You don’t want Momentum to “replicate” Labour? Tell me what you mean…

A CLP meeting in Broxtowe, Nottinghamshire

By Nik Barstow, Stretford and Urmston CLP

“We do not want to be setting up a mirror organisation to the Labour Party. We exist to complement the Labour Party – and not to rival it. We do not want parallel structures, and do not want to replicate every left-wing organisation which has sought to set themselves up against Labour. We want structures which suit the real aims of Momentum and make Labour stronger, not weaker.”

So says a statement by Momentum supporters put out on in mid-December, setting down in writing an argument that has been used quite widely. Setting it down in writing is useful for facilitating debate – it has pushed me to write something on this, for instance, which I’ve been meaning to for a while. However, it begs a lot of questions, because what it is actually arguing is very much unclear.

“Setting up against Labour”

“Setting up against Labour” suggests a reference to organisations like the Socialist Alliance, Respect and TUSC, which stood candidates against Labour. Leaving aside the large political differences between these various projects: who in Momentum advocates counterposing Momentum to Labour in this way? And who in Momentum doesn’t advocate strengthening Labour? Yet the statement seems to nod towards Owen Jones’ claim that there is a faction who, having just joined Labour for opportunistic reasons, want Momentum to set up a rival party. This is nonsense. In fact many of those who signed the statement will have only joined Labour last year, while many of those it criticises have been members much longer – that division runs through both “sides”. In any case, no one is advocating setting up a rival party.

“Parallel structures”

What does rejecting “parallel structures” and a “mirror organisation to the Labour Party” mean? Many Momentum groups now have CLP caucuses and within that ward-level organisation – not to counterpose Momentum to the Labour Party, but to facilitate and organise involvement in the party. Are the authors of the statement arguing that such caucuses should not exist? Certainly some in the Momentum office have argued, or semi-argued, that. I suspect that some who have signed the statement are hostile to CLP caucuses, but not many or most are not – a difference papered over, once again, with a vague and confusing phrase.

Local CLP caucuses were generally set up in the summer, in response to the coup, as Momentum groups turned towards greater involvement in the Labour Party. Abolishing them would lessen Momentum involvement in the party. It would worsen the very serious and widespread problem of the large numbers of Corbyn-supporters who joined the party to vote but are much less keen to come to meetings or be active – which is why the right has kept control in so many areas.

Perhaps something else is meant by “parallel structures” – but then that needs to be explained.

“Momentum’s real aims”

This begs the question of what Momentum’s aims are. The statement does not say. This question has long been mired in confusion and lack of discussion. When Momentum was set up, there was months of confusion about whether it was a Labour-oriented organisation or not – with those at the centre veering and zig zagging between extremes of denying Momentum aimed to change the Labour Party at all and arguing that only Labour Party members should be allowed to join (and at some points saying both these things simultaneously).

Those arguing for a clear Labour-orientation and for anyone to be able to join as long as they support Labour won out (the latter distinction has become less important, as since last July virtually everyone in Momentum is a party member anyway, except for those expelled by the Compliance Unit). But the lack of clarity about aims continues.

The issue is posed by saying “We exist to complement the Labour Party”. What does complement mean? What kind of relationship does it imply? It seems to imply taking the Labour Party as it is, while organising separately from it in some spheres of activity. But I would argue that, while seeking to build and promote Labour, Momentum should not simply accept Labour as it is. It should be involving people in the party with the aim of transforming it, on a number of levels.

What that means in practice

Momentum groups should organise for Corbyn-supporters to win branch and CLP positions (whether this is done through formal or purely Momentum slates or not is a practical and tactical matter).
Momentum groups should seek to change the functioning of Labour Parties so they are much more open and accessible to membership involvement.
Momentum groups should try to turn Labour Parties outwards to on the streets and door-to-door campaigning on political isues (ie not just for elections – and we should change the way parties do electoral canvassing too).
Momentum groups should seek to establish left-wing policy by putting motions (and fight for existing policy to be acted on).

If making Labour stronger doesn’t involve those things, it’s hard to see what it means beyond recruiting more people to the party.

The issue of policy

If we are going to change what Labour is saying and turn the party outward, we need to put forward left-wing policy. It seems perverse to say that this can only be done through individuals, informal networks or at most local Momentum groups putting forward policy. The right does not limit itself in this way, whether or not it admits it.

No one is suggesting anything other than a very high degree of autonomy for local groups. But if we are going to change the Labour Party and change politics in a general and effective way, we need to debate what we want to promote at a wider-than-local level.

Not everyone would agree with that – we should have the debate. But the problem is shown by last year’s Labour Party conference, where Momentum had essentially no intervention (beyond a specific campaign by Momentum NHS). The argument that this was because of The World Transformed makes no sense; so does the argument it was because of focusing on the leadership campaign. It looks much more like it was because Momentum had little to say, or perhaps in part it was afraid of putting forward a coherent message. Contrast that to, for instance, Labour First on the right and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy on the left.

The Momentum office has started making calls about conference delegates. That’s good. But the risk is that the intervention will be purely technical and not political. If we are going to coordinate submission of policy, surely we should want it to grow out of a wider discussion about our organisation’s message and from some kind of democratic process – rather than people in the office writing motions off the top of their heads at the last minute. But that implies a debate about Momentum policy more generally.

In conclusion

At the moment, Momentum is in danger of mirroring or replicating all the most conservative aspects of the Labour Party – the hostility to local democracy, the blaming of the organisation’s problems on the far left, the dismissiveness of debate, political ideas, and program. The idea that Momentum is too organised in the Labour Party, or too focused on formulating and pushing forward political proposals in it, is absurd. Let’s drop the misleading stuff about “not replicating Labour” and instead seriously debate what Momentum should be doing in the party and beyond.

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