Democracy, trade unions and Labour – ideas on the kind of movement we need


By Maria Exall

This discussion document is an attempt to draw out the significant issues that have arisen in the debate within Momentum about its future orientation, decision making and policy making structures. The election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party is the biggest opportunity for making the case for socialism within British politics for a generation. We must make the most of this opportunity and that includes making the right decisions on the structure of Momentum.


• The purpose of Momentum should be to make Labour a political party which represents the interests of the working class, promoting socialist policies, and politically educating younger workers and activists.

• Momentum should campaign against racism, sexism and homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, and prejudice against disabled people in society and argue for positive action in the Labour Party on equality.

• Momentum should work to build up decision making in CLPs that is representative of and accountable to Labour’s grassroots members through promoting General Committee structures and trade union links.

• A delegate led democratic structure within Momentum is necessary so local groups and affiliated Unions are empowered and members are actively involved in collective decision making.

• Momentum should encourage digital campaigning by the Labour Party but not that which undermines affiliated organisations, or is just ‘quick fix’ policy making. We have to argue and convince people of our politics.

• Momentum should support workers fighting back both industrially and politically against the inequalities and injustices of capitalism in Britain and throughout the world and ensure that the Labour Party supports this.

1. The purpose of Momentum

The differing views of the future structure of Momentum highlight contrasting understandings of its function within the Labour Party and, implicitly, the vision of the future of the Labour Party under its current leadership. We need to build a structure for Momentum that develops the Party’s political agenda so that we can win the support of working class people in Britain for a socialist future.

Some see the purpose of Momentum as making the Labour Party a ‘social movement’, but this is a very unclear objective which means different things to different people. Instead we should aim to make Labour a 21st century political party which represents the interests of the working class and promotes socialist policies. The representation of working class interests by a Parliamentary Party, and the support of the majority and diversity of working class voters for such a political party are central for anyone who wishes to see socialism in Britain. We don’t just want a mass party: we want a mass party of the working class and for the working class.

If Momentum wishes to promote the voice of working class people in the Labour Party and in Parliament it needs to work with (and help renew) the left in the organised working class, i.e. in the Trade Unions. Momentum should prioritise developing Trade Union links. These links should not just be about funding, or ‘formal’ support, or adding hundreds of thousands of trade union members to the hinterland of digital campaigning. Momentum should support the greater democratisation of Union political structures and through this the involvement of grassroots trade union members in the Labour Party. It should build up and campaign to increase the Unions affiliated to Labour. It should defend the LP-TU link in the Labour Party’s structure and make it a focus for the development of greater working class membership, activists, and candidates for Parliament.

Momentum also has an important part to play in helping to enthuse young workers to join the Labour Party – and for young people to get active within trade unions. We can argue the case for a focus on trade unionism with young people who are inspired by the progressive social issues embraced by the leftward shift in the Labour Party. We can argue the case to young activists for political trade unionism that makes the link between the industrial and political struggles, a trade unionism that is part of a wider labour movement for changing society and the world.


2. Momentum and Equality

Momentum should develop the connections with working class community campaigns for equality (not just with communalist groups) and with liberation groups that work on the ground. Much work has been done for decades to challenge racism, sexism and homophobia in the Trade Union movement and in the Labour Party. More recently it has been recognised that we need much more work to challenge prejudice against people with disabilities and transphobia.

It is the case however that in the last year or so since the resurgence of the left in the Party inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, equality in political debate in general and, let us be honest, within the Labour Party itself, has gone backwards. A lot of Labour Party members left and right still don’t get why equality and diversity are important. In the long run we will make a stronger left case if we take equality seriously and don’t sacrifice equality principles for political expediency.

Momentum should develop democratic liberation structures of its own to ensure the full diversity of working class is represented. It is not enough to have representatives on the National Committee when Momentum Women, BME, LGBT and Disabled members structures are currently underdeveloped. Momentum liberation groups should campaign on key equality issues and promote these within the Labour Party. We should acknowledge that sexism, homophobia, anti semitism, racism, prejudice and discrimination against disabled people still exists in the labour movement and amongst the left.

We should encourage appropriate Labour Party structures of self organisation. We should build on the progressive Rule Change at this year’s Labour party Conference, sponsored by the affiliated Unions, that has set up a process for democratising Labour Party Women’s Conference. We should look to campaign for the same democratisation, of delegate democracy, motions from local Parties and national affiliates, for policy input into the NPF and to the Annual Labour party conference for LGBT Labour, BME Labour groups and Disabled Labour.

