Momentum and migrants’ rights

Ed Whitby and Sacha Ismail look back before the Covid-19 crisis, and before the general election, to crucial battles in the Labour Party over migrants’ rights. We invite replies to publish: get in touch at theclarionmag@gmail.com

On the morning of Tuesday 26 September, left-wing Labour activists were mobilising frantically on the ground in Brighton and in cyberspace to build support for the migrants’ rights motion going to Labour Party conference that afternoon, promoted by the Labour Campaign for Free Movement (LCFM). This motion contained strong policies including defending and extending freedom of movement; ending immigration detention; abolishing ‘No recourse to public funds’ and ending denial of services to migrants; and giving all UK residents the vote.

What was Momentum – an organisation which presents itself as the main force on the Labour left, and would have been regarded by many conference delegates as very important – doing? As regards the organisation rather than individual Momentum members, its attitude to the LCFM proposals seemed remarkably ambivalent. Its email and physical bulletins to delegates did recommend a vote for the motion once it was prioritised (on which, see more below) – but that was it. Until it became clear LCFM’s motion could not be ignored, Momentum said literally nothing. And even in the run up to the vote, the massive Momentum social media machine remained silent.

All this may seem odd, but much less so if you understand Momentum’s wider approach and history on issues of migrants’ rights, and the political questions underlying them. Its failings in this respect do not exhaust, but do go to the heart of what is wrong with Momentum as an organisation.

We will return to Momentum’s performance at Labour 2019, but first the history.

Many of those now involved in or supporting LCFM were involved in trying to strengthen Momentum’s policy on these issues in its early days (2015-2017). Momentum groups influenced by these politics pushed for the national organisation to take a pro-migrants’ rights, pro-free movement stand.

The November 2016 national committee discussed a motion submitted by the London regional network on the initiative of Lewisham Momentum, and by national Momentum Youth and Students, entitled “Defend migrants, defend free movement” (you can read the text here). A quick glance will make it evident that this motion was a sort of political precursor of LCFM’s campaigns.

By then, Momentum boss Jon Lansman had already started to argue within the organisation that the left should not only accept the curtailing of free movement between Britain and Europe, but take the initiative in championing it. At the NC, however, he remained silent: we guess, though it is a guess, become some of his younger supporters had not yet been won over on this issue and he feared losing after a fight; and also because he was confident the policy would not be carried out (see below). Only a small handful of Stalinist types, the most prominent being Marcus Barnett, voted against; the motion passed overwhelmingly.

This NC, however, took place in the middle of a political struggle which would culminate two months later, in January 2017, in Lansman and his associates carrying out a coup which shut down all national structures and imposed a thinly-disguised dictatorship of the Momentum office. Surprise, surprise, a whole range of left-wing stances agreed by the organisation’s abolished democratic structures disappeared – including the overwhelmingly agreed NC policy on free movement and migrants’ rights.

Even post-coup, whenever Momentum activists have been given the rare chance to express themselves collectively, strong support for migrants’ rights has bubbled up. Part of the post-coup Momentum structures is a ‘Members’ Council’ picked at random from among the membership. This body met once in September 2017 and, on the initiative of a Clarion and LCFM supporter but with virtually unanimous support, decided Momentum should campaign for the kind of policy passed at the December 2016 NC.

Not only was this not carried out, but the Members’ Council has never met again, in complete violation of the coup-imposed Momentum constitution, which says it should meet every three months! This surely illustrates the link between migrants’ rights and wider questions of Momentum’s democracy and political orientation.

The tragedy is that during the period we are looking at, immediately after the June 2016 Brexit referendum, Jeremy Corbyn had – in a not particularly militant way but nonetheless – stood solid to defend free movement, despite enormous pressure to do otherwise, particularly from right-wing figures like Tom Watson. In this Corbyn received no support whatsoever from Momentum. Eventually, in January 2017, he caved to pressure and retreated into the stance from which as leader he never fully emerged – the stance codified in the 2017 Labour manifesto’s endorsement of curtailing free movement, in addition to other dubious policies on migrants’ (eg extending ‘No recourse to public funds’).

Presumably Lansman and co. thought that Corbyn inevitably would cave in, or that he should, and so they anticipated his changed position.

