“Refounding Momentum”: confusing, trendy, disempowering

The problems of the “Refounding Momentum” process.

By Michael Elms

But better than nothing!

The Momentum leadership has set up a process for re-writing the Momentum constitution. It will revolve around “Momentum Assemblies” filtering and re-writing submissions from members and local groups. That there will be any kind of collective input into the new constitution is a step forward. And the intentions of the leadership are surely good.

But the rules for how this system will work are complicated and disempowering, and they replicate the culture of top-down paranoia about local groups that has stymied Momentum organising for years. You can read the rules here.

Looking back five years

In the announcement of the “Refounding Momentum” process, the Momentum leaders write:

“At certain points every organisation needs to change, and Momentum does too. After five years of rapid growth and many successes, and following the 2019 General Election defeat, now is the time to rebuild our organisation from the ground up.”

But if we’ve had five years of growth, why does Momentum need rebuilding? In fact, unfortunately, Momentum has fallen apart in the last couple of years. It retains tens of thousands of members on email lists, but the life of many of Momentum’s local groups has dwindled. Obviously, the Labour left was badly demoralised by the 2019 election defeat, and the pandemic has made local meetings more difficult. But the falling-away of local groups began well before 2019.

A major factor in that dwindling was that from January 2017, Momentum became intensely centralised. Before 2017, lots of local groups had come together and elected delegates to go and make decisions at regional and national meetings. But in order to impose “message discipline”, and to insulate the Labour and trade union leaderships against leftwing grassroots pressure, Momentum was suddenly reorganised from the top down, in a January 2017 “coup” which the Clarion described in detail here.

This change was about taking power and initiative away from local groups. It became hard for local groups to access their own data, and almost impossible for local groups to submit motions or propose policy changes. Before January 2017 Momentum had been at least theoretically governed by meetings of delegates representing vibrant local Momentum groups (though in fact many meeting decisions were blocked by the office not even communicating them to the general membership, let alone pushing them publicly).

Now the message was: “Momentum’s local groups can’t be trusted with running things. The staff at the office – the grown-ups – are in charge now”. All democratic engagement under the new system was for members as individuals, centrally administered by the office staff, with no role for local groups. A ridiculous system of “regions” was set up for NCG elections: the boundaries had obviously been gerrymandered in order to produce convenient results for the incumbent leadership. A “Members’ Council” of randomly-selected members was supposed to meet up and generate suggestions for the NCG.

When it met, the suggestions it made were not to the NCG’s liking. At least one of its randomly-selected members was phoned up and threatened with expulsion if they turned up again, and the “Members’ Council” never met a second time.

In short, a very big reason for local Momentum groups dropping off (and Labour leftwingers often re-organising themselves outside Momentum in ward and CLP “left caucuses”) is because people aren’t stupid and they can tell when they are being patronised and silenced. Why bother trying to engage with a structure that’s made it clear that it doesn’t want to hear from you? The whole philosophy of the new structure was to dissolve local organisation into a passive, atomised membership which would respond to instructions sent out from the centre by SMS or email.

It is good, and overdue, that Momentum is organising a democratic process to re-write its constitution. One basic remedy for the organisation’s problems is to hand back power to local groups. But empowering local groups means allowing them to come up with ideas that you might not have vetted in advance! It means accepting a loss of control.

Unfortunately, the procedure that the Momentum leadership has come up with for the refounding process is confusing and disempowering. This system will have the effect of filtering out any new or controversial ideas that local groups might come up with. The system of “Momentum Assemblies” will keep power and initiative in the hands of the national leadership, not the membership.

Compositing is good, actually

In this “refounding” process, “Momentum Assemblies” are supposed to play the role that “compositing” plays in the democracy of the Labour Party and many other labour movement bodies. But this newly-invented system is not as good as compositing.

A central idea in compositing is the idea that if your local branch (of Labour, trade union, or whatever) passes a motion, it gets to have ownership of it. That means that you, as a local group, get to be the ones to advocate for the motion (because it’s your idea!); and because it belongs to you, only you can decide whether or not to scrap bits of it.

Let’s say many similar motions come into a conference. They all call for electoral reform, so they are all being composited into one motion. But one of these motions also calls for abolishing the monarchy. The proposers of all the other motions say, “abolishing the monarchy doesn’t fit with the spirit of what we are saying. We don’t want this line to go into our shared motion”. The people who have brought the lone, controversial abolish-the-monarchy motion don’t have to bin their idea just because they are in a minority. They can say “OK, this is too controversial for the main motion. But we still think it is important, and we want conference to vote on this idea separately from everything else”.

That separate vote on a single line might be a faff. But the principle behind it is important. Having ownership of your text is a good way of making sure that even controversial ideas have a right to be heard. After all, “freedom must mean freedom for the one who thinks differently”. In the jargon of Labour Party conference, taking out a line to be voted on separately in this way is often called creating a “split composite”.

