Plebiscites and politics: Momentum’s online survey

Martin Thomas writes about Momentum’s online survey, which ran between 20 December 2016 and 5 January 2017.

On 3 December the Momentum National Committee was convened at last, after postponements, cancellations, and an attempt to pre-empt its chief discussion by way of a snap vote at the smaller Steering Committee.

It voted to convene a Momentum conference, now set for 18 February, which will be able to vote on Momentum’s policies and direction.

On 20 December the Momentum office sent out an email to all members. It was bylined as from Jeremy Corbyn, and subject-lined as offering members their “chance to have their say in Momentum’s future” – via an online survey.

Neither that email, nor subsequent reminder emails, mentioned the National Committee decision or the upcoming conference. We do not know whether Jeremy had even been told about the decision or the conference when he was induced to sign the email.

Further emails promoting the survey came from the office bylined by Clive Lewis and Diane Abbott. Again, we don’t know whether Clive and Diane were told about the discussions in Momentum leading up to 3 December. No representative of the National Committee majority was given a chance to brief them.

For some of us, all this tastes too much like online surveys and tick-box exercises conducted by our employers in an attempt to override trade-union representation.

For comrades knowledgeable about recent decades in the Labour Party, it evokes Tony Blair’s threat in 1995 to bypass Labour’s democratic structures and ballot individual Labour Party members when he feared Labour Party conference might refuse his push to scrap Clause Four.

For those who read history, it brings to mind episodes of “plebiscitary democracy” back to Napoleon III’s famous referendum of December 1851, written about by Karl Marx. On 1-2 December Napoleon III dissolved the elected National Assembly (delegates, you see), and on 20-21 December he claimed democratic authority for that decision (and his own rule as President, or from December 1852 as Emperor) by running a national plebiscite to approve it.

In the Labour Party, one of our main battles is to escape the rule of Blairite “consultations” and restore a real, lively, decision-making Party conference. Every other Labour left organisation ever has taken it as given that it must have policy-making conferences.

But some in Momentum are against a decision-making conference.

Some, in fact, are against Momentum developing its own policies at all, whether by conference or by online voting. But the usual presentation – and in the survey email – is, demagogically, as a matter of “all members” voting rather than just delegates from local groups.

In fact “democlicksy” means overriding the democratic processes of discussion – which are open to all members – by a monopoly over real discussion for the office staff, who can then seek authority via judiciously-crafted online snap votes.

Whether it will be anything like “all members” voting is doubtful. When some delegates were elected by online ballot for the 3 December meeting, the highest first-preference vote any of them got was 87 – from the 8000-strong electorate of all women in Momentum. Some delegates elected this way to represent members in particular regions not in local groups got as few as nine, or 14, first preference votes.

The online survey closes on 5 January. Who authorised it, where the discussions were held to shape it, why no-one from the National Committee majority was invited to send an accompanying email explaining the NC decision and conference plans, we do not know.

I can’t accept the survey as a valid democratic exercise. I’ve completed the survey as follows:

Question 2: I’ve ticked all the last four boxes (organising campaigns, providing political education, developing policy), and added an “Other” item: “Working to transform the Labour Party at all levels”.

Question 3: I’ve ticked all the boxes, and added an “Other” item: “Facilitate democratic cooperation and discussion among local groups to generate and activate policies”.

Question 4: I’ve ticked the option for decisions made at meetings.

Question 5: I’ve ticked the option for election by delegates from local groups.

Question 6: I’ve added this comment: “To be effective, Momentum must be active daily and weekly on the streets, in the Labour Parties, in the unions, in the workplaces. And that requires a continuous, structured, decision-making process by which the activists form an evolving collective majority view on what to do each day, each week, each month — not from-time-to-time online plebiscites of the members with the results interpreted by the office staff. The December National Committee of Momentum decided accordingly. The office staff should be helping carry out the NC decisions, not trying to undermine them by an online plebiscite. A lot of us have experience of online or tick-box surveys being used by our employers at work to deflect proper discussion and negotiation with trade unions, and we do not want to see similar in Momentum”.

1 Comment

  1. And what if you favour a mixed or hybrid system, part delegate democracy part OMOV? There are a whole spectrum of such systems which a survey like this cannot possibly catch, yet members were not even offered the choice of a mixed system as a general principle.

    I share the author’s scepticism as to whether Jeremy actually drafted this email, its condemnatory and rather divisive style just isn’t Jeremy. The whole thing smacks of manipulation and is reminiscent of the Tony Blair era.

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