Does Momentum provide the dynamic the left needs today?

Veronica Fagan assesses where Momentum is up to seven years after its creation – and explores how it got here.

 

Last month we published a piece from Ewan Cameron looking at one of 17 questions Momentum members had been asked to vote on with only two weeks’ notice. While it was good news that the proposal Ewan argued for, limited-term limits, was agreed upon, along with other democratic gains, there are many other questions to address as Momentum moves towards re-electing its governing National Co-ordinating Group.

Social movement?

When Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015, he, John McDonnell and other left Labour MPs talked about the importance of building a social movement. Anyone who knew Jeremy and John – individuals who spent a huge amount of their time on picket lines and addressing local and national campaign meetings on a wide range of issues – were not surprised by this approach.

As thousands of people poured into the Labour Party, including many young activists inspired by Corbyn’s vision but without a history of organising within the labour movement, it made sense to have a new vehicle for the left to organise itself. A new organisation would be better equipped to take on this task than trying to refashion an existing one. So when Momentum was launched in 2015 soon after Corbyn’s election, lots of people were enthusiastic about its prospects.

In 2015 – the year it was founded – Momentum had 60,000 supporters (who paid no fees) and 50 local groups. By September 2017, it had 31,000 members in 170 local groups and a staff of 15. In January 2018, the group had 35,000 members. By April of that year, Momentum had 40,000 members. These figures are way beyond what any other segment of the Labour left achieved – even though the level of active involvement was way below this.

But to assess what it has and hasn’t achieved, let’s explore what its tasks actually were.

Key Tasks

When people talked about building a social movement (as McDonnell still does on his website today) they were hinting at a direction – but they were not spelling it out. The lack of space for exploration and debate would lead to problems ahead because it could and would be interpreted in different ways by its supporters.

Sections of both the Labour Party left and the left in the unions and some campaigns have historically supported a division of labour between different parts of our movement that massively undermines its potential.

Crudely put, under this extremely limiting scenario, the job of trade unions is to defend pay and conditions at work and of the Labour Party to get elected locally and nationally and introduce legislation that makes this easier (or get rid of those laws that are a barrier). Often workplace trade union activists are told, by people further up the union hierarchy, not to push for industrial action because the priority is to elect a Labour government; after which everything will apparently be ok. This ignores the fact that Labour in government has itself attacked unions and rights at work – or failed to roll back Tory attacks. After all, Blair boasted that he ‘would leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world’ and he carried out his threat.

Often workplace trade union activists are told, by people further up the union hierarchy, not to push for industrial action because the priority is to elect a Labour government; after which everything will apparently be ok. This ignores the fact that Labour in government has itself attacked unions and rights at work…

It also ignores the fact that political campaigns from extending the right to vote, defeating the poll tax, overthrowing Apartheid in South Africa and much more have involved campaigns organised in communities as well as in workplaces.

The best Labour-left MPs bridged this to some extent by turning up on picket lines and by understanding the political power of mass campaigns in the same way that the best union activists argue to take union banners and activists on action against deportations or in support of women’s bodily autonomy.

And Corbyn’s election certainly brought more left activists from social movements – and from a whole range of them – into the party than probably ever before. But what was the plan – what were they to do once they were there? And how should the Party as a whole relate to the movements in which they were involved?

To answer those questions would have necessitated framing it in a way that maximised input and reflection from the greatest number and diversity of Corbyn supporters in all their different situations.

And while some of this happened in some local groups there was really no mechanism to explore it nationally. And local groups were in a myriad of different situations – from places where the left was already in the ascendancy even before the Corbyn surge – to those where the new influx gave a new potential for left success to those in which actually the apparatus was so controlled by the right that to focus primarily on that might well alienate people.

But even where the former was the case, Momentum nationally was slow to support people to get involved in the structures of local parties. As far as organising in the unions was concerned, there has been no sustained initiative taken over these seven years.

Conflicts with the right, contradictions on the left

From the moment he was elected, the mainstream media attacked the new Labour leader – and systematically distorted his political positions. Then in the summer of 2016, less than a year after his election as leader in September 2015, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) passed a vote of no confidence against him. He was challenged for the party leadership first by both Angela Eagle and Owen Smith and then by Smith alone. He won in September 2016 with a bigger margin and more votes than in 2015. Nevertheless, the battle to defend him not only took many person-hours in campaigning but also underlined the strong base of the right wing, particularly in the PLP.

