Democracy and Momentum

by Suzanne Gannon

I’ve just finished reading Bill Ayers’ latest provocative book, Demand the Impossible! A Radical ManifestoI’d definitely recommend it to anyone new to socialism or, indeed, anyone who feels they’ve been around the block too many times to even hope for a better world. But, this blog entry isn’t a review of that book. Rather, it’s going to take one paragraph (of the many inspiring paragraphs in this short book) as a starting point to consider a crisis the left faces in the UK at the present moment. That paragraph is from the last chapter:

“That possible other world is a world of socialism with participatory democracy and freedom, a world in which the needs of other people come before profit and active participation is constantly mobilized. Explicitly rejecting capitalism is essential for movement-builders today — capitalism has no answers to the crises we face, and zombie capitalism, casino capitalism, Wizard-of-Oz capitalism is in fact the root of the problem. Insisting that the socialist alternative we fight for is inseparably tied to democracy is also indispensable — we must create a space where workers of every type plan, manage, and control in order to satisfy social needs. Authentic democracy mobilizes the capacities of working folks and the broad masses of people to define the society we want and needs, embracing the revolutionary practice of simultaneously changing circumstances and changing ourselves.”

And that’s why the events of the last month in Momentum have been so very very disappointing to so many of us: they are not democratic. For an organisation whose raison d’etre is to support Jeremy Corbyn in democratising the Labour Party to have drawn on the worst of political hack moves and spins just to get its way is deeply troubling.

I attended the Yorkshire and Humber Regional meeting yesterday with fifteen comrades from eight branches across the region and a staff member from Momentum’s central office in attendance. What I heard expressed from the majority of branches was outrage and condemnation of the undemocratic way in which the existing structures (as imperfect as they were) had been dissolved and a constitution imposed on us by fiat, and with absolutely no consultation. What I heard from the representative from “Team Momentum” and the few branches that supported the actions, was fear mongering. And lest we forget where that gets us, here is Comrade Yoda on the subject: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” (George Lucas, Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace)

From the side supporting the coup at the regional meeting, there were attempts to mollify our hurt with apologetic admissions that the process that had been undertaken “pretty imperfectly” and that it was “unfortunate”. But these acknowledgements of harm or wrongdoing were immediately coupled with imperatives and modal verbs of necessity, claiming that the actions taken by Jon Lansman and the handful of Steering Committee members who agreed with him were “absolutely necessary” and “had to be kept” secret as they were being cooked up because Momentum was “descending into factional warfare” and was, apparently, “on the verge of being proscribed by the Labour Party” (the representative from Momentum HQ said this no less than five times in the meeting — I was counting).

As a result of this impending disaster or worse, apparently, and according to the people who were trying to win us over to accept the outcome, Momentum’s HQ “had no choice” but to act in the way they did; indeed one contributor said that Momentum’s headquarters were “forced into that situation”. The supporters of Jon Lanman’s actions repeatedly used phrases such as “had to”, and resorted to quasi-legalistic scare tactics that claimed without dissolving the old structures and imposing the new constitution on members without consultation, that somehow Momentum itself was “illegal”, or that at least “the National Conference would have been illegal”. It was claimed that the plebiscite posing as a survey was “the only way of consulting on the constitution”. In other words, the ends justified the means.

When pressed for a reason as to why Momentum had suddenly fallen into such a precarious situation that necessitated such drastic and immediate action outside any democratic mandate, the only reason given was that because the national conference intended to put policy decisions before members, and because Momentum allows anyone who is eligible to be a member of the Labour Party and a supporter of its principles to be a member (just as the Socialist Education Association and other affiliated socialist societies do), that “there was a real threat of non-Labour members having influence” over Labour Party policy. When it was pointed out that the Fabian Society, Labour First and Progress all do devise and promote policy within the Labour Party, and that they allow members to be part of their organisation who are not Labour Party members, we were told that somehow Momentum fell into a different category because we were so big.

