Readers of a certain vintage may vaguely recall the popular ‘90s American sitcom Seinfeld.
Readers of this blog might be wondering why on earth I’m opening a piece about Momentum’s political future with a reference to a popular ‘90s American sitcom. Well bear with me friends, as all will become clear.
One of the central conceits of Seinfeld (I was always rather more of a Curb Your Enthusiasm man myself though incidentally) was that all of the main characters never learnt from their mistakes and persisted in doing the same stupid things over….and over….and over……. again.
‘Never remember. Never Learn.’
I’m starting to wonder if some members of Momentum seem to have taken that advice as a guide for action in the way that they see the organisation developing. They’ve looked at everything that has made Momentum a beacon of hope for many of us, decided to dismiss all that and revert to methods that have failed over….and over………and over…..again.
Firstly, a disclaimer. I don’t see myself as a ‘Lansmanite’ by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t think Corbyn has got everything right in the last year or so. Far from it in fact. I think some of the moves by the Steering Committee have been cack-handed at best.
But I think I understand what Momentum is for and I understand why I and many others joined. As a rule I have quite consciously not involved myself hugely in the national Momentum situation hitherto as I thought my efforts would be best expended building a strong local group and I assumed that my understanding of Momentum’s raison d’etre would be the view of others so I didn’t need to. But sadly not, so it’s time to say something.
I’ll begin by pointing out that I don’t think it’s cocky to say that South Birmingham Momentum has been one of the brightest developments on the Birmingham left in a very, very long time. And that has been because a group of activists have made a conscious choice to act in a particular way. We’ve accepted the mission statement of Momentum and have attempted to put it into practice as best we can. I feel we have been reasonably successful with that.
My fear is that if the changes proposed by some within Momentum come to fruition a lot of that good work will be undone, locally and nationally, and the lessons that we in MSB and others nationally have learnt over the last twelve months or so completely unlearned. We are in danger of repeating mistakes that have been made countless times before. The words “Einstein”, “definition” and “stupidity” spring to mind, as well as the whole Seinfeld thing.
So what is Momentum?
- It’s a broad coalition of people from all sorts of different left-wing and Labour traditions (and none) focused on making the Labour Party socialist, democratic and a mass movement capable of winning elections and bringing about radical political change. What that “radical change” looks like is quite difficult to define at the moment.
- Momentum supports the Labour Party come what may. By necessity in the current climate it has to focus a lot of its energies on internal Labour Party questions because of the glaring democratic deficit that exists, particularly in the West Midlands region.
- It accepts that we will not all agree on everything. We have members from a variety of political traditions (and none) within MSB. We work on and discuss what we can agree upon, which is a lot. The other stuff we (usually) leave at the door.
It is not:
- A new party in embryo.
- An organisation that needs to take a political position on every issue and seeks to actively look for disagreement, which seems to be the governing culture of so much of the organised left in this country. The idea that these debates will be resolved one way or the other by allowing Momentum’s time to be consumed by them locally and nationally is childish in the extreme. History, and reality, suggests that it won’t work.
- An organisation that requires a detailed policy programme. Instead it is an organisation that needs a strategy for influencing the detailed policy programme of……Labour, the party we support. We can agree the most brilliant series of policies, but without a means for making them Labour policy we are simply talking to ourselves. Rejecting the ‘Trotskyist’ approach that ‘fetishizes’ programme, for want of a better adjective, doesn’t make us a Corbyn fan club. It makes us an organisation focused on the tasks in hand.
- The latest scene for the never-ending, unresolvable struggle to the death between the various left-wing groups and factions that make up the splintered British left.
- It is not an organisation that thinks that Corbyn’s big error up until now is that he hasn’t been radical enough.
So it is with interest that I read the AWL’s (conciliatory) statement on the crisis in Momentum.
I don’t buy for a minute the idea that the AWL are the arch-manipulators and dangerous trouble-makers intent on sabotaging Momentum that they are portrayed as in the mainstream media. I think individuals like Paul Mason could probably do with using the platform their profile provides a little more responsibly. I also know crude red-baiting when I see it. Reading the statement I take at face value their desire for the organisation to be democratic and outward-looking.
But what they and their (probably only temporary) allies are proposing will take us in a profoundly mistaken direction.
And it comes down to this:
“At the 3 December meeting we supported a successful motion from Momentum Youth and Students for a campaign to make Labour stand firm on freedom of movement and to fight against the Tories’ post-Brexit plans. Momentum should be uniting to put such policies into action, not using the mass media to stir a storm against the 3 December majority.
Some in the 3 December minority oppose a decision-making conference because they think Momentum should not have policy beyond being generically left-wing and pro-Corbyn. There is a case, and we accept it, for moving quite slowly and gently on many policy issues in a new movement like Momentum. But without policies — on issues like freedom of movement, for example — Momentum cannot campaign coherently in local Labour Parties or on the streets (or, as we found this September, at the Labour Party conference).”