There was frustration from many that Jeremy and those around were rather timid in their dealings with the right – both in the PLP and the apparatus, despite the ruthlessness they went for him – and through him, for us.

There was frustration from many that Jeremy and those around were rather timid in their dealings with the right – both in the PLP and the apparatus, despite the ruthlessness they went for him – and through him, for us.

Of course, there was an argument that the new leadership had the potential to win over people who hadn’t been allies before – certainly, there were significant numbers of for example local councillors who had previously seemed very happy to carry out cuts to services who started describing themselves as Corbyn supporters. But if a small proportion of them genuinely moved to the left, the overwhelming majority did not.

Tensions over how to deal with the right’s assault were evident in Momentum too.

The use of allegations of antisemitism to attack Corbyn, a long-term supporter of the Palestinian people, was only one of the cudgels raised by the party right, in cahoots with the establishment outside, against him. However, it was probably the most effective – not least because it led to or deepened significant splits in the pro-Corbyn left. Jackie Walker, the vice-chair of Momentum, was summarily removed from her position in 2016 at the same time as she was falsely being accused of antisemitism by the Labour Party. Others have written extensively about the lack of preparedness of much of the left to deal with the weaponisation of antisemitism. As I strongly agree with these points I won’t re-rehearse them in detail here.

This spotlighted the role of Jon Lansman who had been asked by the leadership to set up Momentum. Lansman played a key political role in Momentum’s national political structures – first a steering committee and then a national co-ordinating group – and was seen by many as the conduit to the Labour leadership. He led the attack on Jackie Walker.

Lansman was also director of a company, Momentum Campaign (Services) Ltd (from 24 June 2015 -11 January 2017 and then 8 March 2019- 8 February 2021 Since February 2021 the current co-chairs of momentum took over as Directors from the previous ones) which appears to own Momentum members data, and about which there has never been any transparency to the membership.

Another point of contention was that most local Momentum groups were never given access to the details of people in their area that joined nationally but had to go through staff to send out mailings. Not only was this an organisational problem, but indicated a problem of power and lack of trust from both staff and elected leadership towards the membership.

What sort of democracy?

In some places, local Momentum groups attracted not only many who’d already joined Labour to support Corbyn, but also activists who were sympathetic but wanted to know more first. It was frustrating that sometimes this included members of organisations like the Socialist Workers Party who had no intention of joining Labour.[i] But some of us felt that it was valuable to keep porous boundaries – that we could win some of these people to seeing that they could play a more useful role inside Labour under Corbyn.

And I don’t believe that was the real reason that, in January 2017, less than two years after Momentum was set up, Momentum’s steering committee decided that any member of Momentum had to prove they had joined Labour by July 1 that year – otherwise they would have deemed to resign. Rather, as the Independent indicates, the move would also prevent activists suspended or expelled from the party from playing a role in the organisation, meaning the witch-hunters that determined Momentum’s membership. This change went alongside instigating a more formal (and paying) membership system and a new national leadership structure. Regional coordination and embryonic liberation structures were also swept away.

Some local groups managed (and indeed still manage) to get around the edict from on high to allow those who have been witch-hunted to participate – but the move had two more important targets. On the one hand, Lansman and his supporters were trying to placate the media. On the other hand, the new National Coordinating Group (NCG) which was being created at the same time would not be open to people in these groups. This was both divisive towards the cause of Palestinian freedom – and profoundly naïve in assessing the forces opposed to Corbynism.

It’s certainly true that there were real challenges about how to create vibrant democratic structures beyond the very local level for an organisation with such a large membership – not to mention one that was facing daily attacks from the right of the party and the media. It’s also true that there are always more people involved locally than in national structures.

In the early days of Corbyn’s leadership, online platforms such as Zoom were neither well developed nor well known – it was the pandemic which was to change these factors. But the majority of Momentum members, those outside the small national structures, had no input into the organisation’s principles and priorities except passively through surveys. This indicated a real democratic deficit.

There has only been one ‘National conference’ of Momentum which took place in July 2018 in Durham. But in fact, this was not really a conference in any meaningful sense – i.e. it was not a decision-making body. Instead, it was advertised as ‘a day of training, talks and networking followed by drinks’ and took place on a Sunday – a difficult day for access by public transport.

