Who runs Momentum?

By KD Tait This Saturday, Momentum’s long-delayed National Committee will meet for the first time in seven months to discuss arrangements for Momentum’s first national conference, democratic processes, motions from regional committees, and various organisational matters.

Momentum’s first year was dominated by the successful campaign to preserve Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. In the process it has recruited over 20,000 members and organised thousands into local groups across the country, which carry out a wide variety of activity, from winning victories for the left at CLP and branch AGMs, to supporting campaigns against NHS privatisation, and hosting film showings and political education.

In many respects Momentum is a thriving organisation. The hard work and commitment of its grassroots has overcome the onslaught of the media and the right wing of the Labour Party to secure important victories we can all be proud of.

But the balance sheet also needs a realistic assessment of the problems encountered during our first year in existence, to inform the debates about Momentum’s future and purpose.

The most disappointing aspect of Momentum’s development has been the emergence of familiar bureaucratic vices in the leadership of an organisation that claims to represent “a new kind of politics”.

The original, self-appointed leaders or ‘founders’ of Momentum, first tried to appoint a National Committee of hand-picked people. When a rebellion forced them to allow a more representative ‘interim’ NC to be elected from regional committees, they used their majority on the Steering Committee to ensure the NC met just twice before it was suspended for the duration of the second leadership election.

In October a Steering Committee meeting called with less than 24 hours notice decided to suspend the November NC and impose a controversial method for organising a ‘conference’ with online voting. This needless provocation caused a backlash amongst the members, with several regions condemning the SC majority for acting without a mandate. Following the intervention of John McDonnell, a unanimous statement from the SC suggested a compromise “recommendation” to the December NC.

Just two weeks before the NC was due to meet it was announced that a series of elections for new NC delegates representing liberation caucuses, and members not in local groups, would be held via a ‘one member one vote’ (OMOV) online ballot. This was at best a clumsy and bureaucratic solution to a problem that the leadership had never shown any previous interest in solving. The low turnout in these elections was predictable and perhaps unfairly casts doubt on the legitimacy of many of the candidates.

But what really demonstrates the contempt for due process and democracy was the decision by the office and leadership clique to launch ‘MxV’ - presenting the NC with a fait accompli and pre-empting discussion over how to organise the conference.

The ‘MxV’ website says: “As a Momentum member, you have a right to submit, debate, amend, support and composite proposals which will be debated at the national conference.… New proposals can be made between now and 1 January, after which there is a further period in which proposals can be amended and composited until 14 January. The process from here onwards will be agreed by Momentum's national committee in December.”

Whatever the merits of online voting and discussion, the decision to unilaterally impose a method which is widely contested, without allowing the NC to make a decision, reveals the proprietorial attitude and distrust of the members’ elected representatives on the part of the office faction.

This brief summary shows that the real decisions in Momentum are not made by its Steering Committee, let alone by its National Committee. Momentum in reality has been effectively run by the office staff, volunteers and the SC members around Jon Lansman (who in any case is not an elected member of any committee but only a representative of his blog Left Futures).

The point of this criticism is not to denigrate the work of Momentum’s full time staff or volunteers or denounce them as bureaucrats; rather we want to show that these methods are an imitation of the stifling bureaucratic rule in the Labour Party and trade unions, and similarly obstruct the creation of a genuinely representative and accountable leadership. The result is a leadership whose decisions are not informed by and do not correspond to the experience and needs of the members.

These methods generate political atrophy and give rise to factional disputes and manipulation, intensifying the problem because there is no mechanism for allowing the members to decide - no way of obliging Momentum’s different political tendencies to accept that the democratic choice of the members must take precedence over preserving their own factional schemes and power bases.

The most benign consequence of Momentum’s bureaucratic rule are initiatives launched with more enthusiasm than planning. These often have merit and can be improved by collective discussion. But the serious side to it is the creation of policy by diktat where members find out Momentum’s policy in the pages of the anti-Corbyn media.

From the decision that Momentum should not call for no cuts budgets, to opposition to mandatory selection and the latest attempt to reclaim the reactionary Brexit vote and give it a leftwing gloss by appropriating the UKIP slogan ‘Take Back Control’, the use of spokespeople to announce decisions with zero democratic legitimacy is setting a dangerous precedent that disenfranchises the members.

Underlying this behaviour is the idea that Momentum should be a network for promoting Jeremy Corbyn’s policies and defending his leadership against the right wing of the Labour Party, with political debate and education existing on the periphery, perhaps outsourced to an arms-length organisation like The World Transformed. This methodology relies on having an efficient team of organisers who run social media campaigns, liaise with the media, and interpret the aggregated views of members whose participation is restricted to engaging with social media, voting in online referendums and fundraising.

An alternative view is the project to create a political current within the labour movement able to independently fight for the policies that Corbyn was elected on in 2015 - without limiting our political horizons and ambitions to the intrigues and compromises dictated by manoeuvres within the Parliamentary Labour Party. The threat of Labour’s capitulation over defending the rights of migrants and freedom of movement and the decision to postpone the democracy debate at the NEC shows how important this is. This kind of organisation relies on the ability of members to put their judgement and experience of what tactics and strategies are effective into practice, through a process of democratic debate and collective decision making.

This debate over the nature and purpose of Momentum cannot be avoided. Its outcome will determine the future of the struggle within the Labour Party and the wider working class movement. It’s no exaggeration to say it will have a material impact on what kind of Brexit we get and Labour’s electoral prospects in the next election.

But, whichever road is chosen by Momentum’s conference next year, the question of a democratic leadership, that takes its political mandate from a thorough democratic process, and whose members are individually and collectively accountable and recallable will remain paramount if the organisation is to go forwards.

The National Committee has the vital job of ensuring that Saturday’s meeting defends this principle and uses the fact that the majority of its members have real and recent mandates from branches and regions to ensure it makes the final decisions over the vitally important decisions ahead.

Momentum’s December NC is a chance to start putting things right

Fidel Castro, 1926-2016