by Edd Mustill
James McAsh has written a typically thoughtful and thought-provoking contribution to the ongoing debate within Momentum for Novara, to which this article is a reply.
I agree that the current debate is happening back-to-front. We are discussing Momentum’s structures without having openly discussed and decided upon the purpose of the organisation. When Momentum was founded in late 2015, it should either have been launched with a specific, well-defined purpose in mind, or come to an agreement on its purpose very quickly, but neither of these things happened. Meanwhile, the large numbers of people who were drawn into Labour politics by the Corbyn campaign’s victory started doing what came naturally: they turned up to their local Labour meetings, and they started meeting together as like-minded activists.
This quickly led to a situation where people developed a very strong affinity with Momentum as a name, an organisation, or (*shudder*) a “brand,” without having necessarily reached any agreement about what it was all for. Being a “Momentum person” could mean all sorts of things, politically, to different people. Ironically, this is similar to the situation in the Labour Party, where everyone professes to holding “Labour values” despite this being an ill-defined phrase which can mean twenty different things to ten different people.
It is this strong sense of ownership over the organisation on the part of its rank-and-file supporters, coupled with a lack of a clear definition of the organisation’s purpose, which has made a seemingly arcane debate about committees so bitter and fractious at times. The structures debate is a cipher for all sorts of other political disagreements. We should have first established our purpose and adopted a structure best suited to that purpose.
James ascribes two purposes to Momentum, both of which are reasonable, and both of which I agree with: firstly, strengthening the Labour left by training and mobilising support for left activists in the Labour Party, and secondly helping to win an electoral majority for the Labour Party. He argues that Momentum needs neither to discuss policy nor support strong local groups, and that delegate structures are therefore superfluous.
I have some sympathy with this argument. I know from first-hand experience locally that there is a real danger of the organisation becoming overburdened with committees, of people being turned off by too many long and sometimes frustrating meetings, when their political energies could be better spent elsewhere.
However, I disagree with James on both the question of policy, and local groups.
Firstly, on policy. Momentum of course exists to support the policy programme of the leadership, which has faced indifference or outright hostility from some sections of the party. But I do think we have a responsibility to further develop policy and take the discussions into the Party. We talk about being a grassroots movement. If the programme of the next Labour government is really going to come from the grassroots of the labour movement rather than a team of advisors (or – why not? – from both), then Momentum is perhaps uniquely placed to popularise the concept that the rank-and-file should be discussing and developing ideas and policies of our own to contribute to this programme.
The other reason I think we need to develop policy is simply the history of the Labour Party. I don’t doubt that Corbyn and McDonnell are genuinely committed to a radical social democratic programme, something not seen at the top of the Party for a long, long time, if ever. But the last hundred years of social democracy has been the graveyard of good intentions. All sorts of pressures are brought to bear on the leadership of our movement by what people these days call the “establishment” – I prefer the term ruling class. Whether this comes in the form of the trappings of parliamentary procedure, the need to conform to mainstream political opinion as defined by the press, or the hard muscle of global capital, our leadership will face pressures and they will require a supportive rank-and-file possessing thought-out, radical ideas and the ability to act to counter these.
This is not to be too prescriptive about the sort of ideas Momentum should discuss or adopt – but I do think it would be an abrogation of responsibility to simply leave this to the leadership.
On the question of local groups, I again have some sympathy with James’s position. I know that comrades in some areas have decided against setting up local Momentum groups for perfectly valid reasons. The last thing I would want us to do is impose a superfluous structure where local comrades feel it would serve no purpose. We don’t necessarily need layer upon layer of formal structures, and I actually think we should elect our national leadership by an all-member vote. But I don’t think we should extend this to running conferences or deciding campaigning priorities. This is politics by referenda; something that, as we all know, doesn’t always end well. We could end up with all sorts of contradictory policies and strategies which have been passed by simple votes without much thought, a mish-mash of political positions rather than a coherent sense of purpose.
The reality is that local groups already exist, have a life of their own, and have done hard campaigning work on the ground. I agree that it is, as a rule, better to convince local Labour Party organisations to run campaigns and do things under the Labour banner. But, ironically, in some places this could involve much more energy spent sitting in more meetings trying to get ideas for campaigning activity through the local Party, when a Momentum group could just crack on with it. Many people, including in the leadership of Momentum, talk of the organisation becoming a “social movement” and, frankly, we kid ourselves if we think that we can transform the deeply, almost purely electoralist nature of the Labour Party into a “social movement party” simply by getting some comrades elected to the local CLP General Committee. We kid ourselves even more if we think a social movement will be built by firing off emails about disjointed days of action on various issues.
It remains to be seen whether the twin goals of cohering the Labour left and “building a social movement” can actually be realised by the same organisation. The attempt to do so is something more or less without precedent in the history of Labour politics in this country. But if it is to succeed at all, vibrant local groups are the means to do it. Simply put, people drift away from any organisation if they don’t feel a sense of ownership over it, discuss things, or have input into its political direction. Local meetings and locally-run campaigning activity are key to this.