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Momentum – the untold (January 2016 – March 2017)

In this article, which is in two parts, HOT’s Sean O’Shea describes the struggle for power and control between different factions within Momentum in the past year, and the evolution of the local Hastings’ Momentum group. It’s a drama of great expectations and enduring disappointments, and raises the question: what’s left of the Left?

Our goal is to increase participatory democracy, solidarity, and grassroots power and to help Labour become the transformative governing party of the twenty-first century.

National Organisers for Momentum, February 2016

Introduction

In what follows I have only briefly sketched what is a complex, ongoing, contentious and dramatic series of events within the British left both locally and nationally. I have therefore included more notes than usual so that readers who may wish to investigate the subject further can do so.

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Momentum was launched in early October 2015, by Jon Lansman, British Labour Party activist, and some other organisers of the effort which got Jeremy Corbyn elected Labour leader. It expanded rapidly with upwards on 150 local branches forming across the country and was described as probably the biggest network of left groups since the National Left Wing Movement of the mid-1920s.

It initially presented itself as a broad left alliance developed to promote a new inclusive bottom up politics based on participatory democracy through self- activating local groups & branches in support of Jeremy Corbyn.

Conflict soon developed over the leadership of the movement with opposing factions presenting contrasting visions of how the organisation should be structured and constituted. According to the Red Pepper Magazine, January 17th, 2017, “One ‘side’ presented itself as saving Momentum from the ‘hard left’ and irrelevance, and the other ‘side’ from centrally-based authoritarians who would alienate its activist base.” www.redpepper.org.uk/we-must-transform-momentum-beyond-just-its-structures/

In January 2017 following a ‘survey’ by Momentum – to which reportedly 40 per cent of members responded – the organisation’s steering committee voted by a majority to introduce a new constitution and dissolve all Momentum’s existing elected committees.

Critics of the coup alleged that Momentum founder, Jon Lansman and his allies had effectively used their control of the database, the office and the means of communication to shut down any meaningful democracy within the organisation.

A spokesperson for Momentum said that the new constitution would ensure it was a truly members-led movement that would empower local activists to directly vote on constitutional amendments and campaign priorities via a ‘digital democracy platform’.

Momentum would also affiliate to the Labour Party thus terminating its role as a vehicle for the wider British left. And all members would be required to join the Labour Party by the first of July 2017 or quit the group.

It was reported that 29 out of 150 Momentum branches condemned the coup, and the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) and Red Labour refused to participate in the elections to the newly created National Coordinating Group (NCG).

According to the new constitution the NCG reportedly arrogated to itself the main responsibility for the governing of Momentum and could essentially block any decisions that it didn’t like without consultation with the membership.

The NCG would also self-select all of Momentum’s officers, meaning that the future chair, treasurer, secretary etc. would not be elected by the wider membership or be recallable by them. Other powers included the ability to refuse membership to anybody and derecognise any groups or networks that it didn’t like.

According to Lambeth Activist, Jamie Green, all the rhetoric about participatory democracy and one member one vote (OMOV) was undermined by its significant limits, and “the centralisation of power to the NCG means that, contrary to what’s been promised, Momentum will be more top-down than ever before.” (See notes below ref Jamie Green)

Those who opposed the coup, which included left wing activist Jackie Walker and Jill Mountford, Alliance for Workers’ Liberty’ (AWL), organised what was referred to as a ‘Grassroots Momentum ’ conference at the Conway Hall in London in March 2017, and a further meeting was held in June to protest against recent events and decide what could be done.

They contended that the post-coup Momentum structure was not one of instant online democracy, with every important decision made online on a one member one vote (OMOV) basis. On the contrary, most decision-making would be in the hands of the unelected office staff and a few unelected directors.

