Five points on Forward Momentum

By Michael Chessum

The launch of Forward Momentum is the most fully-fledged attempt to propose a way forward for the left after the end of the Corbyn leadership. It is done through the lens of transforming the left’s biggest existing organisation, and goes well beyond a vague declaration that a new politics is needed. At the core of the project is a proposal for how Momentum should operate in the future.

As a veteran critic of Momentum’s current leadership and a member of its first Steering Committee (some ripping yarns herehere and here), it shouldn’t be a surprise that I think the organisation desperately needs change. If Forward Momentum were to take over Momentum’s leadership and its proposals were to become a reality, this would represent a step forward for the British left. The proposal’s tone and content on pluralism, internal democracy and the need to build a healthy activist culture where dissent is welcomed, is very welcome. So is its emphasis on building an outward-facing, campaigning organisation.

But I don’t think the proposal goes far enough — and in the spirit of open discussion, here’s my five points on what I think should change.

You can sign up here to be part of the discussions within the Forward Momentum project. I already have.

1. Class struggle and trade unionism should be at the centre of what Momentum does

If you ever want to transform society, let alone the Labour Party, you need to transform the trade union movement, and this was one of Corbynism’s greatest failures. The insurgent Labour left of 2015 should have had the numbers, organisation and ideas to reboot the militancy of the unions, both nationally and in many workplaces. Instead, during an era of continued cuts, the Corbyn years saw the lowest number of strikes in British history. The focus of the leadership, and of Momentum, was to use unions as a source of political and financial capital — and never to dissent from their leaderships.

The document does mention unions, but only as part of a general section which is mostly about training and resources. What is lacking is a shared perspective about the centrality of trade unionism and what it means to do it well. Momentum should be looking to build a militant labour movement, which is willing to take on employers and the government. It should be arguing for democracy within the union movement, not regarding unions as sacred fiefdoms on which it dare not comment. And, perhaps most crucially, it should be organising inside mass unions in the same way it organises inside Labour — criticising and conflicting with the union establishment where necessary.

2. Members should be able to decide what the organisation does

This sounds very obvious, but creating a really democratic organisation is quite hard. The current draft does some good things in establishing some sort of national gathering of representatives of groups, but this is a “strategy convention”, not a conference — it does not decide policy or elect anyone.

Instead of having a proper conference, the proposal opts for a complex mashup of different processes: the NCG is elected online, the strategy decided at a delegate convention, the policy priorities decided by a “vote-up” process online, and the priority campaign decided by a simpler online ballot.

Aside from making the new constitution very difficult to navigate for even experienced activists, this system will also make for bad democracy. A single online vote might get a higher turnout than other means of voting (and I agree that some online elections are a good idea) but will not on its own allow for the kind of discussion and deliberative process necessary to build up a healthy culture of debate and decision-making. Repeated intricate online processes will combine this disadvantage with declining turnout.

Overall, the proposal still looks a little too much like an NGO. Without development, it is still a model in which a professional office is connected to the membership by plebiscite, rather than as part of a living-and-breathing democratic process. How are members supposed to establish policy (as opposed to just prioritising it) on key issues? (Without a clear process, the office will end up making up the organisation’s position on the hoof, in line with an internal “common sense”, and without democratic input). And how are members supposed to decide policy and strategy separately, when they are clearly intimately connected?

There’s a pretty simple (though obviously not comprehensive) response to this, which would also simplify the structure: have a sovereign annual conference, with delegates from local groups and representatives of areas not covered by local groups. It should have the ultimate say on strategy and policy, and elect at least part of the leadership. This, of course, doesn’t rule out having digital democracy built into the system as well.

3. Local groups should be the cornerstone of Momentum’s organising

If we’re serious about changing society, and prioritising workplaces and communities, this means making people do stuff locally, rather than just being catapulted into roles as professional campaigners or celebs. Too often, organisations like Momentum end up with two classes of people involved: the local activists who do the unglamorous heavy lifting, and the office and leadership who are professionals and have rarely, if ever, attended their local groups or other grassroots networks. This isn’t some abstract moral point: we want an organisation in which the rank and file are and become the leadership, and we need a system for making this happen.

The proposal takes a number of leaps forward in terms of how local groups are organised, in particular in terms of access to data and money. But fundamentally, local groups are not the cornerstone of this constitution. They have no democratic rights, and they are not how the leadership is formed or developed.

Of course, there is a barrier to making local groups the centre of activity, which is that they have ceased to exist in many places. But this isn’t insurmountable, and the incoming NCG needs to make building and rebuilding local groups a big priority and giving them a home in national democratic structures and regional networks. As many left activists look for a home inside-but-beyond Labour, it ought to be possible to revive the grassroots before any refounding conference.

4. The leadership should be accountable in reality, not just in words

The proposal rightly highlights the need for accountability, but in reality talks mostly about transparency and better communication. In practice, the leadership elected under this constitution won’t be much more accountable than the current one. Firstly, because of the lack of a proper annual conference, there is no body that sits ‘above’ the NCG and which can instruct it (as is the case in almost every big organisation in the labour movement). And this would be compounded by an online decision-making system which would allow the leadership to heavily manipulate the organisation’s democracy if it so chose.

If you want to have a properly accountable leadership which is organically plugged into a much wider layer of active members, a good idea would be to significantly increase the size of the NCG, making it a council-like body. The NCG could then elect the organisation’s day-to-day leadership, who could be recalled and mandated. A bigger NCG would mean more accountable decisions, but it would also bring more people into the heart of the organisation, increasing capacity and connectivity with groups and regions.

5. Momentum should organise in regions and nations

In the early days of Momentum, regional conferences and organisations were a big part of how local activists and groups structured their work. Not all the regional networks functioned that well, but many did. In some regions this expanded into fullblown regional conferences, which served as hubs for political education and a place where activists could coordinate without constantly having to be mediated by the Momentum office. Regional networks can also play a vital role in building new local groups, by allowing big and well organised groups to support their neighbours.

I don’t have a specific proposal for how to formalise regional structures or networks, but they certainly should exist, and are currently missing.

• Michael Chessum is national organiser for Another Europe is Possible and an editor of The Clarion. Before the coup against Momentum’s democracy in January 2017, he was an elected member of its National Committee and Steering Committee, and served as treasurer of the organisation.

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