By Simon Hannah, Tooting CLP Secretary and outgoing LARAF Steering Committee
[See also this report by Urte Macikene]
Back in the summer of 2018 some Labour activists in south London started to have discussions about launching a Labour Party-based anti-racist and anti-fascist network. This was partly in response to the worrying rise in the size of the far-right demonstations calling for Tommy Robinson’s release, but as the discussions went on it became clear that we needed a more general campaign to try and build a culture of anti-racism in the Labour party and the wider movement.
An initial meeting in Brixton of representatives from South London CLPs was well attended and an article appeared on LabourList outlining some general thoughts on the campaign, written by two senior UNISON officers in Lambeth. And then, Labour Against Racism and Fascism emerged into the world.
At a subsequent meeting, a small volunteer based steering committee (SC) was formed. Activists were keen to stress that the committee only had a limited remit and that it should get the campaign on the road (Facebook, Twitter and a website) and focus on calling another meeting. We got an excellent response, including people contacting us from across the country asking to set up LARAF groups where they were. It looked like it had really captured a mood.
Then the problems began.
On the SC there were serious disagreements over the anti-racist demo on 9 December. We had agreed to back a unity call (and published one) but then when the Anti-Fascist Network and Feminist Antifascist Assembly decided that actually they didn’t want a unity demo, suddenly a wing of the Steering Committee were urgently calling for us to ‘put something out’ backing a split. Some of us argued against it, saying we had no remit to do so, and we had agreed to back a united anti-fascist demo in actual meetings – not just over WhatsApp.
Criticisms over meeting dates on the internal email from LARAF supporters were met with an attempt to shut the egroup down. One SC member said people’s ‘outbursts’ were making the group ‘too loose’.
Suddenly we went from an SC that had a very restriced remit to one that was all powerful and could do what it wanted. When I argued that we didn’t have the power to close down a members forum like an egroup, I was met with a very worrying ‘Who says we don’t?’
One thing became clear – there was a wing of the volunteer SC which was made up of people that worked for Momentum or MPs, and their approach to grassroots campaigns was to mow the grass down. When one member complained about an issue to do with a forthcoming meeting she was summarily taken off the egroup ‘by mistake’. Another female member of the SC was treated so dismissively she resigned after a month.
Another supporter wrote an article about the Immigration White Paper which contained a line of criticism about Labour’s response to the government proposals. This caused a meltdown in which SC members argued it should never be published as it was too critical and would make LARAF less attractive to MPs and various public figures. This was after we had repeatedly agreed that this would be a network coordination of CLP activists, and that it should have space to be critical of Labour policy if necessary in order to challenge the party to have more consistent anti-racist politics.
Hostile take over
Then on 19 January we had another meeting to take the campaign forward, including re-electing the SC. What a tale of woe. Suddenly in the morning people started getting emails and WhatsApps from senior Momentum and London Young Labour people with a proposed slate for the leadership. The slate was made up largely of people who work in the Momentum office, people who work for Labour MPs and some LYL activists.
At the meeting a lot of new people showed up (usually a good sign), but there was also a core voting block of the London Young Labour Committee and people who worked for Momentum. Some Labour members showed up who hadn’t registered on the Eventbrite by the Thursday before and were turned away after a vote to exclude them was taken – hilariously the chair described it as voting to ‘respect the Eventbrite’. Those kept out included well-known party activists involved in LARAF from the start. For instance, one of the authors of the LabourList article I cited above – the Women’s Officer of my CLP – was turned away!
The only reason that the meeting had a cut off registration point of Thursday was so someone could take all the Labour party membership numbers that you had to give and check them with London region to make sure that they were actual party members. This would have been a huge data breach. It also isn’t clear if it ever happened, but it served to keep some people out who hadn’t got round to registering yet.
After those Labour members were turned away I proposed we should vote on a statement of principles for the incoming SC to be governed by. Voted down. Another activist proposed having a properly constituted AGM in a few months time to agree a constitution and pass motions. Voted down.
It turned out that the Momentum office/LYL slate was largely uncontested. A number of people on the old SC were simply too demoralised to stand again. Two people who did stand against it didn’t stand a chance given who was in the room. With some people in the corner smirking and sniggering, the Momentum office had seized control of a grassroots campaign. One of their supporters after the event tweeted out that it was a good day as they had ‘cleared the Trots out of LARAF’. He was made to take it down by embarassed Momentum organisers. In reality – he was just saying publicly what they had planned to do and thought secretly.
To be fair the discussion on campaigns and initiatives to take was good and offers some hope that LARAF might still do some important things. Focusing on No Recourse to Public Funds, closing all detention centres and so on are good campaign ideas (though they had been raised before).
But the nature of the take over indicates yet another example of the worrying developments in Momentum.
Why did full time officers from Momentum take over a grassroots anti-racist campaign? It shows that after three years of not building any social movements (as Momentum was originally intended to do) they instead just seized control of a grassroots campaign initiated by Labour and trade union activists. The seizure was perhaps to give Momentum a bit of activist credibility – but it was also clearly to drive out opposition and critical voices.
It is also noteworthy because after years of focusing almost exclusively in Labour and working to secure positions for the left there, this is the first time Momentum has turned outwards to another campaign and it manifested as a cynical take over by people who are essentially full timers for the movement – bureaucrats.
It also demonstrates that at its worst, Momentum exhibits all the same old behaviours of the ‘old left’ that they were supposed to get away from. Undemocratic and controlling, anyone who has been in politics and seen a far left group come and take over a campaign will be familiar with what happened at LARAF.
The most pressing political concern is simply that with Momentum staffers and LYL officials running LARAF, it won’t be a critical and radical voice for anti-racist politics. They won’t want to rock the boat, or cause any problems, and they certainly won’t want to put forward anything that might be seen as too critical of Labour’s current policies. When I asked one of the new secretaries after the meeting if I could write an article for LARAF about the value of open borders, I was met with a blunt ‘No’.
That’s the story so far.
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