By Rick Parnet
In December 2016, Owen Jones used his Guardian column to publish what must have been the most widely read of the many articles and statements claiming that under plans being promoted by Jon Lansman’s wing of Momentum, the organisation would be run by a system of online referendums. Even now you could write a lot about Owen’s article, but the relevant bit was:
“Their proposal for Momentum was this: rather than Momentum’s direction being decided by delegates from local groups [which elsewhere throughout the article Jones denounces virulently], it should be decided democratically online. Direct democracy: all of Momentum’s 21,000 members get an equal say.”
In January 2017, after months of argument about Momentum’s future, Lansman’s Steering Committee, having manage to ward off being subject to new elections by the National Committee, carried out a coup in which all the organisation’s national structures were abolished overnight through a – seemingly – out of the blue 6-4 email vote. (Yes, it sounds utterly bizarre when you explain it…) The national conference which had been agreed by the NC repeatedly, with no opposition from Lansman et al except over details, was cancelled and never took place.
The coup-plotters cited a survey of Momentum members the office had put out with no authorisation from or even notification of the National Committee or even Steering Committee. This survey, with questions blatantly pitched to produce the desired answer in the Blairite or bourgeois management style, had produced an 80pc majority for the idea that: “Key national decisions should be made by all members via One Member One Vote, where every member of Momentum is able to vote online or by other accessible means.”
And a year later? The Steering Committee vote which abolished Momentum’s democracy is the only online vote of any of any sort that ever happened! There has not been a single online on any aspect of Momentum’s direction (except for elections to a minority of its new National Coordinating Group), no plans for any announced and no obvious mechanism for making one happen. The constitution imposed by the coup makes it extremely hard to get such a vote. All decisions of any consequences are made by the office, in alliance with a small subgroup of the NCG. Even the wider NCG is kept powerless.
This is all a bit surreal. I remember sitting in my local Momentum group and having lengthy discussions with comrades who thought frequent online referendums would be the best and most democratic way to run the organisation. I argued that while I did not oppose use of such mechanisms, they had very limited grip and responsiveness, and were easily manipulable; and would have to at least be combined with a system of group delegates to a national conference, holding any sort of national committee to account, for the organisation to be functionally democratic. In the end, a majority in our group agreed. The vast majority of groups denounced the coup – about 90pc – but the office prevailed.
The point is that all the comrades in my group argued their positions quite sincerely. Those I argued with genuinely believed that Momentum would be run by a system of online voting. Perhaps some who were prominent at a national level believed it too. But clearly for those who led the fight against democratic control in Momentum and who carried out the coup, their advocacy of such a system was utterly insincere and cynical. (Note that Lansman had spent his entire political life in the Labour Party up to 2015 explaining why plebiscitary democracy is not really democratic!)
Momentum members were lied to, quite straightforwardly, again in the Blairite fashion. With Momentum doing very well at mobilising people in elections of various sorts, discontent about how the organisation is run is simmering but limited and inchoate – for now. Who knows when and if it will break out? But as the recent flurry of rows over the Momentum office imposing not very left-wing parliamentary candidates on its local activists shows, the crushing of Momentum democracy had serious consequences for how the organisation developed.
Without democracy we cannot have an educating, transformative, let alone socialist Labour left.
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• See also: ‘The Momentum coup: one year on’, by former Momentum Steering Committee member Michael Chessum