We’ll never know, but it is surely not impossible that a strong, principled position from Momentum – in line with the policy enjoying massive support among its members and overwhelmingly endorsed by its NC – could have swung things the other way. Instead, in this instance, Momentum diverged from Corbyn to the right.

For whatever reason, Lansman and his associates were not confident to argue positively against free movement. They no longer needed to given that Corbyn and other left-wing Labour leaders had caved. But the new Momentum leadership, now freed from any real democratic control, did work hard to oppose Labour Party bodies opposing the party leadership’s policy.

For instance, at the October 2017 Young Labour policy conference, the ‘Lansmanites’ managed to defeat a motion to “Defend and extend free movement” (see here). Increasingly, in practice, they took a position to the right of large parts of the Labour right on issues to do with migration.

What was behind these political trends? Again, guesswork is involved, but it looked like:

• An increasingly alarmist desire not to diverge from Corbyn and the Labour leadership. This was the openly stated core explanation of Lansman et al’s drive to destroy Momentum democracy. As discussed above, this sometimes meant in practice going to the right of Corbyn.
• The influence of the trade union bureaucracy, in particular of Unite, which despite occasional clashes the Momentum office has been remarkably concerned to conciliate. This motivation was also regularly stated in discussions about Momentum democracy. The Unite bureaucracy’s stance on the issues in question is well known.
• Linking Momentum to Unite and some other unions was the strength of Stalinist-nationalist politics in the circles around the Momentum office, dominating Young Labour, etc. These people saw ending free movement as a good or necessary thing in itself, part of their project for a “socialist Britain”. These people provided a particular line of ‘labour movement’ anti-free movement arguments, for instance the absurd idea that limiting immigration could mean converting Britain into a giant “closed shop”.
• Factional reflex: the people we are fighting in Momentum, the Trots, are for free movement, so we are against it (for ‘Trots’ read a wider pro-democracy, internationalist, radical left). That certainly seemed to play a role at eg Young Labour policy conference. Given the virulence of the hatred against the critical-democratic left unleashed during and since the Momentum coup, it is not so implausible.

In the un-self-critical and closed world of the cliques dominating Momentum, there was probably not much opening for even doubters or those genuinely concerned about the issues to raise criticisms or alternative approaches or proposals.

Obviously the kind of arguments and motivations described above were not guaranteed to play well with left-wing Labour members. To get a better reception, and no doubt also as a self-justifying mechanism for some of those arguing the line, they were therefore mixed in with supposedly left-wing arguments along the lines of “EU free movement discriminates against non-Europeans”, “… is only for white people”, “Down with Fortress Europe”, and so on. For some this was perhaps a sincerely held view; the more nationalist elements were happy to keep quiet at appropriate points or even parrot this stuff, knowing that their Momentum comrades would rarely if ever challenge them.

In addition to the obvious logical and political problems with such ‘left’ arguments, the lie was also given by the fact that Momentum and its milieu, despite their influence, never promoted other policies to alter Britain’s immigration system. Momentum limited itself to bland platitudes about being pro-migrant, particularly when they could work in how pro-migrant Jeremy Corbyn is. Funnily enough, radical proposals for change – on immigration detention, for instance, and NRPF – almost exclusively came from the pro-free movement left.

Take the issue of immigration detention centres. From its founding in August 2017, LCFM aggressively pushed this issue in the Labour Party, calling for the closure of all immigration detention centres, an issue on which many of its activists had a long record. So, whatever other issues one might raise about it, did Movement for Justice – also supporters of free movement (and, like many leading people in LCFM, anti-Brexit).

When LCFM supporters battled unsuccessfully at Labour conference 2018 to get closing all detention centres – as opposed to the two out of eleven the leadership had pledged – to conference floor, they received no support from Momentum whatsoever. Momentum had, in fact, promoted a motion which praised the leadership’s commitment to two out of eleven!

What the political grouping around the Momentum office did next in response is instructive. To burnish their anti-racist, pro-migrants’ rights credentials, they staged a takeover of the recently established grassroots network Labour Against Racism and Fascism, excluding most of its founding activists from involvement (in some cases literally, physically, excluding). As is clear from the report of LARAF founder and Clarion editor Simon Hannah, a good chunk of what motivated the takeover was a concern that the organisation would establish a voice critical of the Labour leadership on migrants’ rights.

