Open Letter to Jon Lansman and the Momentum Steering Committee

To: Jon Lansman and the Momentum Steering Committee

From: Joan Walton

Subject: Momentum, and the co-creation of a participatory grassroots democracy

I want to change the way we do our politics. I want to be far more participatory, bringing in people who have ideas, people who may or may not have gone to a university, but have good ideas… letting people’s ideas flow, with imagination.”

Jeremy Corbyn: (SOAS 29 June 2016) [1]

Proposal

As a member of the Worcester Momentum group, I would like to propose a national Momentum event which is facilitated using the method described by Roy Madron in his paper ‘What’s Wrong With OMOV’ (https://medium.com/@ROY_MADRON/whats-wrong-with-omov-3c3147a086ab#.1onu1u1j0)

An invitation could be sent out to all Momentum members which would look something like this:

You are invited to join with other Momentum members in a highly participatory gathering, which will address the following question:
How can we work together to create a new kind of politics, which aims to achieve a fairer, more socially just and intelligent form of grassroots democracy.”
The format of this event would create multiple dialogues in which the participants share their ideas, and listen to others, in an ethos of positive thinking and mutual respect.
Through the involvement of action researchers, and facilitators from a wide range of organisations, the learning from this and similar events could be shared and refined throughout the Labour movement and the communities it serves.

This proposal offers a way to start to explore the practical implications of Jeremy Corbyn’s vision of a new kind of politics; a politics that promotes the development of a grassroots democracy.

It is absolutely right for Jeremy Corbyn to encourage the active participation of all thinking people in political decision-making about the issues that directly affect their lives. However there is one key difficulty; and that is, that this is not the way that democracy has ever been understood and practised in the UK — and probably not anywhere else either. What ‘democracy’ has meant for over 200 years is that we are each given the opportunity to vote for who is going to represent us in government; but once that vote has been cast, it is the elected representatives and the leaders of the winning faction that take decisions on the major issues facing the nation, or city or state.

The extent to which a Prime Minister feels authorised to make those decisions was communicated by Margaret Thatcher to a former adviser, ‘Hamish’, when he returned to Number 10 to attend a reception[2].

Mrs. Thatcher: “How nice to see you, Hamish. We haven’t seen you in ages. What are you doing now?”

Hamish: “I’m the Director of the XXX Leadership Programme at the University of YYYY”.

Mrs.Thatcher: (Looking puzzled and disappointed) “Really? Director of a Leadership Programme?”

Hamish: (Bracing himself ) “Yes, Prime Minister.”

Mrs. Thatcher: “Mmmm. You know, Hamish, I never understand why people think leadership is so complicated. For me, it’s perfectly simple. I decide what has to be done, I tell people to do it, and then they do it. And if they don’t or can’t, I find someone who can. What’s so difficult about that?”

And, as Hamish’s mouth opened and closed and his eyelids fluttered , the Prime Minister smiled serenely and moved on.’

Thatcher’s extreme ‘Command and Control’ view of leadership is still the dominant model that prevails in British politics. Inevitably, one of the main criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn is that, as he does not behave in this autocratic kind of way, he is a weak, rather than a strong leader.

However as Roy Madron points out in https://medium.com/@ROY_MADRON/the-corbyn-model-of-leadership-a7a006405f27#.2xu9wefwo, autocratic leadership is not the only, nor (I would suggest) the best model for arriving at good decisions about the complex issues facing our societies. Instead Corbyn supports a facilitative style of leadership; which means he sees it as his role to create processes whereby any interested person can engage in constructive dialogue on major political issues.

This is music to my ears, being someone who has taught and practised facilitative styles of leadership, and active participation in learning and decision making, since the 1970’s. I know of many like-minded professionals working in public, private and not-for-profit sectors, who understand from experience that a well-facilitated, collaborative process of decision-making, has more effective and ‘wise’ outcomes than those which result from a command and control model of leadership.

