A (partisan) explainer of Momentum’s latest furore

If my facebook is anything to go by, reactions to Momentum’s somewhat chaotic weekend can be grouped into two categories: outrage or bafflement. Those in the former category are incensed that Momentum’s Steering Committee has postponed its National Committee and mandated how decisions should be made at Momentum’s founding conference . In the latter category are people surprised that Momentum had a Steering Committee or a National Committee, and therefore are unsure what to think about one postponing or overriding the other. Both these reaction are reasonable, and are to a large degree the result of an unfortunate lack of transparency on the part of Momentum’s leadership up to now.

I fall into a third category. Though I mourn the fallout resulting from the decision, and think the processes that preceded it could have been managed better, I think the decision itself was the correct one. In mandating that Momentum’s permanent structures would be decided by One Member One Vote, which should be preceded by a deliberative process both in groups and online, Momentum’s leadership may have finally put the organisation on a sustainable and transparent footing. Of course, any positive outcome will depend on the wounds opened last weekend being healed. It will also require all Momentum members to not lose sight of the wider political context we find ourselves in, or lose sight of what Momentum’s purpose can actually be.

For my baffled friends: a partisan account of Momentum’s structures up to now

Momentum was launched last October by Jon Lansman and key volunteers from Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign. The idea was to maintain the energy generated in the election campaign, by launching a network to communicate and promote Corbyn’s values inside and outside the Labour Party. In response to a call from the centre, within six months over 100 Momentum local groups were set up around the UK.

During its initial months, volunteers and a core team of three staff in Momentum’s national office facilitated the activities of local groups, whilst attempting to build a media presence for Momentum in a hostile media climate. In turn, local groups developed fairly autonomously, incorporating the different left traditions, practices and ambitions that were consistent with Momentum’s broad remit.

As Momentum developed, chaotic yet abundant with energy, the question arose as to how local groups would relate to Momentum’s central organisation, and how the latter could be held accountable to ‘the movement’. In response, within six months the left had done what they do best: elect delegates from local groups to regional conferences, which would then elect delegates to a ‘National Committee’ (NC), which would itself elect a ‘Steering Committee’(SC) to oversee Momentum’s operation on a day-to-day level. This structure, analogous to a political party or trade union, was familiar to those from the pre-existing organised left, who quickly came to occupy most of the formal positions in the organisation. New entrants to politics, or those from horizontalist traditions, could be forgiven for finding the whole thing overly-bureaucratic, and for new Labour members it represented just one more set of procedures and layers of delegation to get their heads around.

So what happened last Friday?

Since the summer, it had been expected that an upcoming National Committee would decide on the procedures for Momentum’s founding conference in February. Last Friday, Momentum’s Steering Committee decided to postpone the National Committee and also took a key decision out of the NC’s hands, mandating that however February’s conference was organised, decisions could only be binding on Momentum’s future so long as they could be voted on by all members online. The postponement of the National Committee was justified with reference to the unresolved questions of how liberation strands (BAME, LGBT etc) should be represented, as well as new data showing over a third of Momentum members had no access to a local group, and therefore no chance of representation. The decision regarding voting at February’s conference was made in response to concerns that if the NC were to restrict the ability of all Momentum members to vote on its future, then given the ad-hoc a partial nature of the NC’s make-up, the conclusion would lack sufficient legitimacy to put Momentum on a sustainable and transparent footing.

The uptake of the rather confusing situation outlined above is that this February there will be a founding conference, open to all members and streamed online, in which all members will be able to vote by e-ballot. Before the conference, there should be a period whereby all members and groups are able to propose, debate and amend the documents that will be voted on. Of course, that Momentum’s founding documents will be voted on via One Member One Vote (OMOV) doesn’t guarantee this form of decision-making will be chosen, and the membership will be able vote to re-establish a delegate system if they so choose.

Defending OMOV

As you’d expect from my tone above, I hope whatever long-term organisational model Momentum adopts in February will have OMOV as its primary decision making tool. Momentum should be an organisation that enables people to be more active in the Labour Party and in their communities. A pyramidical delegate system in fact distracts from those urgent tasks. In contrast, by using OMOV national influence is not reliant on attending local meetings, and Momentum members are free to prioritise their time according to existing or new commitments without losing a say in the organisation as a whole. This should absolutely not be to downplay the importance of local groups. Rather it offers the opportunity to re-orientate Momentum’s activity towards facilitating autonomous and networked community activism, instead of replicating the branch meetings of the Labour Party. It goes without saying this would make Momentum more accessible for people who work long hours, as well as parents and carers, all of whom are underrepresented our movement.

