By Sacha Ismail
There is quite a lot to be said about Jade Azim’s very bad but very instructive article on LabourList (‘The real battle for Labour’s soul? Lansmanites vs cranks’). I’m told the author is well to the right of Momentum but now presenting herself as a ‘Lansmanite’ for opportunistic reasons; but I’m more interested in the political arguments or pseudo-arguments she marshalls in favour of ‘Lansmanism’ (a top-down, tightly controlled, politically conservative left). Such arguments are not normally made that explicitly, at least in formal writing.
Perhaps I’ll find time to unpick some of the wider issues soon. Immediately you should read Daniel Round’s reply about Momentum democracy on LabourList; and perhaps also the Q&A I wrote during the convulsions in Momentum at the end of 2016, when the current Momentum regime was being established. Meanwhile, I want to use the experience of the Labour left in my borough, Lewisham (South London), to highlight the radical falseness of an important element of what Azim says.
I should say first that ‘cranks’ is not language I would choose to use. I use it below in quote marks, but deliberately not too much.
In Lewisham we certainly have both the groupings Azim identifies – mainly young, Momentum office-loyal people, some of whom are Stalinists; and older people who have returned to the Labour Party, for whom a virulent ‘anti-Zionism’ is a core motivator of their politics, Jackie Walker fans. Far from being at loggerheads, though, they are part of a common project – against the class-struggle socialist left.
Those two grouping of activists in the main elements of the group which split off from Lewisham’s existing Momentum group Lewisham for Corbyn (see here) and which has now, despite the laughably undemocratic way it was set up and its lack of meetings and activity, been recognised as the official Lewisham Momentum (of course).
All this is an oversimplification, but not much of one.
There are differences: the older group are still angry about Jackie Walker’s removal as the vice chair of Momentum’s old steering group, and many probably regard Lansman as a ‘Zionist’; while the younger don’t like Walker and at least previously tended to cheer on expulsions of people accused of antisemitism. God knows what they say to their new friends about that. The older group are not, or at least were not, as committed to defending the way Momentum is run nationally. The older ones are more likely to be actively involved in the Labour Party: despite disingenuously denouncing their left-wing critics as not really committed to Labour, the younger Lewisham Lansmanites seems quite disinterested in being active in the party.
But neither is very bothered about democracy in the movement, and the young Lansmanites as well as the old Walkerites bandy around accusations of ‘Zionism’, support for the Israeli government and so on – as we know some of them did in the run up to the disputed Lewisham Momentum AGM. So much for antisemitism being a principled dividing line.
Some of the older people are indeed specialists in cranky behaviour, but some of the younger group are too. It’s just a different kind of crankiness, less liable to shout at people in meetings and (even) more likely to tell bizarre and sometimes quite unpleasant lies about them behind the scenes, to say nothing of some extremely cranky political ideas (promotion of Stalinist memes on social media, support for the Assad regime, calling their opponents on the left paedophiles…) Both groupings seem to be adopting the worst aspects of the other.
What has united them is dislike of left-wing critics of the Momentum and Labour leaderships. The older ones got on board at first because in Lewisham such left-critical forces have various views on Israel-Palestine but are in general strong on opposing antisemitism and criticising mindless anti-Israelism masquerading as pro-Palestinian politics. The older ones have followed the logic of their alliance, gradually transforming into defenders of the Momentum leadership – in the same way that the younger Lansmanites are happy or even eager to go along with accusing left-wing opponents of softness on Israel, ‘Zionism’, etc. Fighting ‘Trots’ and other democratic-minded leftists allied with them is simply the most important thing for both.
In Lewisham there are two distinct groupings, but in some places to a greater extent ‘Lansmanites’ and ‘cranks’ not only work together but are often united in the same people. Although the vast majority of Momentum groups (I think it was 86pc to about 5pc) condemned Lansman et al’s coup against democracy in the organisation, even then there was a visible trend of people who protested against the – in fact reasonable – removal of Jackie Walker but were happy enough with the – in fact outrageous – suppression of democracy.
Again, none of this means there are no differences or distinctions; and it certainly doesn’t stop some Lansmanites from using the label to attack particular ‘cranks’ they don’t like (the more independent-minded ones, of various political hues…) and by extension imply something about all left-wing critics of the Momentum hierarchy. But it shows the reality of the political dividing lines is very different from what Jade Azim depicts.
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