On 18 March the leadership of Momentum launched a “strategy document” called “Socialist Organising for a New Era”, laying out a path for what Momentum should do over the next three years. But despite running to 24 pages, it doesn’t really say.
There is plenty in the document that is not controversial and even good – that socialists should intervene in the Labour Party and try to democratise it and involve it in social struggles; that more extensive programmes of political education should be rolled out; that there should be more socialists in local government. But none of these things are new. In fact they are said by Momentum regularly, so it isn’t really clear why they needed to be said again in a strategy document released with great fanfare. There aren’t any new proposals in here; neither is there really any detail about how to achieve these things, or reflecting on how Momentum’s attempts at doing these things has gone so far. But the document does surely say a lot about the outlook of its current leadership.
In a way the longest part of this 24-page document is all the things that are left unsaid. A strategy document might begin by laying out some information about how it was drawn up, where it was debated and drafted and by whom. But we don’t get any of that. As of late March 2021, Momentum’s National Co-ordinating Group has not published any minutes since early December 2020. In a democratic organisation, a strategy document establishing the organisation’s plans and orientation for a period of three years would be debated by the membership prior to being adopted and published. This hasn’t happened here. Members didn’t know the report was coming; no-one knew how to express a view about what should be in it. That raises another question: is the report supposed to be binding? Or is it just an opinion piece by some members? Why not invite debate about it?
A process of activists debating and amending a roadmap would be lengthy, and, in an organisation of about 40,000 members, it would be fairly public and noisy. But this document was drawn up in private and launched without warning. It’s a model of behaviour that fits an NGO which exists to issue reports written by a central staff or by an inner circle who are “in the know”.
Momentum is not in great health right now. This isn’t the fault of the current leadership: the pandemic and the 2019 election defeat weigh heavy. Even before the 2019 election the farcically top-down, anti-democratic way in which Momentum was run, perhaps at the behest of the Corbyn leadership, had cost Momentum much moral authority with its grassroots. These things are no secret, so there is no harm addressing them openly. Momentum’s new leadership has been conducting “Refounding” meetings – attempts to rally, re-organise and re-orient local Momentum groups. It would be useful for members to know how this has been going.
Even if the facts aren’t good, giving some facts about the current health of the organisation would create confidence. It would dispel speculation that things are worse than they really are. NGOs, charities and bourgeois parties who live and die by “optics” and can’t see further ahead than one news cycle would obviously not publish less-than-flattering information about themselves. But in a democratic labour movement organisation, whose strength relies on the confidence that the membership has in its leaders, giving the impression that the leadership is hiding bad news is damaging.
When the current leadership stood for election in 2020 as the “Forward Momentum” slate, they did so on a pledge of making Momentum more democratic. It is harder for an organisation to be democratic when it doesn’t have a thriving internal life and is beset with difficulties like the pandemic. But transparency is free, and you can do it any time. There is mention in this document of “democratising Momentum” but it only runs to a few lines:
“This summer we’ll also launch a process to collectively determine how we improve Momentum’s constitution and democracy, with deliberation conducted in local groups and proposals voted on by all Momentum members. We’ll be collectively thinking about the ways we can re-design Momentum so we can better deliver on the strategic priorities here outlined.”
The current leadership was elected on a pledge of organising a “Refounding Convention” – online, if not in person, to be held by May 2021. That was vague, but this is vaguer: “a process”, “in the summer”. It’s important for democracy that members are given proper information well in advance about exactly how they can make their voice heard. In a 24-page document about the future of Momentum, no more information is offered to members about how Momentum’s very constitution is going to be re-written. Again, the outlook of whoever wrote this is technocratic: telling members, “don’t worry, we are handling it”. If Keir Starmer sent out a circular saying “I’m going to re-write the Labour Party rulebook this summer sometime, I’ll ask you all what should go in it”, possibly the current Momentum NCG members would object.
The other noteworthy thing here is that whatever this “process” of re-writing the constitution decides, its political purpose has been fixed in advance. It’s all about delivering on the strategic priorities outlined in this document. So it turns out that this “strategy document” that you didn’t get to vote on is binding. Again: if Starmer said “Labour Party Conference this year is all going to be about the best way to campaign for a programme that I have just come up with”, people might ask: “Can’t we also change that programme?”