3. Building up representative democracy at local level in the Labour Party

A passive membership that never, or hardly ever, attends meetings or events where policy is made and decisions are made is liable to be subject to manipulation by those with more knowledge and control of key channels of communication. There is a danger that we may have a mass increase in membership but only mass involvement of a very superficial kind. It is not sufficient to have a left version of the Blairite dominance of the Party structures driven by the leadership that persisted for many years, which suppressed activist engagement on policy and political strategy.

a. Decision making in the Labour Party

All members meetings and ‘direct democracy’ are not adequate to achieve an empowerment of the Party membership on their own, and used as a shortcut can actually set back the development of proper accountable decision making processes and structures at local level. There are labour movement traditions which have contributed to the best of Labour Party structures than remain extremely relevant and pertinent to the current political situation.

Members currently directly participate in decision making for leader, deputy leader, NEC and some positions on the NPF, and (after initial processes) for local Mayors and MPs. All other positions within the party, nominations and, crucially, decisions on policy are made by activists attending meetings and selections. It is important to have the most appropriate democratic structure for the different kinds of decision making within a political Party.

There is a case for building up properly representative structures in CLPs so collective decisions made by local members can be taken forward in a coherent and accountable way.

b. The case for a GC structure

At present CLPs have the right to hold all members meetings, policy forums on particular topics (where people may be invited to participate who are not members) General Committees and Executive Committees. But the most appropriate place for decision making has to be the GC. This is because it is the structure where the whole of the Party membership is represented – by delegates with a mandate from Wards/Branches and delegates from affiliated organisations. This representation is on ECs too, but obviously GCs include more people. This is the involvement of activists at all levels and is how we can develop local Parties on the ground.

The problem is that previously in the years of Blairite dominance GCs were downgraded (in the name of OMOV!) and often CLPs just had all member meetings for outside speakers/discussions and ECs for decisions and organisation. I think Momentum activists should campaign for GCs to have a compulsory minimum number of meetings a year. Greater individual memberships in CLPs should be an incentive to develop this representative structure where it does not exist. GC meetings are the best opportunity for collective informed debate rather than rhetoric or grandstanding.

To take the example of my own CLP, our GC of a 100-150 delegates will make a better decision and involve more people (through the representation of ward and affiliated delegates) than the all members meetings which can have 400 or more (in many CLPs, note, this number will be much lower, creating a different problem). The number of people attending the combined Ward meetings (not to mention activists from affiliated organisations who will have their own decision making meetings) will exceed the numbers involved in all members meetings. Also a meeting of 400 individuals or so is a rally, and it is difficult to have detailed or developed debate with such large numbers in an evening meeting (a day Conference maybe more appropriate). Also such large rally style meetings, where people do not know others, lend themselves to grandstanding scenarios rather than debate. In areas outside of big urban conurbations a GC structure is more likely also to allow for a fair geographical representation.

Further, and this is crucial, representative democracy (i.e. electing delegates to act on your behalf and then holding them to account) is actually a good thing. With proper accountability it has much greater reach and validity than individual clickactivism and all members meetings.

c. Building up the trade union link

To develop CLPs as working class based local parties with a reach into the electorate we must build up affiliations from local Union branches and encourage them to send delegates regularly. The regional TULO structures should support local Trade Union Liason officers who should be empowered to be proactive about maximising involvement of local Union branches with CLPs. There could be programmes of political education on policy topics and regionally based training for potential local Government or Parliamentary candidates. The way forward for developing the political structure of affiliated organisations should be a matter for them, but a CLP can (and the national LP for that matter) facilitate an interface and encourage more Union delegates. We should look to promote the idea of workplace branches.

4. Problems with ‘digital democracy’

Digital communication should be used to distribute information about Momentum and Labour Party activities, campaigns and policies and encourage participation in Momentum and Labour Party meetings and events. In a very limited way digital communication is appropriate for feeding into policy development but it is not helpful for most policy and decision making at national and local level. The ability to express an opinion online is one thing – but having to deal with the challenges face to face of your opinion, or of your opinion being tested by actually going out to persuade people of your view (and that they should vote for it) – is quite another.

There is a widespread assumption that digital “conferences” and digital decision and policy making is a good way to involve more and a wider diversity of people can be challenged for the following reasons.

Empowering Regional Organisation and local groups: We want to set up a process that will encourage the development of local groups and regional co ordination. This means we need to have power in local groups not only nationally. It also implies a delegate based democratic structure where change happens from the bottom up.

Trade Union involvement with Momentum: You cannot have a meaningful affiliate structure if decision making happens solely through direct digital voting. It is not possible to respect the democracy of affiliated organisations and impose an OMOV form of digital democracy – the Unions have their own structure of decision making. The representative democracy in affiliated organisations means that we have a link to potentially hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of working people not just the ones who join Momentum as individuals.

