Why I joined Momentum

…and it’s not because you get a badge!

I’ve joined Momentum, the grassroots Labour organization that helped Jeremy Corbyn win his second leadership election.

I’m not a big joiner of things: my political philosophy is that you can achieve more by being a “little stone”, and just start rolling, than by being a lever trying to move a big boulder. As a journalist I am also privileged in that I don’t need an organization to make my voice heard.

However the reasons I am joining Momentum are:

First, as an act of solidarity — to stop it being prescribed or repressed by the Labour Party bureaucracy, as was threatened during Corbyn’s leadership campaign. I would urge everybody on the left of the party to do likewise to make it impossible for the purge-meisters ever to ban Momentum in the future.

Second, because the ongoing levels of sabotage of the leadership inside the PLP, most recently over Saudi war crimes in Yemen, show we need to organize just as effectively as those running their own “shadow shadow cabinet”; as the Blairite Progress group etc.

Third, because Momentum itself is at a crossroads.

It faces two alternative futures: one in which all the negative, hierarchical and factionalist tendencies of the 20th century left are allowed to resurface; another in which Momentum — and ultimately Labour itself — becomes a horizontal, consensus-based organization, directly accountable to its mass of members.

What kind of movement?

Over the summer there was a lot of discussion about how Labour could “become a social movement”. In one sense, as an electoral party, it cannot do so: its structures have to mirror those of constituencies, councils, parliament itself.

But Labour can learn from social movements, mould its activities to acknowledge the existence of social movements. If we do so, Labour could become much more clearly an alliance of groups with limited common interests: in social justice, workers’ rights, a zero-carbon energy system, the liberation of oppressed minorities, and opposition to adventurist wars.

Faced with an unprecedented level of hostility and sabotage from the media, the business elite, Labour can only win as an insurgency.

We need to turn half a million-plus members into activists: people proud to be identified with Labour as the party of social justice; people equipped with the ideas and organizational skills to start making a difference in their own neighbourhood, community, workplace, university or profession.

Momentum’s role in this cannot simply be as a machine for choosing better MPs and council candidates; a machine for getting motions and delegates to conference. It must do all this, and just as efficiently as the neoliberals and warmongers of Progress. But…

We also have to propagate a new way of doing politics — emulating the best of the grassroots and horizontal movements, embracing popular participation, people’s plans, people’s budgets and popular assemblies.

To do this we have to convince a minority of comrades, steeped in the 20th century hard left and trade union bureaucratic traditions, that a layer cake of “delegate” structures and hierarchies is the wrong thing.

I am not worried about “entryism”. Anybody who is in a left wing group or party right now should be allowed to join Momentum, so long as they openly and irrevocably dissolve their organizations and pledge to support Labour in all future elections.

Under party rules it would take them two years to become members so I favour a rule change to shorten that to a few weeks. Ditto for anybody who wants to leave the Greens or SNP and join Labour.

At The World Transformed, Momentum Labour fringe event, September 2016

Goodbye Lenin…

The problem is not “entryism”: it is a view of politics whereby it becomes the task of a small group to capture and direct a larger organization.

That’s what the Blairites did to Labour; we don’t want a left wing version of it. Above all we don’t want a scenario where die-hard Bolshevik re-enactment groups decide to take over Momentum, so that it can then take over Labour, and then Labour takes over the state.

It is a fantasy, driven by a zombie ideology and it will kill the radical left unless we resist it.

We want, instead, to empower masses of people to take their own decisions through direct democracy; respecting diversity, proportionality, restraint and the democratic institutions of the UK.

For the left of Labour in the 20th century, winning socialist policies in parliament was only the springboard to an industrial confrontation with capital, in which the extra-parliamentary struggle would do the heavy lifting. I say this as someone who took part in the Bennite movement, the steel strike, the miners’ and printers’ strikes. This strategy was not born out of Marxism but out of working class syndicalism. The miners, lorry drivers and printers of my Dad’s generation gave scant regard to Labour, parliament and politicians. In this sense the old strategy of the far left was based on a real aspiration among workers.

Today I think the most revolutionary thing we can achieve is to put a left Labour government in power: to switch off the neoliberal privatization machine, to end expeditionary warfare and the arming of dictators, to redistribute both wealth and power to the people.

It’s not just because unions are weak, and the progressive working class culture has been fragmented. It is because neoliberalism relies so completely on elite control of institutions — for privatization, tax avoidance, union-bashing and victimization of the poor — that democracy is actually a stronger weapon than ever.

A radical left government is the goal. Turning Labour into a mass, active party is only way to achieve it. Momentum should be the network we use to co-ordinate that.

Momentum should affiliate to Labour

For that reason I think Momentum should aim to join the Labour Party as an affiliated society. Its constitution should be “affiliation ready” — that is, it should conform to Labour rules. It should pay, from its membership subscriptions, a hefty fee to the party itself.

Unfortunately that also means protecting ourselves, and our reputation, against people who behave disreputably. Momentum has to have the ability to immediately suspend from membership people who breach Labour Party rules, and who engage in unacceptable behavior.

This will be a lot easier if we affiliate to Labour. Once affiliation is achieved, all members of Momentum would effectively be affiliate members of Labour and subject to Labour’s rule.

Momentum is too small to ensure natural justice: it are not big enough to have a “compliance committee” of its own. Thus we should refer any serious allegations to the police; refer rule-breaking allegations to Labour HQ, abide by the outcome of their investigations; and adopt the precautionary principle of immediate and automatic suspension — without prejudice — of any member accused of breaching party rules or the law.

Networked democracy

As to its internal structures, Momentum should take major decisions by consensus, using electronic democracy to engage every dues-paying member.

Local branches of Momentum should be free to act as they wish — to focus on caucusing before Labour branches and CLPs, or to do activism under their own banner that the Labour bureaucracy refuses to do — for example defending libraries being closed down by Labour-run councils.

However we should not aim to replicate the hierarchy of the Labour Party itself; still less should we become a replica of the 20th century left group, with a central committee, monolithic newspaper, internal discipline etc.

We should propose a Momentum slate in all internal Labour elections: this does not have to include Momentum members only, but should be our best shot at electing local leaders who represent the best of all wings of the party.

We should circulate a small number of Momentum-approved motions to national and regional conferences, youth and women’s conference etc— these to be chosen by an electronic ballot of all members — but Momentum members and branches should also be free to circulate their own motions.

There should be a set of guiding principles; a steering committee elected by all the members in an electronic secret ballot; and a paid staff appointed by the steering committee.

The basic political programme should be the 10 Pledges outlined by Jeremy Corbyn in his leadership campaign. Even though I disagree Corbyn on Trident, I note that nuclear disarmament was not among the pledges.

We should in addition insist that paid staff and elected national officers speak for Momentum only on issues they are competent to speak on. They should at all times speak their own mind, but they must make clear when they are speaking in a personal capacity and when speaking for Momentum.

If we do this, we can avoid the problem that plagued and ultimately killed the 20th century far left — hierarchy, discipline and the party line — and foster a movement that looks like 21st century Britain; argumentative and diverse, respectful and tolerant of difference. A network, not a hierarchy.

Ultimately, as a post-neoliberal consensus develops inside Labour, and we prise the dead fingers of Blairism off the party machine, I hope Momentum will be able to wither away. Until then…