But under the Refounding Momentum procedure the idea of local groups having ownership of their own ideas goes out the window. The Momentum Assemblies won’t work like normal compositing. There will be nothing to stop them from just chopping out controversial or complicated ideas. In fact, whereas compositing is supposed to be about organising motions to get a hearing for everyone’s ideas, these “Assemblies” will act as a filter on controversial, awkward or minority ideas.

Why’s that? “Consensus decision making”; and lack of representation for local groups.

Consensus decision making cuts out controversy

In normal labour movement democracy, there is a contest between proposals which are written down clearly. If someone wants to put an amendment, they have to write it down so that everyone can see exactly what they’re talking about.

With consensus decision-making, the emphasis is on chiselling and re-shaping proposals in a constant process of adjustment and compromise. The objective is to round off all the sharp edges so there doesn’t have to be a vote-out between opposing visions. Normally, it is the job of the facilitator to interpret and summarise all the little adjustments and shifts along the way. What’s more, this is generally done verbally, and not by way of written amendments.

This means much less clarity. It relies much more on how the facilitator chooses to interpret and remember the things that are said. It creates much greater pressure to drop controversial stuff. A charismatic, or forceful, facilitator can easily override hesitant delegates, especially ones who are in a minority – especially in an improvised system where everyone’s rights over their text and ideas aren’t written down properly.

In Momentum’s proposed “consensus decision making” version of compositing, what would happen to a controversial idea, like abolishing the monarchy, as per our example above? In a consensus system, the facilitator’s job is to avoid a sharp up-down vote-out or a “split composite”. So a facilitator might “create consensus” by persuading supporters of the controversial text to re-word it until it was almost meaningless. If most of our supporters of electoral reform won’t accept the call for a Republic, maybe they would accept “steps to investigate deepening democracy including examining the role of the monarchy…” or similarly opaque blather. But it would mean that in the interests of “consensus”, an important minority viewpoint has been deleted, without anyone really admitting that it has been deleted.

Consensus decision making tends to produce fudges. In a constitution, that can be dangerous. People will come to the table with ideas of different systems. Better to choose one or another system, rather than compromise on a stitched-together mishmash of mutually incompatible ideas. That is a recipe for a constitution that can’t actually work as it is written down on the page.

And let’s remember – all of this complicated consensus process of negotiation and minute adjustments is supposed to be taking place over Zoom!

Local groups written out

The “Momentum Assemblies” will be made up of four members of the NCG and four representatives of affiliate groups. There will be eight representatives of local groups… so long as there is “room” for them! If there isn’t enough “space” (on a Zoom call?) for all the representatives of local groups, then eight of them will be selected at random. Note that it’s the local groups whose numbers are limited and who have to get selected at random: not the NCG members or representatives of affiliates. This rule is very weird and makes it clear that local groups are less important than the national leadership or invitees from external organisations.

The “randomise local groups’ reps” rule means that if your group sends in some text for the process, there is no guarantee that you’ll be able to choose someone to go and advocate for that text and make sure your local group gets a proper hearing for its ideas.

The rules also state that if a representative of a local group is sent to the Momentum Assembly, they are not allowed to function as a representative of their local group: “Local groups reps aren’t delegates sent to argue an agreed position. They have been selected for their experiences and unique insight, and while their own views and those of their local group are welcome, they are expected to enter into a consensus-based process and properly consider all submissions equally.”

In short, you’re there for your interesting personal biography and “unique insight”… But advocating for what your comrades back home have sent in, trying to make sure it gets a good hearing, bringing the strongest arguments – in short, representing your comrades, that’s not allowed! If the Labour Party replaced compositing with a process like this, the left would be up in arms. So why are we doing this to ourselves?

As if that wasn’t control-freakish enough, there is a further rule: “When local groups are electing their representative, they should nominate someone who is committed to this consensus model”. So, local groups mustn’t send a representative who is critical of the process that the national leadership has made up? Again: imagine if the Labour Party made up such rules for national conference, telling CLPs that they can’t send delegates who disagree with anything in the rulebook. Surely we would all be kicking off!

Why doesn’t Momentum base its decision-making process on the democratic structures of existing labour movement organisations? Why does it have to invent something new, which doesn’t work properly? One of Momentum’s aims is to democratise the Labour Party. But in order to do that, Momentum needs to be at least as democratic as Labour.

The culture of NGO bullshit has penetrated deeply into the left, and not just Momentum. Labour for a Green New Deal, for example, is organised explicitly along the lines of a charity, owned by unelected “Directors” and with no internal democracy. If you have no aspiration to build local groups or have an internal democracy, then fine – do what you like. But for Momentum, which is fighting to reinvigorate its local groups, antidemocratic chicanery like this will harm any effort to rebuild proper local organisation. The NCG should take this one back to the drawing board.

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