Momentum vs. Inertia
Waking up the morning after the Momentum National Committee, I had that feeling you have after a horrible break-up from someone you love. When you momentarily forget what happened, then you remember and the feeling of loss comes crushing down on you like a ton of bricks all over again.
It sounds like I’m being dramatic but for me, and so many people like me, Momentum has been imbued with meaning and significance above and beyond that of any other left-wing group or campaign. We haven’t only invested time and energy in Momentum, we’ve invested hopes, dreams and visions for the future in it.
Most important for many of us was the expectation of “a new kind of politics”, a term which now receives mockery and laughter from both the right and the left. We wanted “straight-talking, honest politics” which put an end to the jargon-laden, focus-group-speak that Tony Blair propagated so well. But we also wanted “a kinder, gentler politics” — Momentum was to be a group built on conciliatory, positive, outward-looking debate, which would be reflected in the way we treated each other, and our opponents. It is this goal which has perhaps fallen most spectacularly on its face.
Since the birth of Momentum in October 2015, it has travelled a rocky road but one littered with energy, passion and enthusiasm. At a national level, Momentum played a key role lobbying MPs when Parliament was voting on bombing Syria and provided vast resources to the Another Europe is Possible Remain-campaign. We significantly contributed volunteers to Parliamentary by-elections in Oldham and Tooting as well as the Mayoral and local elections this year and we secured a clean sweep for the left on Labour’s National Executive Committee. The fantastic team behind The World Transformed created a festival on the Labour fringe which got the most hardened Blairites gushing. Most importantly, we delivered a resounding 61.8% mandate for Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour leadership election — an improvement on the result from a year earlier, which was already the largest mandate any Labour leader ever had. At a local level, many Momentum groups have flourished — delivering political education workshops, running foodbanks, organising rallies, street-stalls and phone-banks during the leadership campaign and getting left-wing people elected to key positions in their local Constituency Labour Parties. These successes must not be minimized.
As to be expected with a fledgling organisation, which began with nothing but some data and a vague aim to “change politics and society”, there have been bumps in the road. Lewis Bassett of Lambeth Momentum has eloquently described the inevitable conflict between the two political strands which merged with Momentum’s inception — Labourism, those people steeped in the traditions and ideology of the British Labour movement, and Movementism, those activists which had previously spurned party-politics in favour of innovative and exciting campaigning organisations like Occupy, UK Uncut and Climate Camp. However, I would add to these two strands a third one: Trotskyism. Some people take offence at this term being used — understandably, as it is Tom Watson and the Labour right’s insult of choice for us. But we would be engaging in collective self-denial if we were to downplay it’s prevalence in Momentum. Dyed-in-the-wool Trotskyists are not the majority in Momentum. But they are a vocal, disruptive and over-bearing minority who have won themselves key position in the regional committees, National Committee and even the Steering Committee. To be clear, I am not anti-Trotskyist per se, and I recognise the enormous contributions that some Trotskyist thinkers and groups have made to political discourse, but the sectarian attitude taken by Trotskyist groups within Momentum is destructive to our movement.
This Momentum National Committee was my first ever. I was elected as Women’s Rep by the controversial OMOV system, using the new-fangled technologies provided by the hi-tech interwebs. The electorate for Women’s Rep was 7646 women, of which 728 voted (9.5%). There were 26 candidates and, along with Anita Downs from Lewisham, I was elected with 242 votes using the Scottish STV system. Not a huge turnout but, considering the incredibly short time-frame given to vote and the lack of clarity around the purpose of the elections, it was a reasonable amount. Ironically, those 242 votes I received gives me a much larger mandate than many of those delegates who bemoan OMOV as being ‘anti-democratic’.
Naively, I was excited for the National Committee. I expected an opportunity for each delegate to report back on what was going well and badly in their areas, a chance to compare experiences and share best practice. I was going to report on the Momentum Women (London) group which I’ve spent the last year involved in getting up and running, and experiences from my local group, Camden Momentum. I even thought I’d have a chance to discuss my idea for Momentum to run a national campaign against the Daily Mail and its hateful rhetoric. How silly I was.