Nick Wrack, Labour Party Socialist Network, didn’t pull his punches and in his report of the Momentum National Committee, 7th February 2017 wrote: “In forty years activity in the Labour movement I have not experienced anything like it. Imagine one morning you wake up and read that the president of your union has decided to cancel the annual conference; abolish the national committee and the regional committees; and to impose a new way of electing a new, different national leadership body. There would be uproar. There would be a revolt from below.” www.socialistnetwork.org.uk/author/nickw

He went on to question how Momentum could argue, without embarrassment, for the Labour Party to be democratised, when it tolerated such a power grab.

To thine own self be true

On Saturday 11th March I headed for London to attend the planned ‘Momentum Grassroots’ conference. The importance of self-knowledge is alluded to in the motto painted across the proscenium arch at Conway Hall: ‘To thine own self by true’. As I sat there waiting for the meeting to begin, I wondered awhile about the significance of this maxim in our ‘post-truth’ society, where intensity of feeling rather than critical reflection and reasoned debate seems to predominate. Well, feelings were certainly expressed in the speeches and debates that followed: shock, anger, dismay, and bewilderment were voiced by speaker after speaker at the brazenness of Lansman’s very British coup, and the devious, heavy handed way in which it was accomplished.

Nick Wrack’s pessimism was echoed by some of the Labour Party Marxists’ (LPM) who questioned if Momentum could ever be transformed into a democratic organisation that could activate and empower the rank and file membership. In line with the pluralism and inclusivity that inspired Momentum from the beginning they argued that the membership should still be open to all in the broad left who shared the above vision.

The possibility of splitting off as a separate group was considered and debated but, perhaps acknowledging their own weakness, the majority of comrades opted to try to change things from within. A committee was elected with the aim of doing further work ‘building the grassroots’.

Some months later I emailed Grassroots Committee member Jill Mountford to enquire if the group was still functioning and if there were any events planned. Unfortunately I received no reply. Therefore I can’t confirm the present status of this faction.

On my quest for some local political arena which might permit open discussion of these dramatic events, I also contacted the LRC, a democratic organisation committed to fighting for a socialist future, of which John Mc Donnell is the Honorary President, and which was reportedly critical of the Lansman coup. I enquired if the Hastings & Rother LRC group was still in existence. I received no reply to this enquiry either.

This series of incidents made me seriously wonder what was left of the Left, both locally and nationally!

And as to participatory democracy, a brief glance at the recent so called ‘radical’ Labour Party manifesto, For the Many not the Few, is also a revealing reference point. Contrary to common perception, there is no mention in this manifesto of ‘participatory democracy’ and, even more surprisingly, no reference to ‘socialism’ either.

In the chapter entitled ‘extending democracy’ on page 102, there is a commitment to establish a ‘convention’ which will ‘advise’ on ways of extending democracy locally, regionally and nationally.

In common parlance this is called kicking a very important issue into the long grass!

Creating self-activating networks

 A positive proposal for creating self-activating networks, which I submitted for consideration by key personnel in the Hastings Momentum group in February 2017, will be described in part two of this article.

 Notes

For more detailed information and criticism of the new Momentum constitution see: Jamie Green’s article at, https://theclarionmag.org/2017/02/21/jc/ , and or Google: 4 reasons why Momentum’s new constitution isn’t democratic at all.

For more information on the groups referred to in this article see:

Labour Representation Committee: www.l-r-c.org.uk

Labour Party Marxists: www.labourpartymarxists.org.uk

The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, also known as Workers’ Liberty: www.workersliberty.org

Labour Party Socialist Network: www.socialistnetwork.org.uk , and Nick Wrack’s report of the Momentum National Committee www.socialistnetwork.org.uk/author/nickw

Red Labour: www./en-gb.facebook.com/RedLabour2016

Red Pepper is a bi-monthly magazine and website of left politics and culture: www.redpepper.org.uk  On the subject of Momentum see: www.redpepper.org.uk/we-must-transform-momentum-beyond-just-its-structures/

Part two of this article will be published in the HOT next week.

 

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Posted 13:09 Friday, Sep 22, 2017 In: SOS

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