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What Momentum Should Do

29th December 2016

By Mick Brooks

Momentum was set up in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign in 2015 to become leader of the Labour Party. This was an inspiring movement involving hundreds of thousands of people who not only joined the Labour Party to vote for Corbyn but also staffed phone banks and worked hard to convince others that his election could be a turning point in British politics.

Jeremy was elected in 2015 and, despite challenges to his leadership, was re-elected in 2016 with an even bigger mandate. This was a tremendous achievement. There is no doubt that Momentum deserves much of the credit for the mobilisation behind Jeremy in 2016. We hope there will not be an annual challenge to his leadership, though there are no guarantees. The 2016 contest was a complete waste of time and energy imposed on us by his opponents.
It is also the case that many local Momentum groups have done sterling work in their communities, bringing credit to Momentum and drawing people towards a reinvigorated Labour Party, usually under their own initiative and without instruction from the centre. It goes without saying that this should continue, but Momentum nationally needs to do more.

How can Momentum help Jeremy Corbyn to survive as leader and become Prime Minister? Momentum was born out of support from what is believed to be almost 200,000 supporters on the Momentum database. It was set up as a membership organisation in early 2016 and now claims more than 20,000 members. This could and should be a significant force in British politics.

What should Momentum do to advance the Corbynist agenda? Jeremy is beset by the onslaught of the mainstream press and media. That is almost inevitable for an overtly socialist leader of the main opposition party.

Throughout this period Jeremy’s leadership has been also under constant threat from opposition by the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the full-time Party bureaucracy. His position remains in peril. Momentum must be more than a Jeremy Corbyn fan club if it is to protect his position. It needs to involve its members in the Labour party to counter the plotters, and it requires national direction to be effective. Who will discuss and plan this and carry it out?
Not all members of Momentum are Labour Party members, yet it is in the Party where Corbyn and his supporters are also under constant attack. It is quite correct that Momentum should not demand that all its members join the Labour Party. It must be involved in community campaigns but, if their objectives are to be achieved, the organisation must involve itself in the struggle to transform the Labour Party. Members should be encouraged to get involved in the Labour Party and given advice as to how to work effectively within its structures. At present this is not happening.

The Labour Party Conference in 2016, supposedly the supreme policy-making body, was a disappointing one for the left and Momentum supporters in some respects. The Corbyn-led surge in membership of the Party received only a pale reflection in Conference decisions. In the view of Momentum NC member Matt Wrack, the General Secretary of the FBU, the right wing ran rings round us.

In the first place the delegates selected did not adequately reflect the transformation in the membership that had taken place at a constituency level. Of course Momentum was a very new organisation at the time that CLPs were electing their delegates. It is also the case that there is an entrenched right wing at local level, anxious to hold on to their positions in the Party and acutely aware of how to manipulate the Rule Book in their own interests.

There was no advice to delegates, such as a daily briefing provided by Momentum, to help them with complex decisions such as on resolutions that have been composited, priorities for resolutions to be discussed and when it was necessary to challenge the Chair and the Conference Arrangements Committee (there were some outrageous decisions in the course of the Conference).

Momentum’s main intervention at Conference was The World Transformed. Though an impressive series of activities by all accounts it was held at some distance from the main Conference and came across as a separate event, semi-detached from the Conference itself. It did not threaten the right wing’s ascendancy on the Conference floor in any way.

The National Executive Committee (NEC) is supposed to be the principal policy-making body between Conferences. It is quite clear from reports of recent NEC meetings that it does not reflect the leftward-leaning nature of the Labour Party now, and has been used to launch attacks on Corbyn and his policies. There have been no serious left caucus meetings beforehand, unlike with the right wing. Caucusing is difficult, as Momentum has little support at NEC level, and many trade union delegates follow their own or their union’s policy inclinations.

All the same Momentum, as potentially the main left wing force within the Labour Party, does not have its own agenda for NEC meetings and it should have. Those who regard themselves as Momentum supporters should press the case for a left caucus. Momentum does not appear to have a list of priorities for the Party and its activities. Somebody has to draw this up.

Elections to the NEC are held by different sections of the Party. The CLPs allegedly elected six delegates from the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance (CLGA) this year. Allegedly, because one candidate from the CLGA in particular, Ann Black, has been involved as part of the right wing on the NEC. For instance she advocated closing down Brighton and Hove CLP on totally spurious grounds because it had been taken over by left wing Momentum supporters at the AGM. We want NEC members with a clear Corbynite agenda representing the transformation that has taken place in the Labour Party since Jeremy became leader.
In fact the CLGA candidates are not accountable in any way once elected to the NEC. They are selected by a shadowy body through negotiations. Momentum, despite being the biggest and most significant part of the left within the LP, plays no official part in these negotiations. It should be involved as long as the CLGA decides the left wing slate. That would mean sending representatives to the meetings, not just an email. Momentum cannot be represented by an algorithm!
Jon Lansman is a member of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy – CLPD - which is part of the CLGA, as well as being the founding Chair of Momentum. Lansman is also, as a member of the CLPD, well aware of the importance of CLPD’s ‘Yellow Pages’ bulletin in explaining issues and clarifying decisions to Conference delegates over many years. Momentum needs to take over and revitalise this active policy towards intervening in Labour Party meetings.

The inertia and slow progress by the left at the top of the Labour Party is largely due to lack of pressure at constituency level. Local branches in many areas have been effectively dead for many years. Change is needed, but it will not be easy. A change for the better here requires a pro-active policy from Momentum, for example, including but not only advising its members as to deadlines for resolutions and elections to posts within the local parties.

