Andy Stowe reports from the first of this month’s Momentum conferences.
Momentum describes itself as having “evolved out of Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 Labour leadership bid to build on the energy and enthusiasm generated by the campaign.” It also “supports the Labour party, and works to increase participation and engagement in the party to enable it to win elections and enter Government.”
There is no denying that it made a serious contribution to Jeremy Corbyn’s success in his two leadership elections. Though for an organisation with a mission to “increase participation and engagement”, it’s not very good at practising what it preaches. The organisation is legally constituted as a company and, for all practical purposes, is controlled by Jon Lansman.
During the 2016 Christmas holiday he staged a coup using an online poll. His own words show how far reaching it was:
“If this constitution is agreed, the effect would be to wind up the SC, the NC and CAC, with immediate effect, though the conference would go ahead but under the new rules, no motions would be considered.”
Not everyone who voted in that poll may have fully understood the significance of getting rid of a steering committee, national committee and conference arrangements committee, but enough did to begin organising for a more open and democratic type of conference. That happened in London on Saturday March 11th under the banner Grassroots Momentum. Lansman’s wing of Momentum will be holding a conference in Birmingham on March 25th.
The London conference had 134 people register, though when votes were counted it turned out that 172 people had opted to spend the day in Conway Hall. The first motion of the day, proposed from the floor, was to allow everyone in the hall to vote rather than only delegates and this was carried by a large majority.
The opening session on Who We Are & What We Fight For was pretty cordial and there was significant consensus on what Momentum’s objectives should be. The only potentially serious argument was on the question of defending migrants. A small section of opinion wanted defence of migrants subsumed into defending workers’ rights generally, but most people understood that anti-migrant sentiment is the battering ram the populist right is using and rejected the amendments. Other amendments on defending social care and education and working to achieve a socialist government were carried, along with supporting Another Europe is Possible’s campaign against a hard Tory Brexit.
A change to the agenda saw the discussion on structure taken next. There were three proposals, with a resolution not to vote on any being defeated. The contest came down to a choice between a structure with an executive comprising a few officers and a quarterly meeting to which affiliated groups could send two members and one which proposed a steering committee of 15-20 people who meet six weekly. The latter won after an unjustifiably bad-tempered discussion of a tactical question. What was really being debated was the extent to which Grassroots Momentum is consolidating itself as a separate organisation, or more precisely, an organised current inside Momentum. It doesn’t really matter if you have a quarterly meeting or a six weekly meeting and how it’s described. It’s essentially setting up a parallel leadership structure, though Progress does this in the Labour Party and no one seems to mind.
The outside world interrupted the conference a few times. Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union made a perfectly toned speech in which he contrasted what was at stake in the two concepts of Momentum. He left no doubt that he thought that what had happened was a coup and said “The Lansman model of Momentum sees members as a source of money and a keyboard army. We need an organised left on the ground.”
Speaking on behalf of BECTU members working in the Picturehouse chain of cinemas, who’ve been on strike for the Living Wage, Kelly Rogers talked powerfully about their long running dispute and two striking teaching assistants from Derby City, who have been taking indefinite action against drastic pay cuts of up to 25% since 27 February hammered home the point that Labour councils which impose cuts have to be fought.
John McDonnell observed of Corbyn’s original bid to be Labour leader that no one who puts themselves forward for a leadership position should be allowed to do the job. The fact that Corbyn had to be coerced into standing was one of his assets. No such qualms weighed on the minds of the forty or so hopefuls who went to the front of the hall when the chair asked for candidates for the “15-20 people” willing to be on the steering committee.
If this conference hadn’t happened if would have meant that an undemocratic coup had taken place without any resistance. This is a bad enough scenario at any time, but when it’s conducted by a group of people who are supposed to be enabling mass participation in political activity it’s especially shocking. To be sure some of the most vocal contributors to the day’s proceedings were people who could not reasonably claim to be representatives of a new radicalising generation; however there was a wide range of opinion from across Momentum present and the outcome of no contested resolution was a foregone conclusion. The unresolved question is what the relationship between the section of the leadership which controls the money and the all-important database and Grassroots Momentum will be. A split dynamic is possible but it’s an outcome which could only be detrimental to the Corbyn / McDonnell leadership. The job for everyone in Momentum is to consolidate the Labour left; engage with campaigns and struggles outside the party; take the lead in opposing cuts budgets and to aim to get councillors and MPs in place who are more reflective of what members want a Corbyn led Labour Party to look like.