Regarding the future structure of Momentum and its first ever national conference, I envisaged some kind of deliberative process to reach a compromise which ensured all groups felt valued. I took it as a given that most people would want to move on from the current structures whereby unrepresentative local groups elect delegates — usually either the loudest and bolshiest person in the room or the person with the most free time to dedicate towards activism — and propose pointless motions on policies which Momentum can’t implement, by way of it not being a political party, which are then thrashed out between people who have significant experience in long, boring meetings and take pleasure in angrily arguing for their own narrow and exclusionary political ideology.
This system of using inwardly-focussed and off-putting meetings to elect delegates to hierarchical structures and to discuss motions which are very rarely implemented has failed the left for at least the last century. Throughout British history, left-wing group after left-wing group has split — often several times over — or disintegrated, often over some relatively minor disagreement about which is the most ideologically pure political position to take. It can be argued that delegate structures have had success in the Labour Party and the trade unions but even then those structures are usually manipulated by activists and organisers using promotion of their slate to bolster their own “side”. This is inevitable and necessary in a political party which has people battling over which policy agenda to write into their manifesto, or a trade union whose political direction will directly impact the decisions they make regarding their members.
This tendency towards infighting and internal organising is not a luxury which can be afforded to Momentum. We are not running for political office, nor are we representing people in their workplaces. We are a left-wing campaigning organisation, attempting to use new and innovative methods to reform the Labour Party, reach out to communities, increase political participation, campaign and lobby on key issues and, above all else, help to deliver a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn in 2020 or before.
Two recent developments should have encouraged the left to rethink its stale and tired methods. One, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party using One-Member-One-Vote (OMOV), a system which the left originally resisted because its introduction was seen as an attempt to weaken trade union influence in the party. With hindsight, we can see that OMOV re-energises politics, empowers members and elects candidates most in-touch with the views of the electorate (or selectorate). Two, the internet. The World Wide Web — that invention which revolutionised communication and impacted every element of human life — should deserve considerable space in any political organisation attempting to bring something fresh and new to the table.
So, the unfortunate battle lines of Momentum’s National Committee were drawn around the introduction of OMOV and the use of the platform MxV. Momentum’s digital and social media team — who deserve credit for creating engaging online content, effective lobbying tools and methods for harvesting data — have built MxV and rolled it out to Momentum members. MxV is not intended to supplant face-to-face Momentum meetings, which play an invaluable role in deliberative democracy, helping to form opinions and foster supportive networks. MxV should instead complement that deliberative process by extending democracy to the 99% of people who aren’t able to give up their precious free-time to spend in political meetings.
Sixty-odd people attended National Committee and the room was pretty evenly split between those who favoured the new methods of OMOV and MxV and those who favoured the older methods of meetings and delegate structures. There were probably 6 or 7 delegates who were liable to sway in either direction.
The atmosphere in the room and the conduct of the delegates told a very depressing tale about the future of Momentum. To start with, the outspoken delegates from factions who desired to spend the day arguing about process and structure moved a procedural motion to re-order the agenda to bring that important business forward to much earlier, and not have the positive and unifying discussion on recent grassroots Momentum campaigns. I was running late, despite having caught the earliest possible train from Edinburgh and was being held hostage by Cross-Country trains, as were another two delegates. Despite protestations from other delegates, the same people who have spent the last six months whining about a lack of democracy in Momentum and claiming the National Committee to be the sovereign decision-making body of Momentum decided to change the agenda at the very last minute and take these important votes without three delegates present. It’s almost as if their commitment to democracy wavers when they spot an opportunity to push their own agenda ahead.
When I arrived what I witnessed was horrible. The generational divide was starkly visible for all to see. In the seats in the horseshoe-shape around the room were the pro-OMOV delegates — more likely to be younger, in the Labour Party and close to Momentum staff and Jon Lansman. In the seats in the centre of the room were the anti-OMOV delegates — more likely to be older, Trotskyist, seasoned in far-left factions, not in the Labour Party. It was like a doughnut of desire for change, with a sticky centre of angry socialist stalwarts.