Educating activists, especially youth: These will become activists but we should be developing and politically educating the ones that may. The best way to do this is for them to attend Momentum meetings, and Labour Party policy events and Conferences, and to go campaigning with and get to know other Momentum and Labour Party members. Then they can make informed decisions about local fellow comrades after knowing them, and about policies after discussion with others.

Digital voting infantilises policy debates: Plebiscites and referendums on policy are almost always a bad idea. They are just a snapshot of already existing views and do not allow for development through education including face to face discussion and debate.

Using social media networking is not more ‘democratic’: Indeed it can reinforce the existing power relations as much as mainstream media. The same issues of ownership and control apply (to data ownership, to employment relations, to accountability for content etc).

Digital voting can lead to superficial engagement: The ability to network on line becomes key rather than what people stand for and what work they are prepared to do with others. Also digital engagement is not necessarily more inclusive. Many people do not have effective access to digital comms, a few through lack of internet access, many more through lack of ability to use comms effectively and even more just lack of time/articulacy/information.

We need an annual Conference of Momentum where decision making at this Conference should be based on representation from local groups and affiliates, and that means delegates. Smaller elected bodies (a National Committee and a Steering/Executive Committee probably) should be given the mandate by the Conference to run the organisation. You cannot respond as an organisation in any significant way to contemporary political events without some democratic structure at the centre.

Momentum at present has representation on its NC and SC from already existing left Labour organisations that mostly do (imperfectly for sure) represent policies and positions that have been adopted after debate and decision (LRC, CLPD etc). Any future structure has to take this into account in some way.

5. Some cultural/structural criticisms

We want Labour to campaign on issues which draws sharp class lines rather than just promote an ‘alternative’ vision of society which we expect individuals ‘in the know’ to understand. We need to popularise basic messages about a policies such as the case for public ownership and control of sectors of the economy, defending public services and extending rights at work and challenging the deep injustice of capitalist society. We need to pick important and relevant issues that unite working class people and challenge so called economic orthodoxy.

The point is to win mass support for our objectives. That is why we need Momentum to be a political faction which promotes political debate that is grounded in the interests of the working class rather than just promoting a ‘social movement’ model. The social movement model of political involvement is often perceived as a participatory model of democracy with the implication this will necessarily undermine top down control and perceived elitism of political representatives. But who participates? and who controls? The demography of social movement campaign leaders can be as elitist (and some) as current Parliamentary representatives – and they are also subject to less accountability (ie are unelected).

The reality is that in a class society those who occupy the leadership and control structure of an organisation, make decisions on strategy and policy orientation, will predominately be those who already have privilege in our society, and an unelected structure certainly ensures that! The reality is ‘social movement’ media and camaigning models only exist because of significant funding and a workforce which is dependent on this funding. In a class based society those with more ‘privilege’ (time to be an activist, resources to support being an activist, and not least the confidence and the education which develops the perceived ‘skills’ to be an activist) will end up in control.

Through digital engagement machine politics now can be done remotely. The new careerists that result from this (actually very old) politics may be left(ish), as the times are, but are unreconstructed in their superior and elitist approach. A casual view of the two main groups that have come to the fore in Momentum centrally in its first phase of development – those working in ‘independent’ media, and political staffers- would bear out this critique.

6. We need a conception of 21st century collective organisation and action on which to base the ‘new politics’, not the myths of ‘post capitalism’

I will conclude with a more ideological outline of an explanation of the difference in positions on matters of democracy within Momentum and the left. The neo liberal consensus of the last (nearly) four decades has encouraged a belief in the power of individualism whilst at the same time capitalist economic development has led to more sophisticated interdependent social relations between producers and massively increased connectivity between consumers. This contradiction has to be understood for what it is. But some left commentators who should know better seem to be promoting a mystification on this vital matter. The working class are not living through ‘a moment of sublation’ as left commentator Paul Mason maintains, with ‘networked individuals’ being the new agents of change rather than the traditional proletariat. The economic development of the fourth industrial revolution, Mason and others say, is changing the nature of class relations and collectivism understood as class solidarity is on the way out. This is the myth that lies behind the failure of some in Momentum to take on board the need to develop a 21st century understanding of collective involvement of the actually existing working class, our interests and aspirations.

