Momentum and the quest for Labour democracy- opinion piece

by Richard Evans

The current debate in Momentum goes to the heart of what our role should be. Is it a shadow party or is it a means of organising those who have been enthused by the election of Corbyn to transform the Labour Party. I am firmly in the camp of the latter. Half a million have joined the LP to support the politics of Corbyn; our job is to mobilise them to make sure Labour becomes the vehicle for change. Does Momentum need a rigid, bureaucratic structure to do this?

If we start from the premise that we are not building a new party but aiming to transform the existing, we have to set ourselves the task of changing the structure of the Labour Party to take power away from the leader’s office and the party bureaucracy. We must recognise the mistakes of the 1980s (and no doubt the 1930s) when the left was in the ascendant, but failed to transform the structure of the party and so, making it easy for the right to regain control.

Blair has built a top-down, very bureaucratic centralised party. In the course of which the members became a mere appendage, expected to play the role of a supporters’ club to the leader, almost destroying the party in the process. Corbyn may have won the leadership but the party apparatus remains firmly in the hands of the Blairites. Labour’s right, having failed to retake the leadership in the summer will now try to maintain their grip on the party machine in order to attempt to retake the leadership after the next general election.

The role of Momentum should be absolutely clear. It is to change the structure of the Labour Party to prevent the undemocratic control of the party by this right wing clique, and to give back control to the ordinary party members; giving the rank and file the power to make policy and to select their MPs, councillors etc. To do this we need the widest possible base and the least sectarian division. We do not have unlimited time in which to do this and we have probably lost a year already in not being sufficiently organised in electing conference delegates and local party officials in the past twelve months.

We need national coordination to ensure the necessary changes in the LP are being progressed. There will always be suspicion about any coordinating group – that they are exceeding their authority or pursuing their own ends, but there has to be a level of trust allied to oversight with a mechanism to change this group, if necessary. For this, we don’t need a rigid bureaucratic structure of national conferences with national and regional committees. In the days of mass participation through the internet, it needs for us only to have the right to remove those who are not acting in the general interest of re-democratising the party.

Alongside national coordination, we need local groups and networks organising to transform their local CLPs and acting as a bridge to encourage participation and offer direction to new members in the party.

The only policy we need is a desire to change the Labour Party. It would be a mistake for Momentum to have positions in all policy areas. Participation in Momentum implies an agreement on the general direction of travel to make the LP more democratic in order to enact change in society; nothing more is required. The debate on detailed policy should take place within a revitalised LP. Otherwise, the danger is that we become split and miss the opportunity to rebuild and re-democratise the party. Amongst us, we may well have differences on Brexit or Aleppo, but does that affect our cooperation on democratising the LP?

The desire for a rigid structure is a conservative one based on 19th century communications. The branches, executives, regional and national committees of the labour movement were born in a world where independent mass communication was none existent. It required physically meeting and necessitated the appointment of delegates to more remote bodies. But in the 21st century, in a democratic country, it is possible for rank and file members to communicate and debate with each other through social media and the internet. Indeed, it’s becoming the natural way to organise – with each member having equal access to the debate and an equal vote in determining any decisions that need to be made.

If socialists have a vision of a more democratically run society, shouldn’t we be trialling that direct democracy within Momentum itself?

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5 thoughts on “Momentum and the quest for Labour democracy- opinion piece

  1. Ken Syme

    I fully support the approach described here – we don’t need a 19th Century model for a 21st Century democracy!

    Also agree that we need to move quickly – like yesterday! – to head off a Blairite coup.

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  2. It is a pity that you didn’t start from the real debate, choosing instead to take your basis as the caricature that the Lansman supporters have used to belittle the genuine concerns of many local group activists.

    The internet is no more than a communication system and does not in itself represent a major advance on 19th Century methods of political organising. At least back then you organised with other activists and no faction could wield the voices of the opinionated in a way that can be achieved now thanks to almost instantaneous at a distance communication.

    We do need national co-ordination, but before we have that we need national agreement on the co-ordination that is fit for purpose. A discussion which was not given space to take place until a bunch of dissenters set up a national Facebook page. From word go we have had a central organisation which has been good at putting out its thoughts and useless at listening and engaging with the active membership. Maybe one day we will have a central co-ordinating body, which has the humility to offer facilitation and not just direction.

    As far as I was aware the only policy we have is the transformation of the Labour Party, which is to say the development of a social and cultural body to clothe its election machine skeleton. But the pressure of electoral politics is squeezing the creativity out of Momentum and making it a workforce for campaigning, with little thought to the medium let alone long term.

    It is entirely possible, by following the track Lansman and Co have set Momentum on, that we can have a Corbyn led government elected. What seems a lot less likely is that it will be a government with the strength to achieve anything more than giving the Tories a rest. If we want our efforts to be worthwhile we must elect a government capable of changing the paradigm in the way the 1945 and 1979 governments did.

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  3. Ian Crawford

    It is through debate on policies that unity will come – we can do that on the internet by setting up a Facebook page to deal with Policy discussion thereby making the Labour Party Policy Forum obsolete and make Conference where the the debate is resolved.

    Ian – North Devon

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  4. Richard, the need is to be an example for moribund labour parties and for new activists. The methods and structures Lansman has adopted are not good for that. I am in a ward that doesn’t meet or campaign. How am I supposed to bring on new activists without the democratic environment that existed and why did Lansman not submit the new structure to OMOV?

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    1. Richard Evans

      Andy, there is no substitute for the herculean task of changing the Labour Party. The local party members will have to fight to get the basic democratic right to meet and participate in the LP as a ward. Building an alternative party is not a substitute for this. It would just play into the hands of the Blairites if these new activists were diverted away from the need to change their local LP because an alternative party structure existed. This may seem counter intuitive to new activists, who may well prefer instant campaigning to fighting a bureaucratic battle. But, in the end, if we don’t make changes at a local level, the Blairites will keep control of the machine.

      To change the local ward, there is a need for local coordination of the members in that ward/CLP with backing from other local LPs to put pressure on Regional Office to end the ban on the ward, with access to the left NEC members should the need arise. Having a full-blown shadow party with its own rigid structure and detailed policies would not help this. I’m for putting all our energies into changing the LP rather than wasting energy in building a formal structure with the probability that this would descend into a sectarian bun-fight at the top, distracting members from the real battle to transform the Labour Party.

      By the way, I’m no great fan of the Lansman constitution or the way it’s been imposed. It’s just better than the structure proposed by those who prefer to spend their time arguing the dots and commas in small committee rooms rather than spending their time re-democratising the Labour Party.

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