The conduct of the most ultra-left delegates was disgraceful. Jill Mountford — leading member of the Alliance for Worker’s Liberty (AWL) — was openly bullying Huda Elmi — BAME officer for Labour Students. Jill was shouting at the younger delegates, heckling them when they spoke, patronising and mocking them directly to their faces, and leaping up out of her chair to contradict every statement they made. It is astonishing that such behaviour is tolerated in Momentum. Jill eventually succeeded in reducing Huda to tears — something she seemed entirely unapologetic about.
It is worth noting than those who oppose OMOV and MxV — many of whom would oppose anything if it appeared to be proposed by Jon Lansman — are not a united force. They roughly fall into three groups. Firstly, the AWL — a group with such extreme Trotskyist politics that they are almost a caricature of themselves — and their fellow travellers. Subtle support for imperialist wars, uncritical support for Israel and fanatical support for the European Union are amongst their policies. Secondly, those who feel very supportive of Jackie Walker, many of whom know her through the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) or anti-racism campaigning, and feel outraged that she was removed as Momentum’s Vice-Chair. I have sympathy for this group because I’ve campaigned for Palestine my entire adult life and know that censorship of free speech on Israel is a very real and dangerous thing. However, I — like many others — believe that Jackie Walker’s comments on Holocaust Memorial Day and security in Jewish schools were insensitive, unnecessary and entirely inappropriate to make at Labour Party conference, as Vice-Chair of Momentum. The rage felt by many when she was removed as Vice-Chair — which was a badly-handled and unpleasant affair — has rendered them unable to grasp the nuance of the situation and unable to appreciate that the action taken by Momentum’s Steering Committee was a reasonable compromise in the face of an escalating situation which Jackie Walker herself could have easily avoided. The third group is assorted people who, in the predictable way of the Left, despise any kind of leadership or authority and always suspect conspiracy and foul-play, even when it doesn’t exist.
It had been seven months since the National Committee last met. Seven months in which the AWL grew increasingly irate because Momentum was concentrating on getting Jeremy Corbyn re-elected, rather than in holding meetings for warring factions to trade blows with each other. Seven months in which the Momentum Steering Committee made silly decisions which damaged their own credibility and legitimacy — including the handling of Jackie Walker’s situation, the 24-hours notice given to call a Steering Committee meeting, the lack of open and transparent communication on decision-making. Seven months in which those who rallied around Jackie Walker had their initial hurt and anger stoked by baseless allegations of racism and of a ‘Zionist conspiracy’ against absolutely everybody who didn’t agree with them. Seven months in which these various groups did their upmost to whip everyone else up into a frenzied atmosphere of hatred of Jon Lansman. Online and in local groups, Jon Lansman is demonised, vilified and dehumanised by people who have comparatively not committed an iota of time or energy to the cause of the left in their lives. For all his flaws, Jon Lansman has dedicated his life to reforming the Labour Party, improving the prospects of the left and advancing socialist ideas in the Labour Party. Now people who have only recently flocked into the Labour Party from other left-wing parties seek to agitate against Jon Lansman, in the hope that they can take ownership of Momentum for themselves.
It is in the context of these bitter and hurt groups that we lost any proposal to use OMOV for elections — other than for those areas of the country which don’t have local Momentum groups — and lost the proposal to use MxV to propose and vote on motions. These groups are unified only by their opposition to Jon Lansman and their realisation that the existing structures and processes are those which benefit themselves and their style of politics. As many of the leading figures amongst these groups are either retired or full-time activists, they are blessed with the time to organise, factionalise and marginalise. Futhermore, they are experienced and talented at argumentative and divisive politics in a way that others aren’t and this puts them at a distinct advantage. For someone like Nick Wrack — who has used countless left-wing groups to try and promote himself, including standing as a candidate for TUSC at the last election — Momentum is just another vehicle to extend their own power and influence. Given that Nick Wrack, Jill Mountford and Jackie Walker are, in turn, blocked, expelled and suspended from being members of the Labour Party, it is unsurprising that they care little for reforming and democratising the Labour Party and even less so about getting it elected into government.