When Momentum was first founded in 2015, immediately the leadership started working to shut down democracy, discourage activists from organising together locally and asserting themselves. This culminated with the almost completely shutdown of democracy at the start of 2017. This was to do with making sure that there was no leftward pressure on the Labour leadership, but also a neoliberal-technocratic, NGO-style management philosophy that has become pervasive in the left. An argument we heard at the time was that Momentum doesn’t need to be democratic – all the “democratising” that needs to happen is in the Labour Party itself. We would answer: people learn by doing. If Momentum itself doesn’t model good democratic practice, what hope does it have of democratising Labour? If we want Momentum to be a force for democracy, it needs to get transparency, information and democracy right, and drop its current top-down NGO-style attitude that runs right through this document: “Your leaders will fix everything for you: await further instructions and do not bother us”.
Winning selections and getting more socialists into local government is one of the headline objectives outlined in this document. Under the header “Transforming local government”, the document says:
“As we’ve seen in Preston and Salford, committed socialists can use local government to make a real difference to people’s lives, and Momentum will support and encourage this new municipal socialist movement. We’re also assisting Momentum members to develop the knowledge and skills they need to navigate the selection process and campaign to become a councillor. We’ll continue the Future Councillors Programme and we’ll relaunch Momentum’s Councillors’ Network – a home for socialist councillors across the country, where they can debate and develop policy and explore how Labour councils can engage with and support local communities.”
There is no space here for a full assessment of Salford and Preston Labour councils. Momentum Internationalists will publish something more detailed about them at a later date. But no assessment is offered in the strategy document either (although it is 24 pages long). Salford Council does deserve credit for having extended isolation pay to workers in care homes. But it is putting up council tax and is only making no cuts this year because it has passed cuts budgets for ten years running, cutting a majority of its workforce. The much-trumpeted “Preston model” is about managing decline. That doesn’t sound much like “transforming” local government. A transformative approach to local government might involve refusing to co-operate with the government’s cuts agenda or learning from other “models”, like the Labour council in Clay Cross in the 1970s. At the very least it would involve active campaigning to stop cuts and win restored funding.
Instead, the Momentum leadership seem to take it as read that resistance is futile. That’s not an assumption that the leadership of a socialist movement should make lightly. (For more on Momentum’s approach to local government, see here.)
The rest of what this passage says focuses on the individuals who may become councillors: training and coaching them to “navigate” selection procedures. Of course councillors need training. But from a socialist perspective, when you’re talking about local government, the most important person isn’t the councillor. It’s the movement around them.
How might councillors be held accountable to Momentum and what might a “Momentum councillor” stand for? That’s an important question and it’s not addressed. There is a “Momentum Council” – Haringey Council. Since a big Momentum-driven campaign to select and elect lefties, Haringey’s Momentum council has alienated much of its grassroots leftwing support by doing things like shutting the popular Latin Village market in Tottenham, overriding the concerns of the local working-class community and many small traders.
Coaching people to act like that isn’t a winning proposition. We should coach prospective candidates to do something else instead – but what? We might suggest – building a united movement to back up the local council to defy central government; using the platform of local government to launch organising drives to build local unions and bring workers into the Labour Party; solving local problems by campaigning and mobilising people power. In short, socialist councillors should not view their power as coming from the council chamber but from the working class. They should be more afraid of disappointing the local left and workers’ movement than of central government or having the Labour whip withdrawn.
More important than “coaching” councillors is finding mechanisms of holding them accountable. Momentum councillors should set a standard of accountability to the local party – and to Momentum’s local supporters. Aside from Labour Party members, the other key constituency who should be involved in making local government policy is local government workers and trade union activists. But they aren’t mentioned.
Why write a pamphlet about Momentum’s strategy that runs to 24 pages, make “getting more left councillors” a headline theme, and then say nothing about what standards of left-wing-ness or of accountability a “left councillor” should be held to? A common way of proceeding on the Labour left is for lefties to pick a candidate on the basis of who talks left in the selection meeting, or who hangs around with the right people enough to be considered “one of us”. There’s a certain resignation that underlies these habits – everyone involved regards it as inevitable that the candidates chosen by the left in this way will eventually sell out. Momentum’s leaders should lead the way in dispelling this resignation. What the emphasis in this strategy document suggests is that the Momentum leadership share this resignation. They might “coach” some people to stand who otherwise would not have. Or they might, through “coaching”, woo some self-promoter into standing as a nominally “left” candidate. But in either case, there doesn’t seem much indication that they expect these people to have a different relationship to the broader movement once in office.
