Delivering Consequences: How Momentum can make a difference locally
I gave a shortened version of this talk to a Dulwich & West Norwood Momentum meeting last week, I thought it might be useful to put up as a very initial outline of some of the things we could be doing now Corbyn’s won again. In the spirit of these things being, ultimately, practical questions, some of us are going to set up a breakfast club in Peckham, as well as pitching the ideas to Momentum groups, get in touch if you’re interested in getting involved.
I want to start with a quote from Huey Newton about the political practice of the Black Panther Party- incidentally, if there are any journalists here doing a squalid undercover job, a speaker quoting Newton can be the basis of your story, and you can go home now- for Newton, if you cannot “deliver consequences”, you’re politically useless. Momentum across South London has real potential to deliver consequences in housing and other urban struggles but, so far, has failed to make good on this potential.
This potential lies in two aspects of Momentum. Firstly, our numbers, we’ve been told that Southwark Momentum has 1,500 people in the borough on its contact list, and I expect the numbers are similar or greater in Lambeth. It is not just a question of mere numbers, though that’s important, but also the skills, experiences and enthusiasm these people could bring, as well as the skills they could acquire. Secondly, Momentum should be able to serve as a means of transmitting the popular needs, experiences and demands that are organised in grassroots struggles which often have an extra-parliamentary ethos in such a way that local Labour councillors are further challenged their failures. When the Labour Right say “we” can’t achieve anything if we’re not in power, they obscure both that Labour is in power in local government in large parts of the country and that, often, that local power is used to do appalling things. Momentum as an organisation, largely, of Labour party members, could (and absolutely should) do a great deal to help struggles against what Labour councils do.
So far then, Momentum has largely failed to make use of this potential, there has been a certain drift and, understandably, given the leadership contest too great a focus on merely supporting Corbyn and on battles within the Party particularly orientated towards the national not the local. To an extent, I think, this lack of focus is also a symptom of where Momentum could be really useful, a slight lack of direction is the understandable result of an organisation with large numbers of enthusiastic people, many of whom are quite new to politics. The question then is how to both make use of and build people’s skills, enthusiasm and experiences.
I’m also involved, though less than I should be, in Housing Action Southwark and Lambeth, who struggle together to solve our housing problems, precisely delivering consequences. There are a number of lessons we should learn from HASL and they also provide a basis for thinking about how and in what areas we should be transmitting popular struggles in such a way as to impact on council policies and decisions within the Labour Party. One of the major problems HASL’s members face in their struggle for decent housing is council gatekeeping, this is prevalent in Lambeth and even more so in Southwark and effects, in particular, women and children of colour, with particular impacts on domestic violence survivors. Gatekeeping involves a set of practices and policies in housing offices that through lies and sometimes intimidation seek to prevent people accessing housing support to which they are legally entitled.
The first thing to say about gatekeeping is that as a Labour member I am ashamed- and other Labour members here should be too- that it is a group of people who if they define themselves politically at all it is as anarchists who are having to fight a Labour council to ensure people’s access to the tattered remnants of the welfare state in housing. This situation demands that we make ourselves useful to these struggles. On gatekeeping I don’t think the best option is necessarily for Momentum members to get involved in HASL, although it is vital to familiarise ourselves with the experiences and struggles of their members. Where I think we can be useful is in organising within the Labour Party to challenge councillors on this. We should be consistently bringing gatekeeping up at ward meetings, at the moment councillors present, and I think a lot of members, if they have even heard about it, believe this, gatekeeping as essentially an apolitical matter of administration. Here struggles against gatekeeping are represented, including by people on the left, as less political and they register less, than, for example, estate demolitions. I think underpinning this is a situation where gatekeeping in the first instance is experienced by individuals facing a bureaucratic apparatus whilst estate demolitions are experienced by a group of people facing an clear decision by the council in a political capacity. This is not to say struggles against estate demolitions are an insignificant struggle, they are not, they are key, but it is to say that to focus on council’s involvement in just this part of the housing crisis misses the political content and with it our capacity to challenge of other struggles. We have a duty, first, to force councillors to admit that gatekeeping is, similarly, a political choice, and with that is the proper business of political action to challenge.
Secondly, and moving on to considering the 2018 council elections, we have further power to bring against gatekeeping. We should with s view to the contents of the local manifesto be demanding (and carrying out) widespread popular consultations among the real experts in the housing crisis, not Savills, who have carried out a number of consultations for Southwark and Lambeth, but the people on its sharp end, who need resilience, bravery and expertise to merely survive it and whose needs should be those guiding party policy both locally and nationally. Moreover, we need to be ready to run candidates in council selections, which are open, although potential candidates to be approved by the local party, we also need to get our people into this role. Councillors who initiate policies and take decisions which lead to a woman who has suffered 33 years of domestic violence being told she is not entitled to the housing she needs, councillors who close libraries or councillors who order demolitions of council housing do not deserve our support, they’re being allowed to run as Labour councillors demeans Labour and it demeans us. This is not to demand a socialist programme, or a no-cuts budgets, though that is a discussion we should be having, it is to argue for council programmes of a minimal degree of humanity.
The second lesson we should learn from HASL is around the centrality of questions of social reproduction, what members describe as “survival politics”. HASL holds a lunch club every month, which involves communally providing tasty, nutritious food as well as a space for parents and children to socialise and opportunities to discuss and receive advice about housing problems. HASL is a small group with a core of people working heroically (and I mean this, it’s not rhetorical), Momentum is a very large group by contrast, we could achieve a huge amount without any need for heroic effort.
Some of my friends in HASL are extremely critical of Corbyn and Momentum, arguing that it drags people into a useless kind of politics rather than the obviously effective work that groups like HASL do. I don’t agree, or rather, I think the question is open- “the question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Men and women must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.” Momentum does not just have large numbers of members, it has a capacity to attract very large numbers of people that both unfortunately and for various reasons various anarchist groups have failed to do. Momentum, therefore, is not a distraction, drawing in people who would otherwise being doing better work, but an organisation that can attract people who would not otherwise be involved in politics. 1,500 people in a borough makes possible much more than monthly lunch clubs, it means daily breakfast and lunch clubs or food banks, information and support on housing, benefits and other legal issues, education provision, especially political education and cultural opportunities that increasingly denied to working class children and childcare- and here Momentum Kids is a cheering idea- is possible.
This sort of organising can be done on a pluralistic, open basis, and could build unity in the Party, one may have different opinions on the leadership, but cooking breakfasts together could transcend that. We also need to be open to organising with non-political people and people in other left parties and organisations. However, I would say, at this point, we also need to take a strong line against organising with the SWP, this is not for sectarian reasons but because their record in dealing with rape allegations means their involvement in anything compromises women’s safety. To this, I’d also like to add that’s it’s wrong that Jeremy Corbyn is planning to speak on a platform Weyman Bennett, one of the SWP central committee most involved in the cover up, at the Stand Up to Racism (an SWP front organisation) event. Corbyn should, I think, withdraw from this.
If we cannot organise in our communities to deliver positive consequences for people struggling to survive in the neoliberal city, whose horrors are further compounded by Tory policies and by the decisions of Labour councils, we are, to put it bluntly, a joke. If we can start being able to deliver consequences locally, rooting Momentum and the Labour Party strongly in local community participation, drawing large numbers of people and struggles together.