Making Corbyn’s Vision Work

Momentum, the social movement that emerged from Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for the Labour leadership, was itself the consequence of a rapidly accelerating grassroots campaign. On its website it states its purpose:

Momentum exists to build on the energy and enthusiasm from the ‘Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader’ campaign to increase participatory democracy, solidarity, and grassroots power and help Labour become the transformative governing party of the 21st century.” (http://www.peoplesmomentum.com/)

Following Corbyn’s successful re-election as Labour Leader, Momentum is suffering from an uncertainty as how to put its purpose into effect. This is hardly surprising. A form of politics, which encourages the active participation of community members in political decision-making about the issues that directly affect their lives, has not previously existed in Britain.

Given this political and social context, with the powerful social conditioning that it cultivates, it is understandable why neither Jeremy Corbyn, nor the leaders of Momentum, quite know where to go from here. For they are indeed breaking new ground in the prevailing governmental culture.

However the knowledge and skills to create the envisioned transformative change do exist. Roy Madron, in a second paper (https://medium.com/@ROY_MADRON/whats-wrong-with-omov-3c3147a086ab#.1onu1u1j0), writes in detail about the challenges facing those who wish to develop democratic processes of government; but in addition to identifying the difficulties, Madron also provides clear information about how to facilitate large groups, leading to a truly democratic process of decision-making. Those readers who are only interested in the practicalities of facilitation should omit the first part of the paper, and start with the heading “Nominal Group Processes”. Madron also provides a link to an excellent ‘Ted Talks’ presentation by Jay Vogt on “The Art of Facilitation: Changing the Way the World Meets”[3].

Momentum, Jeremy Corbyn and the link to Action Research

In breaking new ground, with the aim of creating a ‘new kind of politics’ which encourages the participation of all thinking people at a grassroots level, we need to acquire new knowledge. Normally, the creation of new knowledge comes under the heading of ‘research’; and many people associate research with scientists in laboratories undertaking experiments under carefully controlled conditions. However, there has been a growing interest in some university faculties in what is loosely termed as ‘research for social justice’. Researchers who engage in a cyclical process of action and reflection (Action Researchers) are exploring methodologies that can create knowledge with (rather than on) others, about how to increase social justice in a world where, as more traditional research has highlighted, there exist extreme inequalities. It is recognised that these inequalities are not based only, or even mainly, on inadequacies of the individual (which the traditional Conservative politician would have us believe), but rather are sustained by the nature of existing social systems and structures. The issue is, traditional research methodologies are able to define in great detail the nature and extent of the problems; but they are not able to provide the means to research what kind of action can be taken to resolve them.

Action research is an umbrella terms for a range of approaches, both individual and cooperative, to creating new knowledge. However, all action research approaches have a shared principle: the focus is on improving the existing situation through a continuing cyclical process which includes:

1. Having an experience (action in the world)

2. Reflecting (thinking about the experience, including what went well, and what went not so well).

3. Theorising about how things might be done differently.

4. Planning how to put the theory into practice, informed by the learning gained from the previous experience, and the reflections on that experience.

This cyclical process continues, with the knowledge gained being recorded and written up for others to learn from and use in their own practice.

As an action researcher based in a UK university, I would (if my proposal is of interest to Momentum) like to put out a call to other interested people, to work together with the aim of learning how to set up of democratic processes in Momentum and local communities around the UK, designed and facilitated in ways identified by Madron.

The learning from these processes would be recorded, written up, and disseminated widely for others to read, so that their own practice can be informed. Thus the growth in knowledge about how to develop a participatory grassroots democracy would evolve over time, as people learned what it means to actively participate in political decision making in their own communities.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvK08ZlnO-c

[2] As told by Roy Madron, in The Corbyn Model of Leadership, https://medium.com/@ROY_MADRON/the-corbyn-model-of-leadership-a7a006405f27#.5j69sjerj

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfZOvSU8PJE