After the General election defeat

Labour’s defeat in the 2019 general election was a negative watershed for the Labour left. This is not the place to explore in detail why Labour lost. And while it’s certainly the case that a lot of myths have been spun about the extent of the defeat, it was unrealistic to expect Corbyn would not stand down.

The subsequent battle for the leadership and deputy leadership was one of Momentum’s most problematic moments when the NCG backed not only Rebecca Long-Bailey to succeed Corbyn but plumped for Angela Rayner against Richard Burgon for Deputy. There was further fury when it was realised that the membership of Momentum was only asked whether or not they supported the NCG’s choice and were not given a full range of candidates to support. While support for Long-Bailey was strong, Rayner only scraped 52 per cent in this flawed poll.

After lacklustre campaigns especially from Long-Bailey, Starmer of course won the contest in the first round on April 4 2020, as did Rayner for the Deputy. This all happened as Covid infections soared and the first lockdown meant some of the last rallies in the campaign did not go ahead. Though some consoled themselves that Starmer’s leadership statement had included the statement; “I’ll retain the radicalism of the last four years” others of us were frustrated that people should be so duped.

Though some consoled themselves that Starmer’s leadership statement had included the statement; “I’ll retain the radicalism of the last four years” others of us were frustrated that people should be so duped.

Days after Starmer’s election a new political current, Forward Momentum was announced which was clearly critical of the previous Momentum leadership. Their candidates were chosen through open primaries which seemed promising.

Merseyside Labour councillor Christine Howard said: “Momentum started out with a plan to bridge the gap between social movements and the Labour Party. Over the last few years, this bridge has collapsed and members are now treated more like foot-soldiers to be mobilised in elections than organisers in our own right”. This takes us back to one of the fundamental questions at the beginning of this article.

It was not a big surprise that Lansman announced less than six weeks later that he would not re-stand in the forthcoming elections for the Momentum NCG. It was clear that the second major platform in the NCG elections, Momentum Renewal was seen as the more continuity slate. The statements from the two; Forward and Renewal however were not particularly explicit about political differences.

When the results were announced on July 1, Forward Momentum had swept the board winning all ‘all-member’ representative seats while Renewal took all the public representative seats. This gave Forward a significant majority on the NCG. After a difficult period since the December 2019 general election defeat did this mean that there would be a major process of re-evaluation and reassessment?

What has changed under Forward Momentum?

Two years on, there doesn’t seem to have been a major shift in Momentum’s direction. Failing to shake off the legacy of Lansman in challenging the ‘antisemitism’ witch-hunt, Momentum has neither mounted a serious political argument against the witch-hunt nor seriously supported individuals.

One of the big announcements of the new Momentum leadership was that it would put a lot of energy into eviction resistance. It seemed to make sense – and it’s an issue that young people inside and outside the party have put energy into through organisations like Acorn and the London Renters Union, which have grown during the period. It’s certainly true that there were legal restrictions on evictions during part of the pandemic but these were lifted on May 21, leading to a situation where between January and March of this year no-fault evictions were 41 per cent up on pre-pandemic levels.

I may not have been completely thorough but after a quick scan through my emails from Momentum over the last year I don’t see anything about evictions. Actually, I don’t see very much about supporting workers in struggle, supporting migrants under attack, opposing the police courts and sentencing bill and many other issues. I don’t see anything that seeks to make Momentum a force in the outside world, to act together to defend or extend people’s rights. I see lots of emails about internal labour party and internal Momentum processes – but without acting or at least trying to act to change things in the outside world, I fear people will be less motivated.

This is not to downplay that it’s been a difficult political period. The long duration of the Covid 19 pandemic has meant that in-person meetings have been few and far between – and for some of us completely ruled out.

The summer of 2020 did see an upsurge of protests in Britain around Black Lives Matter following George Floyd’s murder on May 25 but they didn’t really sustain when the country went back into a lockdown that autumn. Industrial action has until recently been at a very low level – last weekend was by far the biggest trade union gathering since the General election in 2019.

In terms of Momentum’s own process, the NCG announced a refounding process in June 2021 in order to develop a new constitution. The original edifice was both rather complex – but at the same time thin in terms of real participatory democracy.