Whilst OMOV is not a holy grail or an option without its own risks, it’s fair to say many of the perceived drawbacks of OMOV aren’t as problematic as it was once assumed. The 2013 Collins review that proposed OMOV for Labour leadership elections was vociferously opposed by the Labour left (Jon Lansman included) as they saw it as a means to disempower committed activists and trade unionists to advantage high profile figures on the right. Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected victory by this same system has now unsurprisingly caused many on the left to change their tune.

The misjudgement by both the Labour Right, who pushed for OMOV, and the Labour left, who opposed it, is perhaps down to an outdated understanding of how social networks operate in the 21st century. In a previous era where communication and arguments either took place in a face-to-face setting or via the establishment media, OMOV can be expected to support the favoured positions and candidates of the latter. Now that so much ideological work and opinion formation happens via social media, this dichotomy no longer holds. As the 2015 Labour leadership contest showed, when elections involve only those who are relatively politically committed (or who inhabit the same echo chamber, as Owen Jones might put it) the results can be wildly unpredictable. Once we remember that Momentum’s 20,000 members are highly networked, and overwhelmingly suspicious of the mainstream media, the idea that only those with elitist connections could gain from OMOV becomes all the more implausible.

Structures follow purpose

Even if some left critiques of OMOV don’t look as strong as they once did, I’m emphatically not arguing that all political or representative organisations should abandon delegate systems. In the Labour Party, the opportunity to pass motions at a local level does provide a real and important opportunity to hold local and national representatives to account. For those with the will to sit through branch and CLP meetings they can also have an important political educative function, and help build strong ties between activists. But the drawbacks of Labour Party meetings are well known: that they have a tendency to be rather dull.

We should remember that each democratic model has its own pros and cons. Crucially, to choose between options we should give reference to any organisation’s strategic aims. If Momentum is really an organisation to help people get active in the Labour Party, increasing campaigning activity on the ground as well as shaping policy from our branches upwards, is it really worth our time building a time-consuming and almost identical structure in parallel? In the Labour Party, by passing motions we can effect the direction of the UK’s main opposition party, and if this movement is effective, a programme which could be implemented in government. In CLPs, passing motions can also influence the broad spectrum of Labour members, and help build a common identity among local Labour activists. In contrast, by spending our time passing motions through local, regional and national Momentum meetings we effect what someone says in a few media appearances, or the endorsement of a campaign we could have done anyway. Though some readers might think it’s perfectly reasonable and necessary to do both, I know many people, myself included, who don’t enthusiastically await a *third* procedure-heavy meeting every month.

The relationship between the centre and Momentum needn’t be so formal. To my mind, Momentum groups should be networks that can meet as much or as little as they see necessary, in whatever form they choose. In some areas groups may decide to meet regularly and formally, in others rarely and/or informally. The latter will especially be the case where the activism Momentum members want to do can be mainly done through existing Labour Party structures (As an aside, and If my experience is anything to go by, branches and CLPs are more open to community activism than many people assume, it just requires someone to propose and organise it. Even challenging the actions of Labour councils can be much more effective via branches and CLPs than by launching external campaigns). The advantage of OMOV is it allows members to influence the centre without local groups being locked into a certain mode of organising. The centre should then become a resource to facilitate coordination between groups, who can themselves organise as they see fit, as well as providing members the resources and training they require.

Conclusion: Healing wounds and remembering what matters

I hope this explainer can make it a little clearer what has been going on in an organisation which has too often appeared opaque. I’ve begun to present argument about what I see as the best way for Momentum as it moves forward, and I look forward to discussing and debating the diverse ideas and visions from across the movement.

I know there will be people who remain concerned about how Momentum’s structures have operated. Momentum’s leadership bear some responsibility, especially in terms of their lack of transparency up to now. Yet as someone who has volunteered in the national office, I can guarantee this has everything to do with inexperience and pressure as opposed to anything more sinister. It would be a great shame if the organisation were to fall apart due to disagreements over procedures which were always meant to be temporary and which are barely nine months old.

To finish, I’d like to impress the hope that when discussing the future of Momentum’s internal organisation, we don’t lose sight of what Momentum should actually be for. The left finds itself with our greatest opportunity in a generation. Momentum can have a crucial role in presenting a progressive vision for post-Brexit Britain. It can help to activate the hundreds of thousands of new Labour members who are yet to get involved, and connect with the millions of people for whom a radical left wing agenda is either alien, or evokes suspicion. Any discussion regarding Momentum’s future must keep this purpose in mind. When Momentum was launched there was a debate as to whether its focus should be inside or outside the Labour Party. The live question now is whether Momentum will focus inside or outside of itself.