By Ruth Cashman
I stood in the Forward Momentum primaries to be a candidate for the Momentum NCG. Like many I have been incredibly frustrated with Momentum over the last few years. Whether you thought its purpose was building a mass social movement, winning a Labour government, holding left control of the Labour Party, democratising Labour, transforming the Labour movement, socialist education – it is fair to say it has failed so far. But in 2019 Momentum claimed 40,000 members, and that is not to be sniffed at. Even if it has lost a lot of members in the last year, it’s a left group with tens of thousands of people and we need to engage with it. I didn’t stand because I thought Forward Momentum or its leadership were perfect but because it seemed to be a campaign that came down on the right side on the need to democratise Momentum, and would attract many of the people who took that democratisation seriously. Some of the key figures in Forward Momentum have had a platform for some time and had not taken up Momentum and Labour democracy seriously but some had – for example, the FBU played a positive role in trying to stop the Momentum coup in 2017.
On 11 May I received a call from a member of the Forward Momentum Election Committee who told me I had been flagged in the candidate vetting process. The reason for my exclusion was an article five years ago in the Weekly Worker where I was asked about an article written fourteen years ago by someone else – Sean Matgamna. I explained on the phone, as I have in one to one conversations over the years that I believed the article was badly phrased and that though its intention wasn’t racist and each point can be explained, it was insufficiently sensitive to a group under attack by using language that could offend people. However, I believe anti-racism is not simply a case of not being racist, but the extent of your solidarity with oppressed people.
That is not the answer I gave to the Weekly Worker because that article was not intended to develop antiracist politics, or even to debate the nature of anti-imperialist struggles, it was an article written to stir up trouble. It is a cheap rag with no interest in showing the nuance of the debate, only looking for gossip. The same year they published this article, they hosted a long running debate on whether the moon was built by reptiles. I don’t think I owed them a back and forth on the subject, and I probably should not even have bothered replying. You don’t throw comrades under the bus whenever someone with an axe to grind asks you to. I would be much less suitable as a candidate if I was in the habit of denouncing all my comrades as racists for political convenience.
I explained in a later email to the election committee that I wouldn’t have phrased the article the way it was phrased. Not because the argument or intention of the piece is racist, but because it obviously has been offensive to some, and the political argument of the article gets lost as a result. Many Islamic fundamentalist groupings see the 7th century companions of Mohammed who embodied original (or “primitive”) Muslim virtue and made the first great Muslim conquests as a political model. ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other extreme-right groups are very explicit about this. This is an issue close to my heart as in 2007 I was the only representative of the UK trade union movement to attend a trade union congress in Iraqi Kurdistan, at which workers were discussing their armed struggle against these far-right organisations and American mercenaries.
Sean’s issue is not racism, it’s favouring style over clarity and ripping off the out-of-date language of Frederick Engels without referencing him. He was paraphrasing the passage from Engels: “The townspeople grow rich, luxurious and lax in the observation of the ‘law’. The Bedouins, poor and hence of strict morals, contemplate with envy and covetousness these riches and pleasures. Then they unite under a prophet, a Mahdi, to chastise the apostates and restore the observation of the ritual and the true faith and to appropriate in recompense the treasures of the renegades…” (On the History of Early Christianity).
That’s Engels who in turn was ripping off the 14th century Muslim writer Ibn Khaldun (summarised, for example, in the Prologue to Albert Hourani’s History of the Arab Peoples).
I was in politics at the time the article was written and remember the context the piece was written in. The largest left group at the time, the SWP, lashed up with George Galloway and right-wing religious figures, relegating explicit socialist and working-class politics to vague “aspirations” in order to create an electoral base out of the alliance built around the anti-war movement.
To make it work they softened their line on many things, in particular religion. Lindsay German explained she was “in favour of gay rights [but] not prepared to have it as a shibboleth” They sought alliances with right-wing organisations such as the MAB and the backing of right-wing religious figures at the expense of the independent class interests of Muslim workers. The MAB was as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Its anti-imperialism is a variety of that practised by various radical bourgeois and petty bourgeois formations in the Middle East, Pakistan and elsewhere throughout the world – a more equitable relationship with the imperialist bourgeoisie that allows them a share of valuable natural resources and in the exploitation of the working class. Many socialists in the period reverse-engineered their politics in order to accommodate to this. Islamic fundamentalism is a threat to the working class, in the first instance the Muslim working class. Independent class organisation and struggle by Muslim workers, in alliance and solidarity with other workers, is the key to defeating the fundamentalists, just as workers’ unity is the answer to all bourgeois reaction. Our task is solidarity with workers’ movements and socialists in the Muslim world, and any political concession to Islamic fundamentalism is a barrier to that. To stand against this concession is not Islamophobic, it is an act of solidarity with our Muslim comrades. Much of this politics of accommodation and communalism still exists on the left – see Starmer and Modi. Or Gardner and Modi. Or courting Catholic Priests in the North West.
The debate in 2013 around the article was between groups with different understandings of anti-imperialism, the roots of fundamentalist politics and how you relate to that. In this I am firmly on the side of the AWL. The rise of ISIS, the tragedy in Syria has shifted the debate on the anti-imperialist left.
Following my email submission to the election committee I received a call at 11.30 asking me to call them as they wanted to clarify some matters in order to make their decision. At 11.44 I emailed them to explain that I was a key worker at work and asked that they instead email me. At 14.40 with no response to my request to have the discussion in writing I received confirmation of my exclusion.
I asked for the appeals process and was told there wasn’t one. I was disappointed but not shocked by the politics involved. As a union rep, dealing with a committee containing three union officials, I was however absolutely shocked that I would be asked to give evidence over the phone and when I explained I was working but could answer over email, the chance would be withdrawn.
Over the next few weeks I saw members of the platform I was signed up to, Momentum Internationalists, bullied and harassed online. I don’t think my exclusion was because of an article printed fourteen years ago or because of the Weekly Worker coverage of it. I think it is part of a concerted attempt to push anyone within three degrees of separation from Workers’ Liberty/AWL from participating in Momentum elections. The level of harassment that members of the platform, whether or not they were AWL members, received, was unacceptable. I am sure many at the centre of Forward Momentum would agree but they have not stood up strongly enough against it. The last few weeks for me have been horrible, in the middle of the process I had nightmares and sleepless nights. I don’t say that for sympathy but because if that is how it affected me, someone who has been in the movement for decades and has been charged by police, thrown down the stairs by security guards and fought off fascists – I cannot imagine how horrible it has been for the teenagers for whom this was one of the early experiences of the Labour left. To all those people I want to extend my full solidarity and promise I will fight for a different left where debate and dissent are encouraged.
I would like to thank all those in Forward Momentum who protested on my behalf, including candidates and those on the board. I would also like to thank everyone who has publicly shown solidarity, which isn’t easy in such an environment.
• Ruth is co-secretary of Lambeth Unison and convener of Labour for a Socialist Europe.