By Michael Chessum, Momentum steering committee
Democracy is not some moralistic ritual, to be wheeled out to appease one’s conscience or to sign off a “legitimacy process” for decisions which have already been made. Democracy is the only way that ordinary people can organise — it is our weapon in a fight against the powerful in which only our collective wisdom can win. Democracy is about trust — it is the act of saying “I hold my view, but yours is valid and we’ll work this out together”. It is a basic mark of personal and political respect among comrades without which we cannot function.
Discipline is not some line handed down from above. Discipline and dedication are things that come with a common sense of purpose in which we are all invested — from a goal and an aim that we decide together, and from a common, collectively understood strategy for getting there.
If we forget these things, we will wither and die as a movement. Whatever your views on Momentum’s ideal constitution, the ends cannot justify these means.
Since Momentum’s leadership imposed a (highly centralised, rubbish, undemocratic) constitution, by email and with no discussion — with plenty of compromises on the table, and a whole deliberative process in train — local activists have been up in arms. At the time of writing, there are about 30 local groups who have rejected the constitution, and many more on their way. Those people know what they are talking about, because they’ve been slugging their guts out to get Jeremy Corbyn elected, moving mountains to fight for their communities, and risking careers and their sanity to hold the line in the workplace.
As an activist who has been through a relatively short period of struggle in the past decade, I can barely contain my frustration: how many times is the left and the labour movement going to be failed by leaderships whose only discernible strategy is about maintaining control over organisations and movements?
All over the country, many local activists will be tempted to walk away. There is a school of thought which says that taking any further role in Momentum is simply giving legitimacy to the imposed structures, and that by boycotting them we can undermine them morally. What this fails to understand is that the legitimacy of the new structures is not moral, but brute force — and powered by data, money and celebrity endorsement. Those who carried out the coup can and will carry on without us. Resigning or slipping into inactivity is exactly what they want you to do.
On the flipside, grassroots activists can simply get on with it. Momentum is a precious and unique organisation — and the most precious thing about it is the breadth of people it brings together. Whatever the ludicrous manoeuvres at the top, those people will still be there.
To all of those people, we should say: stand and fight. That means:
1. Hold meetings, quickly. Local groups should continue to meet, by whatever means they can, to discuss the internal situation, plan positive campaigning activity and win people to the idea of staying in Momentum.
2. Coordinate horizontally with other local activists. Meet up on a regional basis, or with your neighbouring group, or with fellow activists interested in a particular issue, to discuss the situation and plan activity. We aren’t going to be encouraged to do this any more through the old structures, but that might be liberating as well — build links and reach out.
3. Support parallel internal structures. The National Committee of Momentum is being convened (in defiance of the new constitution) on January 28th. Make sure your regional delegates know about it, and get your local group to send an observer. In the near future, there will probably be a national event for local activists and groups to share ideas and make campaign plans — make sure you’re signed up when it’s called.
The important thing about these structures is that they are internal — they are about allowing Momentum’s grassroots to find expression independently of the leadership and the imposed constitution. They are explicitly not about creating another organisation. Once they are set up, the aim must be to have them recognised within the new structure.
We should behave responsibly and work constructively.
4. Break the imposed constitution where you have to. Under it, people who have been expelled from the party for being socialists are also excluded from Momentum. Ignore this rule.
5. Support pro-democracy candidates in the National Coordinating Group (NCG) elections. The NCG is a barely democratic body — a minority is elected by members, it meets very irregularly, it holds all of the power — but boycotting it gains us nothing. Having grassroots activists on the NCG who are accountable to local groups and grassroots activists will mean, at the very least, that the NCG cannot act like we don’t exist.
Let us know what you think? Write a reply? email@example.com
Well said Michael Chessum. I also hope the National Conference will convene in the Spring; my branch has already chosen its delegates and its resolution!
As regards your point 5, however, I do not agree that “boycotting gains us nothing”. Since this “new constitution” is entirely illegitimate, it should be treated as such, end of story. The decision to impose the constitution was invalid. It was what lawyers call “ultra vires” – beyond the powers of the body which purported to make it. Accordingly any institutions it purports to create should be wholly ignored. To connive in this “National Co-ordinating Group” would invest that body with a legitimacy which it neither possesses nor deserves.
In addition, the broader political issue merits debate. What sort of message is the Momentum coup sending out about the relationship between the left leadership of the Party and its supporters – the left-leaning members who saved it from the PLP’s coup barely half a year ago. Why is the fire being turned on us? Has the decision been taken to distance the leadership from the left and from the party members – and to adopt instead a comprehensive appeasement in favour of the Blairite MPs?
I am old enough to remember the so-called “realignment of the Left” circa 1984 when a section of the left peeled off en masse to eventually become the Blairites. Sadly it seems that history is now repeating itself.