I remain unclear why Momentum itself needs a detailed policy on freedom of movement, for example. There are members in our ranks in MSB who do not agree with the formulation. Many on the wider left do not agree.
I do. I think it is a defining question of our time and I think we should make the moral, political and economic case for open borders. Caving into the narrative of the right only strengthens them.
But others don’t see it that way and Momentum isn’t a democratic centralist organisation last time I checked. And it is disingenuous nonsense to argue that the lack of detailed programme is the reason why the right largely “won” Labour conference last year. They were better organised than we were, had a clearer idea of what they wanted to change (and to stay the same) and focused their efforts on winning the votes on party structures.
The definition of a “successful” resolution is also quite limited here. Has the passing of this resolution had any actual influence on Labour Party policy? No. Have the Labour MPs who are in favour of shifting further to the right in a fruitless attempt to undercut UKIP et al been stopped in their tracks by the passing of the resolution? No. So in the grand scheme of things has it actually accomplished a great deal? No.
The minority did not oppose a decision-making conference (although I confess I am still not 100% clear what we need a national conference for). They opposed a conference focused on taking detailed policy positions that will accomplish nothing other than prove to ourselves how left-wing we are. They opposed having a structure that seems to take no account of how politics works in the 21st century and the lack of enthusiasm that many Momentum supporters have for long meetings. Should those (often new) people be excluded from our decision-making processes? No. I wish those people would come to the meetings – we try and make MSB’s as welcoming and friendly as possible, but rightly or wrongly they can be put off by that culture. Doubling down on that approach is pretty unlikely to convince them, methinks.
So – what we are likely to have is a conference dominated by the most experienced and hardened activists (I include myself in that by the way despite my boyish good looks). Now, this group of activists are clearly crucial to Momentum. In MSB they have been a constant source of helpful advice, expertise and knowledge of how the Labour Party works. They have in fact been indispensable. But we also need the skills of a generation not brought up in a culture of endless meetings – activists whose primary means of organisation and political engagement is social media. They are the future of socialist politics in the UK.
So – the other thing we have done in MSB, again in my view successfully, is give inexperienced members responsibility immediately and pushed them to the forefront of our activity. We have not allowed the old stagers to make all the decisions. And the old stagers actually seem quite happy with that.
I’m really not sure how an old-school conference structure really pushes the national organisation in that healthy direction.
Having a delegate conference also sends out a problematic message. We aren’t a new party but we are acting suspiciously like a new one. We have a delegate based conference structure, like the Labour Party. We are seemingly focusing our conference on drafting and agreeing policy, like the Labour Party. From the outside looking in it looks like a party conference. I don’t want to be a member of any other party. I joined the Labour Party because I believe that is the vehicle for socialist change. Momentum is the means by which I believe we ensure that aspiration I have for the Labour Party becomes a reality. It is not an end in itself, a position some people seem to be heading inexorably towards. It was conceived, rightly, as a network, a movement, not a proto-party with a set of detailed positions.
I want to spend a conference debating how we make that socialist aspiration a reality inside Labour and how we open up the Party’s structures, in just the same way that Labour First debated how best to achieve their aims at their recent AGM. They didn’t waste their day debating the detailed right-wing policies they want the party to adopt to win over UKIP/Tory voters on those voters own terms. They spent the day reflecting on how they best influence the Labour Party.
We should be taking a leaf out of their book. Of course nobody is against taking decisions. The question is: what decisions should we be taking and how? Do we agree a word perfect position on immigration and open borders? Or do we agree a strategy for opening up the Labour Party and ensuring that plans are in place to respond to the next move against Corbyn, which is surely coming whether we like it or not? Do any of us think they are likely to make the mistakes they made last time? Do we think that having a word-perfect formulation on open borders is going to be a defence against these people? What exactly is the goal here? Left-wing ideological purity or actually trying to ensure the Labour Party remains led by someone who wants to change things and seizing that opportunity?
And finally, a word on OMOV. Apparently, this is a no-go for decision-making in the organisation. Even though that is precisely how Corbyn has won two leadership elections in twelve months and why the left of the party has a historic opportunity. It trusted ordinary Labour members with the power. I’d suggest the same is good enough for Momentum members. These ‘proud labour movement traditions’ that I keep hearing about us needing to stick to only have a certain amount of guidance to offer us, and a large part of that are things to avoid. I’m only prepared to take so much advice from people, and methods, who in the final analysis have failed again and again.
So, Seinfeld fans and people who have never heard of the show – the choice to me is simple and stark. Programmatic purity or confronting political reality, however distasteful we find it.
I know which one I’m going with.