By Steve Michaels
It is almost nine months now since the Forward Momentum slate won a landslide victory in the vote for a new Momentum National Coordinating Group (NCG), with a promise “to develop a truly effective and democratic Momentum that wins in the Labour Party and builds power in our communities and workplaces”.
The new administration could reasonably claim that circumstances have been difficult. Much of the time since July 2020 we’ve been in lockdown or near-lockdown, with few street protests and Labour Parties meeting only online.
They could argue that the best anyone could do in the circumstances would be to reassemble and begin to remobilise the Labour left which had been dispersed and demoralised by the December 2019 election defeat and Jeremy Corbyn’s resignation, and then silenced by Labour meetings being shut down from March to July.
They have done some things. The Momentum office has given help to some local Momentum groups in remobilising. It announced a national anti-evictions campaign. The main reason why there has been little Momentum activity on that front is that the government has continued the evictions ban, and the Acorn “community union” has covered most of the action there has been.
The Momentum office has announced a “policy primary” to decide which motions Momentum backs for Labour conference 2021. The procedure is labyrinthine, and creates worries about central vetting and selection of options with little open debate before an eventual membership referendum; but there’s some movement forward from Momentum’s previous policy-making for conference, which has been strictly top-down (as in opposing debate on Brexit in 2017) or null (as in 2019).
So far so good. But not very good. Not for an organisation which in 2019 advertised 40,000 members, and which when the new administration took over had 20 paid office staff.
Momentum Internationalists has no paid staff (everything is done by volunteers after their day jobs), no proper membership system yet, not even a bank account. But on many fronts we’ve been able to do more than Momentum, with its much greater accumulated resources.
Momentum groups should push for the Momentum leadership to open out its decision-making more, and to give more to supporting out-in-the-world activity by local Momentum groups. And – or so I think the rest of this survey will prove – we should push them to take up many political issues Momentum has ducked. Or at least to open up for debate on them.
There were sizeable protests on the streets in the first few months of the new administration in Momentum: Black Lives Matters protests (the biggest were before Momentum’s change of leadership, but others continued after), and three big health workers’ protests over pay. Momentum wasn’t visible in those protests.
Unlike Momentum Internationalists, Momentum has little habit of organising public meetings (Zoom meetings under current conditions) to discuss issues or events. So its political output can be assessed from its Twitter account, or even from its Twitter account since 22 December 2020, when it gave a list of its achievements since the new management.
The main Momentum website changes little from month to month, and carries almost no response to the world around it. If you dig deep enough, you can find National Coordinating Group minutes there. But they add little.
A flurry of NCG minutes were posted in July 2020. After minutes were posted early each month, until 5 December 2020. Since then, nothing. Has the NCG stopped meeting? Has the leadership decided to stop publishing minutes? Or (despite those 20 paid staff) have they just not got round to it? We don’t know.
The old NCG was poor at publishing minutes. But the new NCG minutes are little more informative than the old ones. Much of what we can read is on the lines of “SB noted meeting with the Comms Working Group”, which helps us not at all.
The 5 December minutes do signal some debate on the idea of campaigning for the Labour Party to have an elected General Secretary and elected Regional Directors. They tell us that the NCG decided to campaign for an elected General Secretary (there were a few tweets, but no more) and to leave on the table the idea of campaigning for elected Regional Directors, and that a few NCG members abstained in the vote on both propositions. They don’t give us enough information that local Momentum groups could get into the debate and shape it.
The 22 December list of achievements cited:
• Helping getting a relatively good result for the left in the October-November Labour National Executive (NEC elections). (Presumably Momentum’s large e-list helped. It’s not clear Momentum did more than transmit the election material produced by the NEC candidates’ campaign).
• Organising primaries for the Young Labour committee elections. (But, as far as we can make out, those primaries had a very low voter turnout).
• Assisting local groups.
• Supporting the campaign to restore the whip to Jeremy Corbyn.
• Getting more Momentum people selected as council candidates.
• Opposition to evictions.
Tweets since then have backed the student rent strikes and the British Gas and Sage nursing home strikers. They have denounced the government over the public sector pay freeze, the failure to tax big business, Napier Barracks, free school meal provision, and the attempt to deport Osime Brown.