In January this year, I fought for Momentum to introduce these regional and national democratic structures, as I envisaged an open, transparent and representative internal democracy. Instead, we inevitably and depressingly, have had a growth of factionalism and sectarianism. Naively, I assumed that all Momentum members would be focussed on building a positive and unprecedented movement to transform the Labour Party and society. I never could have imagined the sheer capacity that some people have to endlessly argue with each other, either over the boring bureaucracy of structures and process or pointless motions on policies they can’t implement because they’re not actually a party.
In January, I also argued that Momentum should be open to people who are not Labour Party members, as I thought we would provide a bridge for those people not typically interested in party politics to become involved through community organising. Now I realise it’s only become a bridge for those left-wing figures of the past hell-bent on their own self-promotion to get their moment in the limelight once more. Far too many people brought their previous political baggage into the organisation with them and chose to promote their specific political ideology, over concentrating on the shared cause that unites us all. Six months ago, I had no ‘side’ within Momentum and didn’t even realise there were ‘sides’ to take. I am now referred to by the AWL and others as ‘The Right’ of Momentum — this is a beyond absurd situation where people like myself, who have organised on the Left for many years are referred to as ‘The Right’. Others call me part of a ‘Jon Lansman faction’ and those with the most wild imaginations have started using the disgraceful term ‘Alt-Stalinist’ to mock us online. Let me be clear — I was born only shortly before the Berlin Wall fell. I have never felt any need to define myself or my politics by any dead Russian man, and neither would I be able to. I’m a socialist and a Labour Party member and that’s it.
So what now? Those groups who preach democracy day-in day-out decided that the wholly democratic OMOV system which re-energised the Labour Party and elected, then re-elected Jeremy Corbyn, isn’t good enough for Momentum. They squandered the opportunity to use a digital platform to engage and democratise the wider membership who don’t have the time or inclination to dedicate their lives to hostile and unwelcoming political meetings. As a result of cynical power-plays by individuals more concerned with their own rivalries and egos than with the success of the wider labour movement, Momentum National Committee has now decided that the future of Momentum will identically replicate the alienating and inward-looking structures which have caused other left-wing groups to become a total irrelevance. No use of digital technology, no modernisation, no inclusivity, no innovation, no experimentation, no change, no compromise and definitely no “new kind of politics”.
And all this division, bullying and dirty tricks for what? Ultimately, the aim of these assorted people is to oust the “evil” Jon Lansman, who is the Director of the company which holds all of Momentum’s data. Doing this will inevitably split the organisation in two, repelling the majority of members who did not sign-up for hard-left warfare. There are 165,157 people on Momentum database, 20,736 of which are Momentum members. That data would be gold dust for those who want to take over from Jon Lansman, and hugely aide them in advancing their own agenda. Before long, they will realise that they actually hate each other even more than they hated Lansman, and have extremely different politics, particularly on the emotive issue of Palestine, causing a secondary split in Momentum. After that, Jeremy Corbyn will inevitably make one compromise or concession that isn’t ideologically-pure enough for them and they will abandon him and Labour altogether to turn Momentum into a rival left-wing party. It will be a husk of a movement, nothing but a famous name and a huge database of disenchanted and disenfranchised members, which will only be utilised to support candidates like Nick Wrack, Jackie Walker or Jill Mountford to be Momentum MPs. When they lose those contests, taking a handful of Labour votes with them in the process, their Momentum Party will die the same pathetic death as every other Trotskyist party in British history. And the generation of young activists — inspired and politicised by Jeremy Corbyn— will lose their only opportunity to change politics for the better, and consequently become permanently disillusioned. So much for the “new kind of politics”.
The alternative to this doom-and-gloom scenario is the hopeful option of compromise and unity, something which I believe the majority of Momentum members support. Local groups are mainly blissfully aware of the horrible proceedings which take place at regional and national level. Most of these hard-working activists are still dedicated and committed to our common cause: opening up politics, re-energising the Labour Party and getting a Labour government elected. If we can return once more to our original aim, and promote the authentic voices of Momentum’s grassroots over those delegates on the National Committee, then there is hope yet for Momentum.