Subjectively the modern work experience is overwhelmingly this: greater stress, insecurity and meaninglessness. New technologies have been used to make work processes more efficient and relentless and also enhanced incredibly the ability to undertake surveillance of work activity (‘time and motion’) on an unbelievable scale. Objectively the development of the digital economy and the use of digital platforms have added to work intensification and have massively increased productivity pressures. We are working harder and (many of us) for less than 30 years ago. The developments in technology have also aided increasing differentiation within the working class with jobs becoming increasingly ‘lovely’ or ‘lousy’, with a lot more becoming lousy.

These changes in technology, and the new forms of work that result have not changed class relations and the alienation that results from this. Arguably they have sharpened aspects of the class struggle with the proletarianisation of the professions aided by sophisticated management techniques developed through the greater ability to instrumentalise performance at work.

The ‘fourth industrial revolution’ is just another stage in the massively increased inequality between owners of capital and those of us who sell our labour power to capitalists, and has accentuated the differentiation in working class jobs that has taken place since the mid 1970’s.The ‘crisis’ in skill, autonomy and status that the expansion of the service sectors of the economy and new work processes we are experiencing is a remaking of the working class not its end. Work remains the focus of both exploitation and resistance.

There are two aspects of the myth of ‘postcapitalism’ that need to be directly challenged; firstly that we are destined for a workless future, and secondly that the digital revolution has changed the nature and centrality of work as the defining activity of capitalism, with the corollary that there is a knowledge based route out of capitalist exploitation.

Firstly then, the view that automation will lead to a workless future is not new. It was said in the 1950s and has been repeated periodically since then. The exponential expansion of the possibilities of Artificial Intelligence is new (ish) but, notwithstanding all the interesting questions about the relationship of human and machine ‘intelligence’, the hype is not born out by practical effects. The case for a workless future has been used to justify the policy of a universal basic income which encourages working people to give up on the aspiration for a decent collective welfare system that would offer us protection outside of our working lives – i.e. proper social security – and progressive fiscal policies.

Secondly, the new forms of work processes developed by the use of digital technology actually have replicated and expanded some very old employment practices both by employers and workers. The vast majority those working to digital platforms without being employees (the ‘gig economy’) are actually already employed and are ‘moonlighting’. Self employment is not a new dynamic expanding area of the economy – for millions it is just low/ mediocre pay without any of the protections of a contract. There is a long tradition of ‘bogus’ self employment in the construction sector– the lump – and now because of weakness in union organisation in many other areas this employment model has been re-invigorated. In expanding areas of the economy from parcel delivery to social care ‘piece work’ is often the norm.

The experience of workers getting together in Deliveroo, Sports Direct, ASOS, Picturehouses and Hermes has shown that workers organisation and importantly a self conscious political trade unionism can deliver concessions from capitalism in 2016 in the new expanding areas of the economy. In these new areas, and in the already organised sectors where there is union recognition, we have to show that it pays to be organised and fight back industrially and politically. In the end we have to go back to these basics if we are to go forward. Collective organisation from the bottom up, with the voice of those working at the sharp end directly inputting into the decisions that affect their daily working lives, and our right to call our workplace representatives properly to account, is fundamental. The political voice of Labour depends for its legitimacy on this.

• Maria is an activist in the Communication Workers’ Union and member of the LRC national committee. She writes here in a personal capacity.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply?


  1. I agree that it is important to make clear that organised labour unions are still very important,however it seems to me that Maria Exhall is more interested in keeping power in fewer hands than extending party democracy in a welcoming way.She used the word “structure”no less than twelve times,this tells me her interests lie in getting her own way.

  2. Really? Because she uses the word structure twelves times in almost 4,000 words?!

    I can’t speak for Maria but what strikes me is the danger of the tyranny of structurelessness.

  3. Thanks Maria for a contribution which will reward re-reading. I wonder if four decades of neoliberalism hasn’t affected the Left itself. It seems to me that many in Momentum are liberals not socialists. They are capitalism-tolerant. Is this not the elephant in the room in the organisation’s recent divisions? When you write of the need for Momentum to promote socialist policies, and for it and Labour to campaign to make public ownership and control of the economy popular, this rather presupposes a commitment to public ownership in the first place. So far, as I understand it, the only Labour commitment is to nationalise the railways, at a snail’s pace.

    Yet so many private sectors are failing the people – and failing them badly! Public ownership should be at the heart of a dynamic economic investment programme. I would like Momentum to promote the substantial extension of public ownership, the renationalisation of the so-called “utilities” and the nationalisation of banking, financial services, construction and pharmaceuticals. Public ownership should also make inroads into the retail supermarket sector. Crucially, too, there needs to be a discussion about the ownership of the media.

    Under neoliberalism there has been scant debate about the practicalities and organisation of such a programme under globalisation. I do hope that this site will be used to explore the politics of public ownership in depth.

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