The first thing that stands out is that sortition principles, i.e. random selection, are embedded for a majority of the participants in the Assemblies. This way of working, promoted on the left by Yannis Varoufakis and DIEM, undermines the principles of delegate accountability. That also goes alongside the fact that some on the Labour left during the same period have supported a move away from delegate General meetings to all member meetings (which amongst other things has undermined the role of the trade unions).

The second thing is that the ‘Assemblies aren’t sovereign decision-making bodies’ anyway; their role is to present proposals for the membership to vote on – and further that they ‘operate by consensus’ Then, as Ewan Cameron argued, the members had only two weeks to read, think and vote on all this stuff.

Where now?

This article is obviously primarily directed at those people who think that despite Starmer’s daily outrages the Labour Party continues to be a place worth organising. That clearly can’t and doesn’t need to be counterposed to so much else – solidarity with the rail workers, opposition to all the Tory attacks – that should be fought alongside anyone who agrees with those aspirations. Debating with those who disagree, who put forward other directions, is a fair enough objective, but not my objective here.

Despite all the problems which this article has drawn out, Momentum remains by far the largest organisation on the Labour Left. It’s the umbrella under which people organise in many localities. It’s the organisation which most of the young people who became involved through the Corbyn surge. look to. That’s why I don’t follow many others I know frustrated with their failings on the witch hunt, on democracy or on turning outwards and resigning.

As I conclude this piece, two major slates are standing again in the NCG elections that are about to drop. Forward Momentum has become Your Momentum – and is obviously the continuity slate this time around. The candidates and those that support them include many people in different parts of Britain for whom I have a great deal of respect. The new kid on the block is Momentum Organisers, and again those that I know have a lot to recommend them as good organisers and campaigners. But reading their websites and material on social media, yet again the political differences aren’t that clear.

The most revealing material I have come across so far is the pieces by Martin Abrams (Momentum Organisers) and Mish Rahman (Your Momentum) on Labour Hub. What I like about Abram’s piece is his critique of the ‘boosterism’ of the current Momentum leadership of the current relationship of forces. I think that approach comes from the same attitude to the membership as was prevalent under Lansman – if you don’t keep everyone cheerful they will walk away. It would have been difficult to retain everyone post the 2019 defeat election anyway – but this approach made it harder. In my view, Rahman ducks this key issue in what is effectively a reply to Abrams.

Rahman makes a big deal of the relationship the current Momentum leadership has built with Time for Real Change, which he describes as ‘the organised left in UNISON’. He is certainly not wrong to identify the fact Unison’s votes make a huge difference to the balance of forces in the party, especially at the National level. But given that that current suffered at best serious setbacks at the recent UNISON conference[ii] it seems problematic that this is not even mentioned. Even more significant is the fact that there has been no evidence of this relationship to most members of Momentum – no suggestion that members in local groups who are or know members of the union could get involved.

On the other hand, I don’t agree with everything Abrams claims either. He is very disparaging of the evictions resistance work that the current Momentum leadership aimed to promote. His suggestion is that it was ‘needlessly duplicating the great work of renters unions such as ACORN and the London Renters Union, without any social base from which to act. Predictably, it fell flat.’ I’m not convinced. Surely the Momentum initiative could have been posed as supporting and amplifying the voices of those campaigns that Abrams cites.

Further, he suggests that this misallocation of resources and energy was why Conference 2021 voted narrowly voted for most of Starmer’s reform of the electoral college. This seems to me to wrongly counterpose organising inside and outside the party – and to ignore the point he makes elsewhere in the article that both the left in the party and in Momentum itself has had a significant loss of membership during the same period. So I’m not arguing against effective organising – far from it – but that has to both take into account the real balance of forces – and find levers to improve it which often means bringing the struggles and energy from the workplaces and campaigns into the party.

At this point therefore I’m not convinced that either ‘side’ in this debate has all the solutions. That means my preferred outcome from the forthcoming NCG elections would be that both slates are well represented and therefore more likely to be receptive to voices outside their circles. The battle inside and outside the Labour Party, and for linking the two domains of struggle, needs to be taken into Momentum wherever and however it organises itself.


Footnotes

[i] There is also a problem with the SWP per se over their disgraceful response to a complaint of rape made by a young woman against a leading man where they refused to support the woman.

[ii] See the reports from Unison conference here here here and here


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