The Momentum debate

By Lewis Bassett, Momentum member, Labour Party activist and researcher

Momentum in Lewisham attracts around 60 people to meetings in which they pass motions on the political positions they believe Momentum should adopt, they take seriously the business of electing delegates. Hackney Momentum have dropped out of the delegate process entirely. Momentum in Derbyshire has collapsed under the weight of factionalism and the tyranny of structurelessness. What explains this unevenness?

The development of Momentum reflects the complicated birth of left renewal from the surrogate of a deeply neoliberal Labour Party, conditions dictated by Britain’s first past the post democracy. Following from the swell of support built through Corbyn’s 2015 election campaign, in its infancy Momentum received not a shred of centralised leadership. Why? Corbyn’s offices, were under siege in Westminster and withstanding battery in the press, in this context Momentum represented another hot potato. A central office for Momentum was being formed in London around the ownership of data gathered in Corbyn’s leadership bid, in it two poles emerged: the first aimed to delimit the growth of local groups while the second, drawn from Corbyn’s movementist activists, sought to let a thousand flowers bloom. James Schneider, now working under Seumas Milne, represents this latter trend, a political current spanning the alter-globo movements of the 90’s and 00’s, Climate Camp, UK:Uncut, Occupy and so on. It was the advent of austerity combined by the spectacular emergence of “radical” social democratic parties on the continent that drove the movementists to Corbyn (for more on this, see my openDemocracy article here).

In Momentum’s office, the combined forces of obstruction and “horizontalist” structurelessness created a constitutional vacuum. It was into this gap that the trade unionist and Trotskyist left gained ascendance. Whether Hackney or Derby, all Momentum groups have had impressed upon them a typically trade unionists party-like structure: formal membership of individuals, local groups, group delegates to regional groups, regional delegate to a national committee (NC) and the national committee electing a steering Committee (SC). As this structure took shape it drew in the usual suspects of the traditional left. Now at its apex the Steering Committee includes a member of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, a well-known militant trade unionist, as well as Jon Lansman who obtained his seat by spurious methods.

Before a meeting of the NC this month the office launched MxV, an online platform where constitutional and programmatic proposals can be submitted and “liked” by individual members. Badly implemented and with the process unclear the MxV launch appears confused, at best.

Have the actions of the office been legitimate? On the one hand the trade-unionist structure that emerged in Momentum’s power vacuum can be thought of as alienating Momentum members with no time, ability or desire to attend local groups, particularly given the demands of other pressing forms of activism in and around the Labour Party. On the other, by undermining the NC the office appears to be seeking to trim-back the growth of Momentum as a form of counter power, a kind of mirror of the Labour Party with revolutionary socialist at its peak, a headache for those managing the media cycle.

But does that make the OMOV structure, which foregrounds online participation over group deliberation, a non-starter? I argue it doesn’t.

Form follows function, and Momentum’s constitutional crisis begs the question as to what the project is actually for? Other than representing a sea-change in Labour’s official ideology, the election of Corbyn represents the chance to democratise the Labour Party in the long term by giving Wards and CLPs equal or greater standing with Unions and the PLP. Making Wards and CLPs the vibrant political engine of Corbyn’s leadership should be obvious but at present Momentum serves as a distraction. It is of course in Labour’s structures, and through combining social mobilisation with government, where power lies.

The left in Labour needs an organising force, it desperately needs political education initiatives, coordinated campaigns and a gateway into the Party. It also needs to win a general election, climbing from minus 18 points in the polls. Any extra-Labour Party initiatives should of course be democratically accountable and its job offerings openly tendered and hired on a basis of merit.

To do this OMOV can play a role since it circumvents the need for group-based elections and hence the need for more meetings, more slates, more emails and more distracting competitions outside of the Party in circumstances where it is already a struggle to get new members to a Ward AGM, nevermind a Momentum one. Groups wherever healthy should play a roll. Stockport Momentum run a regular food bank and Momentum North East have started a brilliant initiative called Talk Socialism. These initiatives offer the left vital public interfaces and serve as a gateway to enter the Labour Party.

An argument against OMOV worries about the hierarchies of reputational status gained through unequal access to media platforms. First, this might not be as big a problem as we think it is: it is to the credit of those standing for national office if they are able to mobilise wide support. Second, this could be countered through technical measures, for instance localising an OMOV process where candidates for Momentum’s Steering Committee face a round of local or regional elections. Perhaps a combination of both is what’s needed.

Take a concrete programmatic issue, such as campaigns. The campaigns coordinated by central office could derive their intent from a platform similar to MxV, where initiatives are mooted and supported galvinised outside the platform either in local groups or online and the most popular campaigns adopted and coordinated by the leadership. The horizon of action, however, should be focused on Party before local Momentum groups. Likewise with policy: why deal with the middle man when positions can be adopted inside the Party at the local level? The left is the majority of members in Labour today, and so there seems little need to continue to play political games outside it. For socialism to win against an insurgent right Labour must become the political party that forms an active and transformative role in the lives of millions. Momentum’s structure should help guide and not displace that energy.

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