By Urte March
More than a year after the Forward Momentum slate swept the board in Momentum’s leadership contest on a platform promising to “put members in charge”, the organisation has finally announced plans for a Refounding Convention, billed as “a deliberative process that will radically redesign Momentum’s constitution, structures and how we organise with each other”.
However, this process will be a disappointment for those who expected a break away from the top-down Lansman model which prevented Momentum from effectively mobilising to transform the Labour Party or defend the Corbyn leadership when it came under vicious attack by the right.
The convoluted multi-stage process, which doesn’t involve any actual gathering of members, purports to allow local Momentum groups or individual members to propose changes to Momentum’s structures. But these proposals will then be vetted, amended, and composited by “Momentum Assemblies” made up of around 16 randomly selected members’ representatives plus four National Coordinating Group (NCG) members. These assemblies will deliberate and make decisions by consensus, taking the proposals away from the democratic control of those who submitted them and subjecting them to an inevitable watering-down to make them palatable to everyone. The NCG reserves the right to sign off on the proposals, meaning that it could also block some proposals from being put to the membership at all.
Proposals will then be put to an online all-member ballot. It is not clear whether members will have an opportunity to vote on individual proposals, or whether the proposals will be collectively subjected to a single yes/no vote, a strategy Momentum has used in the past when seeking members’ endorsement for NCG decisions. There seems to be no opportunity for debate among the members after the initial submission period, and the whole process will take six months. The entire process is clearly designed to ensure that nothing particularly controversial or potentially disruptive of the status quo gets put to a final vote.
Out in the real world, this period will span the transition out of lockdown, the end of furlough (revealing the full impact of covid-related unemployment), the Unite general secretary election, and countless battles over pay and conditions in workplaces and over policy in parliament. It will also witness Labour’s National Conference, which will be shamelessly rigged by the party’s regional and national bureaucracy, under a colourless, incompetent but oppressive leader. No wonder many thousands are leaving the party in disgust – a process Momentum has done little to fight. In short, this summer may be the last chance for many years to rally the left for a fight back. These are crucial battles in which Momentum should be mobilising its membership.
While Momentum’s constitution is clearly in need of an overhaul, its biggest problem as an organisation is not structural but political, as we wrote last year when Red Flag members also stood for the Momentum leadership. With the disintegration of the Labour left after Corbyn’s election defeat and leadership resignation, the withering away of most grassroots groups, Momentum faces a crisis of purpose.
Yet instead of swiftly convening a members’ conference to renew Momentum’s mission and decide its political priorities, the NCG has released a political strategy for Momentum’s next four years, without any consultation with members whatsoever. Over the last year, Momentum has pivoted towards community campaigns and organising, supporting renters’ unions and housing campaigns and movements like Kill the Bill, as well as offered solidarity to trans and Palestinian liberation struggles. These are positive initiatives which show an ambition to go beyond internal manoeuvring within Labour and to build social movements which shift the balance of class forces outside parliament. However, these initiatives have amounted to very little beyond advertising already established campaigns. The NCG has failed to initiate any concrete activity or take any initiative on their own.
Momentum has also failed to give any coordinated leadership to a fight-back against the purge of left-wingers in the party, to build any rank-and-file initiatives within the unions which could throw weight behind campaigns for NHS pay or against fire-and-rehire, or to take any initiative to bring the wider left together in a mass movement against the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis.
Momentum urgently needs to put its membership on a fighting footing ahead of the autumn, when the end of furlough and lockdown measures is likely to mark the intensification of Tory attacks on pay and conditions, and when Starmer is due to consolidate his leadership at party conference. As it remains the biggest left-wing organisation in the country, Momentum should also look beyond both Labour and the social movements and take responsibility for initiating a united front of working-class parties, campaigns, trade unions and movements against the Tory attacks.
For this, it urgently needs not a bureaucratically managed restructure but a democratic members’ conference which gives members in local groups control over the organisation’s political programme. Such a conference could debate and vote on both constitutional changes and key policy priorities. Moreover, it could open a dynamic debate on how to rebuild the labour movement, democratising the party, the unions, the organisations of youth, women, plus those oppressed by racism, homophobia and transphobia. Thus Momentum’s original ideal of a mass social movement could be revived but on a democratic basis.
Certainly Momentum’s own structure needs reform. The NCG should be stripped of its unilateral powers to set the organisation’s direction, and a democratic policy conference mandated by the constitution introduced. A simple democratic vote would also guard against the dilution of members’ more radical proposals by the NCG’s lowest-common-denominator politics. Momentum’s policies for Labour Party conference and endorsement of candidates should be decided by a members’ vote binding on the NCG. Red Flag will be developing proposals for the Refounding Convention in the coming weeks.
But as long as its leadership is content to maintain its exclusive prerogative to set the organisation’s political priorities, and limits these to single-issue campaigns and movements, Momentum will continue to languish on the sidelines of the class struggle and to track the Labour left’s remorseless decline. The only path back to relevance is to fully empower the membership to set the organisation’s political agenda, and to set an ambitious national strategy to rally the left both inside and outside the labour party. This way, if the Blairites succeed in obliterating everything the “Corbyn revolution” achieved or proposed, a strong nationwide Momentum can be the foundation for building an unashamedly socialist alternative to another New Labour.