The Momentum Councillors’ Network doesn’t meet or deliberate. The reason for that is probably that any honest conversation about the record of “left” councillors in the UK would be too embarrassing for any of the participants to bear. But creating a body like that, even one that met regularly, should not be a priority. Councillors should not be encouraged to organise their own little trade union in Momentum to protect them from the membership. They should be held to account. If they want to discuss issues of policy, they can discuss them with the rest of us plebs who turn up to local Momentum meetings, or who are members of local government trade union branches. Bad enough that there is a whole bit of the Momentum NCG reserved for “elected officers”: that was always a right-wing gerrymander. Officials should be reminded at every turn that they serve the movement. A councillor has more power than an ordinary person. To also give a Momentum councillor more say in Momentum than ordinary members points in the wrong direction.
Momentum trade union network
The best idea in the document is a Momentum trade union network. Organising a left-wing network of shop-floor trade union activists is a very good idea. The Corbyn project started with that “surge” of new members into the Labour Party in 2015, bringing more left-wing politics and a desire for more activism and greater democracy. It was always a strategic weakness of the Corbyn movement that the trade unions were not similarly transformed and democratised at the same time. In the Corbyn period, this mismatch between renewed leftwing life in CLPs and an entrenched, unchallenged bureaucracy in the trade union movement meant that the trade unions returned to their traditional role as the most right wing block against leftwing changes getting voted through at Conference. It was during Corbyn’s tenure as Labour Party leader, paradoxically, that strike figures fell to their lowest recorded level. In order for the movement to be able to “use both hands”, a radical democratisation of and infusion of activist energy into the trade unions needs to come alongside a socialist political transformation of Labour.
Momentum’s strategy document talks about “working with trade unions”. That’s a common enough phrase in the movement. But it’s not precise. “Working with” the senior officials of a big union (generally unelected and on management-sized salaries) is a very different proposition from “working with” the workers they represent. Obviously, the latter is more important: but also the process of democratising and changing trade unions will entail a conflict with the existing trade union bureaucracies similar in its intensity to the fighting with the old regime that Corbynism sparked in Labour. Any trade union organisation that Momentum builds will need to be set up with that in mind.
There’s a further issue here, again to do with democracy. Most trade unions are at least as undemocratic as the Labour Party. But most trade unions, and Labour, nevertheless have much more democratic constitutions than Momentum does. It is hard to “bring democracy” into an organisation that is already more democratic than you are.
The Walton model
A note on the “Walton model”. There’s a bit in the strategy document where it says: “We’ll work to popularise organising models in Momentum and the Labour Party that prioritise working class solidarity and agency – such as the ‘Walton Model’”. Google reveals only one hit for “Walton Model”: a blogpost by NCG member Alan Gibbons written in May 2020 about how the Labour Party in Walton is active in lots of community campaigns and has held some lively cultural events. That’s good. But that doesn’t add up to a “model” that could be “popularised”. And shorthand for an idea is only of any use if people are likely to know what it means – i.e. if it gets more than one hit on Google. So why mention it at all? All it does is make the casual reader feel thick because they’ve not heard of this super-sophisticated “model”. You don’t want the leadership of a democratic organisation to sound like they’re trying to make up fancy new concepts to impress you with. It doesn’t instil confidence.
The overall impression given by the Momentum strategy document is one of vagueness and a lot of habits of thought and activity imported from liberal NGO politics, rather than labour movement organising. Vagueness almost always means going with the flow. But more than at any time in its history, Momentum needs to go against the flow. It faces a hostile Labour leadership, great pressure in local government, and a trade union movement that’s not fit for purpose. Between the lines, this document reveals a leadership hiding its intentions, hiding bad news, and keeping all of its decision-making cloistered in processes that can be micro-managed from the office. A bolder, more self-confident, more political approach is needed.