Like Momentum, LARAF was reluctant at best to argue to defend, let alone extend, freedom of movement. Momentum did on paper endorse LCFM’s ‘Defend Free Movement’ protest at the Home Office as part of the wave of Stop the Coup actions in September – the first time it had, at least on paper, publicly backed free movement – but even then did nothing much to promote or mobilise for it.

To understand Momentum-LARAF better, let’s return to the events of Labour Party conference. During the course of 2019 LARAF tried to establish itself as a force on the issue of detention. Despite coming late to the party, they made no attempt to cooperate with other Labour organisations already campaigning on this issue or to acknowledge their work.

Like LCFM, LARAF produced a motion for conference, which was heavily promoted by Momentum. The differences in approach can be summarised as follows:

• The LARAF motion to conference focused exclusively on the issue of detention, as opposed to the range of issues to dismantle Britain’s anti-migrant/immigration apparatus and promote migrants’ rights LCFM raised.
• The LCFM motion rooted its pro-migrant stance in a broader socialist politics of fighting for working-class unity and struggle.
• In contrast to the militant campaign advocated by LCFM, LARAF put great emphasis on a gradualism and moving in stages, and called for a Labour government to establish a commission to report back on the issue.
• Rather concerningly, the LARAF motion and publicity around it called for “community-based alternatives” to detention, as if detention meets some legitimate need that should be fulfilled in other ways.

(For LARAF’s post-conference follow up proposals, which were also poor, see here.)

At conference 2019, LARAF’s exclusive focus on detention was used by the party machine to try to carve the LCFM motion off the agenda by, bizarrely, putting the two in separate categories – even though both had only been submitted by a small number of CLPs (LARAF 7, LCFM 5). It backfired when, despite Momentum’s energetic support for LARAF’s proposals, delegates voted, quite logically, to prioritise the motion which included detention but also covered other issues over one which covered only detention.

Rather than going all-in to support the LCFM motion, however, Momentum stated support but did very little, as described at the beginning of this article. After the motion passed it further disgraced itself by tweeting congratulations not to LCFM but to LARAF for its supposed victory – before deleting the text in the face of mockery.

It should be said that the tradition described above of individual activists or groups within Momentum taking a much better stance, and in some cases taking a leading role in migrants’ rights activism within Labour, has continued. An important example is the Stevenage Momentum group, which has consistently and pro-actively promoted strong policy for free movement and migrants’ rights and which played a central role getting motions to Labour conference in both 2018 and 2019.

Momentum’s former national organiser Laura Parker was also excellent and active over a long period, culminating in her standing outside conference before the vote to be visible and grab and lobby influential delegates. But these kind of exceptions prove the rule: these comrades have done things as part of or in cooperation with the LCFM and critical/radical left milieu, and because of their own strongly held political principles, not because they are part of Momentum. The organisation as such has failed consistently – if you can even regard it as failure, rather than execution of a conscious bad policy.

We hope it is clear that all this is a matter not just of this or that motion or committee but of much bigger and more significant political issues and trends. The ins-and-outs of the history are important because they have been in large part hidden or forgotten, but they express a much wider and more important political reality. The dominant organisation of the Labour left failed to take a stand on one of the – if not the – key question facing the left and the labour movement. It has failed to take the kind of pro-migrant stance one might take from principled liberals, let alone from supposed left-wing socialists. Beyond warm words, it has been a nullity on migrants’ rights and, in terms of influencing Labour’s position, often worse than that.

The undoubted good anti-racist good intentions of many Momentum organisers do not compensate for that political reality.

Events since then have reinforced that, inside and outside Momentum, we need a politically better left – one which stands clearly and fights aggressively for migrants’ rights, freedom of movement and internationalism.

• Ed Whitby is a Unison and Labour activist in Newcastle; before the Momentum coup he was a delegate to the National Committee from the North East and Cumbria regional network. Sacha Ismail is a Clarion editor; he was previously Lewisham Momentum’s Secretary and one of its delegates to the London regional network.

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