This would necessarily involve drawing up and circulating slates for bodies such as the National Policy Forum (NPF). It is true that the NPF was deliberately cooked up by the Blairites to hijack policy-making from Conference but, while it exists, the left and Momentum should do its best to capture positions on it.

If Jeremy Corbyn is to become Prime Minister, then his ten pledges here have to be fleshed out and campaigned for as concrete policies within the structures of the Labour Party. A pledge such as ‘Full Employment and an Economy that Works for All’ is more an aspiration than a set of policies. The only concrete policy proposed is to establish a National Investment Bank which will invest £500 billion in infrastructure and create jobs in the process. Nobody can object to a “high skilled, high tech, low carbon economy that ends austerity and leaves no one and nowhere left behind,” but more detail is needed to make the case plausible. This is particularly the case since a majority of the PLP is clearly not on board with Corbyn’s reform agenda. As a result too many voters don’t know what Labour stands for. The ten pledges are potentially an attractive vote-winning programme, but they need to be spelled out, explained and campaigned on inside the Labour Party and in the country as well.

They also need to be expanded upon. Jeremy is a socialist but the ten pladges are not a socialist programme. A Corbyn-led Labour government will meet ferocious resistance and economic sabotage from the establishment. What is required is a clear commitment from Momentum to a socialist programme for Labour, understanding, mobilising against and facing down hostility from the right wing forces that such a government will inevitably encounter.

There have been several enormous demonstrations organised by the People’s Assembly and the TUC over recent years, reflecting the mass anger of working people against austerity and what it is doing to our communities. Many of those taking part have been Momentum members and supporters. Yet Momentum has a minimal organised presence there in the form of banners and should always have a contingent proportionate to its importance on the British left.

Though the Labour Party institutions we have mentioned are national they can only be changed by action at a local level, but action in local constituencies must be co-ordinated nationally to be effective. That requires leadership. To be respected leadership must be earned, and for leaders to be respected they must be elected. Momentum must develop a democratic leadership structure very soon if it is to function effectively. The above list of unfulfilled tasks is illustrative, not comprehensive. There is no sign that these tasks are being taken up any time soon or even thought about seriously among the majority of the present Momentum leadership circles.

How are these unresolved issues to be dealt with? Clearly it is unrealistic to expect miracles from a new organisation still finding its feet. Yet the energy and enthusiasm shown by the rank and file is not being tapped. There is a vacuum at the top of Momentum. The staff at HQ seem to see the centre as a post box to the membership rather than a democratic decision-making process. Nationally there is little democracy in Momentum. Will the forthcoming founding conference settle that? That depends.

The OMOV election results for the NC and other positions within Momentum (OMOV elections and alterations to the composition of the National Committee) for Dec 1st 2016 present a depressing picture. The highest turnout was in the West Midlands at 16.6%. This is pathetic. Yet all the voters had to do was click on a name. Six candidates presented themselves for election in this region. Who were they? How do you know who to vote for? What is their record? While useful in some areas, OMOV does not provide a proper basis for an informed democracy, either on people or on policies.

Many questions arise in relation to OMOV; quite frivolous policies can be posted for people to vote for online. People at home can be overwhelmed by the range of choices. Who is to whittle them down to a manageable number of important decisions? Who designs and decides what survey questions are sent from Momentum?

The present debate within Momentum has been presented as one between supporters of OMOV versus those in favour of delegate democracy. This is a false antithesis. Nobody has ruled out OMOV as a method of voting altogether. The real issue is whether Momentum will develop accountable structures capable of providing leadership in the tasks lying ahead.

All roads lead to Rome. The vigorous democratic structures in most local groups are however not replicated at a regional and national level. What is urgently needed above all is for elected officers to take democratic decisions, on often complex but important matters, tactical and strategic. These people must be trusted and they must be accountable. The decision making process must be transparent. Unless and until that happens Momentum will not achieve what it can do and must do if it is to get a Corbyn-led Labour government.

What is the future for Momentum? For too many of the current leadership it has been merely to continue to act as a ‘rah-rah’ chorus for Jeremy Corbyn. It goes without saying that the election of Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party is probably the biggest step forward for the left in Britain for decades. But the Parliamentary leadership of this movement is based on two main figures, Jeremy and John McDonnell. Then there are a handful of very promising younger MPs who were selected after the icy grip of the Blairite machine on the selection process (which produced only mediocrities and ‘Yes’ men and women) was released a bit. This is a fragile basis indeed for transforming the country.

This Parliamentary leadership desperately needs a movement in the country to back them one hundred per cent, but also to criticise backsliding if necessary and to take independent initiatives to drive the movement forward. Corbyn also needs much more support in Parliament to be successful. The dead wood of the Blair era must be replaced over time as the Labour Party is transformed from top to bottom.

How will Momentum fulfil those tasks? Is it perceived as a temporary movement thrown up in the wake of the Corbynista movement? Will it just disappear? That would be a tragedy in view of the mass energy and enthusiasm it has generated. Or will it, or the members it has mobilised and inspired, make a permanent difference to the British political landscape? A clear socialist perspective is required. We must all strive to make socialism the common sense of the twenty-first century. The membership of Momentum will be a significant part of that movement for hope and a better future.

Momentum has a choice. It can go forward from here along the lines we have suggested; otherwise it will inevitably roll back, dissipate all the enthusiasm generated at its outset and become increasingly irrelevant over time.

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