They have criticised the Labour leadership over the suspensions of CLP officers, the shutdown of the Community Organising Unit, the Liverpool mayor fiasco, and the new restriction on electing CLP delegates for 2021 conference.
Again, so far, so good: but much of that was retweets, and really it doesn’t amount to more than one enthusiastic Twitter user might do if they no longer have to commute and so now have more time to tweet or retweet after their day job.
There has been nothing on many issues. Nothing about antisemitism in the Labour Party or the EHRC report. Nothing about Brexit, or Keir Starmer’s shameful decisions to back the Tory Brexit deal and then drop his previous promises to defend free movement, or his “flag-waving” turn more generally.
Nothing about the arrests and trials in Hong Kong, or the movements in Myanmar and India. Nothing about the persecution of the Uyghurs. Very little, and that mostly of a “we hope Biden now comes good” type, about the dramas in the USA. Nothing about the spate of victimisations of trade-union activists in schools over recent months.
There have been tweets about local government, and about the pandemic, but politically poor, and unconnected with any real discussion or debate in Momentum.
For a long time Momentum had, pinned to the top of its Twitter feed, a video criticising the Tories over the pandemic on the grounds that they had not shown “strong leadership”. That is no longer pinned to the top, but the general line remains that it’s a matter of “strength” rather than politics – that bourgeois governments elsewhere know what to do, only the Tories are poor-quality Tories, showing “indecision and weak leadership”.
Also remaining is the idea that a “strong” government in Britain could at will do what, say, Australia’s government has done. (Australian prime minister Scott Morrison is just as right-wing as Johnson, but that’s not mentioned).
Actually, Australia’s much lower death toll is most likely explained by Australia being a remote island with rigidly closed borders. Britain cannot at will be made a remote island, and anyway Momentum (luckily) doesn’t even call for rigidly closing borders, contenting itself with a general call for “strength”.
The left has little leverage on making Tory governments more or less “competent”. But we can and must fight, and possibly win, on a whole range of left-wing or social demands addressing the pandemic.
Diluted versions of the central call for adequate isolation pay have appeared in a couple of retweets, but no-one could say Momentum has campaigned on that.
Apart from isolation pay (in diluted form), none of the other vital demands have appeared in Momentum’s output: requisitioning of Big Pharma, of the medical and PPE supply chain, and of private hospitals; bringing social care into the public sector, public-health test and trace, public quarantine accommodation for people otherwise trying to “self-isolate” in crowded housing, workers’ control of workplace safety.
As we’ve seen, new-regime Momentum describes pushing for more Momentum people to be selected as Labour council candidates as one of its prime achievements.
Indeed, on 19 February it retweeted a message from Laura Smith looking forward to “a new era of municipal socialism”.
One measure of that is that it cited the election of the Fabian Sidney Webb to the then London County Council in 1892 as a great historic model.
Really to usher in a new era, some accounting for recent history would be useful as well. A “Momentum council” already exists – in Haringey – and has not behaved in a meaningfully more left-wing way than other councils. What it has done most notably is support a development programme to bulldoze the popular “Latin Village” market in Seven Sisters, in the face of much criticism from working-class residents locally, and from the left nationally. If that is what it means to have Momentum supporters running a council at the moment, then – to put it mildly – some sort of policy change would be required before we could have confidence that electing Momentum-backed candidates might create a “new era of municipal socialism”. A public debate that acknowledges past failings in local government and steers a new course would help here: none has yet taken place.
At least the 1892 LCC didn’t have to deal with centrally-imposed cuts. The “new era” talk loses grip when we look at the financial crisis facing many Labour councils now. With incomes having slumped and costs risen from the pandemic, Luton’s Labour council has already declared huge cuts, and Croydon’s Labour council has called an emergency halt to spending (“Section 114”). Other Labour councils will follow unless we have a big and urgent mobilisation to force more money from central government. But nothing from Momentum on that.
Momentum’s output has also failed to report or comment on the cycle of CLP AGMs which started in November. Labour right-wingers are claiming many victories, and they have certainly had some. In other CLPs the left has held its ground or even advanced. Momentum should be in a position to give us some overview, and to help local left caucuses. But not a word.
Time to go back to that promise: “to develop a truly effective and democratic Momentum that wins in the Labour Party and builds power in our communities and workplaces”.