist in the local groups and are good – but the Steering Committee majority seems not very keen on them. Less frequent regional general meetings could work too. A national committee elected by and accountable to a national conference seems best to me, but I wouldn’t die in a ditch about the idea of some of the committee being elected by OMOV.
But the idea of not having a decision-making conference and instead having “decisions” made through online votes is pseudo-democratic and manipulative. Unlike real-world general meetings and delegate conferences, it allows for no real deliberation, challenges, amendments, persuasion or democratic control; it puts power in the hands of a bureaucracy that sets the questions and of the capitalist media. It makes it impossible for members to decide what they want to propose and what they will vote on, rather than just being able to click “yes” or “no” online to choices formulated by the office – or by a convoluted system of procedures that will, at the end of the day, come down to control or domination by the office.
Such systems have been used to undermine both democracy and political radicalism in left-wing parties such as the Brazilian PT and Podemos.
Wasn’t it an OMOV system that elected Jeremy Corbyn?
Sort of. A more OMOV-based system replaced a partially OMOV-based one. But when the right-wing introduced that system, they thought it would undermine the left. The history of other left parties and of Labour itself suggested that they were right – though it didn’t turn out that way. They used exactly the same sort of arguments the Momentum Steering Committee majority is using now, as the Blairites did when attacking party democracy in the 1990s.
In the early 80s, when the system in which only MPs elected the Labour leader was replaced by the MPs-unions-members “electoral college”, the most radical Labour democrats favoured electing the entire leadership from Labour Party conference (in those days a much livelier body).
Obviously we wouldn’t want to go back to MPs getting a vote, but the current system is not so great. For instance, it has undermined the structural positions trade unions have in the Labour Party. It has also helped encourage the already widespread idea that you can change things just by casting a vote (probably online) rather than by engaging in meetings and activity. That idea is a product of a period of defeat and retreat for the labour movement: something we should challenge, not encourage.
In any case, even if you’re not sure about that, to transform Labour we need to go a lot further than electing a left leader. We need (among many other things) the left to campaign and win majorities, left-wing policy positions, active campaigning, etc, in local parties, at Labour conference, on the NEC and so on. Those democratic structures should be strengthened: they should not be replaced with online voting.
But there are so many different views on this. The Steering Committee wants to put the different options out to the membership – what’s wrong with that?
That’s how it’s been spun, but it’s not true. The Steering Committee has already decided that policy-making will be by online vote – that is not being consulted on. That is the major question in dispute!
The decision on structures should be made by the only democratic national body Momentum has – the National Committee. It should not be made by a small Steering Committee whose mandate has long expired.
If the Steering Committee meeting on Wednesday 2 November doesn’t restore the 5 November NC meeting, then many NC delegates will be attending the unofficial meeting called by FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack and other NC and SC members on 5 November in Birmingham. There, they will discuss how best to keep on building Momentum as an active, democratic, class-struggle-oriented, and socialist movement.
Let us know what you think? Write a reply? firstname.lastname@example.org
For a lot more on what is going on in Momentum, see Momentum Steering Committee Jill Mountford’s blog: jillsmomentumblog.wordpress.com