If indeed, this was a genuine argument, why was it not put before the membership? Why were we not allowed to know about any of these so-called dangers and allowed to debate how to deal with them? Why did one person (or a handful of people) feel that they had the sole responsibility to decide to do away with the existing democratic structures in a matter of minutes, and impose another structure on us without any semblance of democratic debate? No matter why this has been done, and no matter whether this new constitution is better or worse or whatever than any alternative, if members of Momentum do not protest at the undemocratic way it has been imposed (which in reality, is a coup), then we have no place at the table insisting that the Labour Party changes its undemocratic practices, as we are settling for a socialist alternative that has untied itself from democracy.

Although the justifications for the actions from the centre offended many, the debate and discussion during this meeting was civil and temperate on all sides. And in the end, we voted by a majority of 7 to 3 (with 3 abstentions) to not recognise the new constitution and to carry on meeting as “a representative delegate regional committee until a new constitution has been validated through democratic means with consultation with all members.” And, as we do not recognise that the Steering Committee can dissolve the National Committee of which it is a subset, we will be sending delegates to the National Committee meeting on 28th January.

We know that as a region and branches we are not alone in feeling distressed by this turn of events in Momentum. But motions passed condemning the coup (at this point there have been 2 regions and 29 branches doing just that, and two of the associations have refused to take up their offered places on the new governing body of Momentum) and just trying to carry on as if the coup has not happened are not sufficient to undo the harm that has been wrought on the movement by this fiat.

Why we can’t “just put this behind us and get on with fighting the Tories”

Momentum has attracted thousands of socialists back to the Labour Party; it has also attracted thousands of people completely new to politics to socialism and the Labour Party. The staff member at the regional meeting described her journey as having only begun in Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership challenge. I salute these young people who are either volunteering their time or working for low wages in order to further this noble political ideal. At the same time, I worry about what messages the actions of their elders are communicating to these younger people about how politics should be done on the left.

Doing a hatchet job on your enemy and demonising groups that don’t agree with you (calling them “wreckers”, “hypocrites”, “rightwing proxies”, “overpaid middle class”, “militantly hostile to Labour”, “dinosaurs”, “sabateours”, “the Fifth Column”, “entryists”, and of course “Trots” — all terms that have been bandied around on social media) should have no place in discourse amongst socialists. Such actions and language are those of bullies, not comrades. No matter what structure we eventually end up adopting (assuming we can hold together at all!), if bullying and autocratic rule from the centre is not stopped and dealt with, Momentum will have a fatal flaw at its heart. And a generation of new activists will have learnt that stepping on your perceived enemy’s neck is the only way to advance your cause (which of course, because it is your cause, must be righteous and noble and the only way).

There was once another group of young socialists, who during the late 1970s and early 1980s, also strove for ways to bring about the Labour Party’s democratisation and move its policies more to the left. Many of these activists were in the Labour student organisation called NOLS. Here, over several years, a battle raged between the Militant tendency and what might be called the soft-left, who were grouped under the auspices of an organisation ironically called “Clause 4”.

Whatever one might now (or then) think of Militant, what is of note here is that, in order to retain control of NOLS, the Clause 4 organisation, in conjunction with political fixers within the Labour Party officials, adopted rather unethical (nay, even corrupt and definitely undemocratic) practices. This included fixing delegate seats, rigging votes, and even going so far as to create fictitious Labour Clubs. My point is not to paint Militant as necessarily “the good guys”, but to comment on the methods Clause 4 used in this internecine struggle for power and the end result that it had on some of its members, so that it might serve as a warning about how we are teaching new members.

Indeed, clinging to an unholy ethos that the ends justify the means to stop perceived opposition is a morally and politically bankrupt position. We merely have to look at the career projection of some of the individuals involved in the NOLS dirty fighting to see where these people, who were once beacons for the left, have ended up: Charles Clarke, John Mann, Mike Gapes. Their political trajectory led them from fighting to make the Labour Party more socialist, to then join in Kinnock’s push to the right, to becoming full-blown staunch supporters of New Labour and all that that entailed, to becoming witch-hunters of anyone who is remotely left of centre. John Mann is still at it today. We only have to consider how dishonest his public denunciation of Ken Livingstone was to draw a judgment as to his character and moral stance.

Why I bring this to our attention now is that the latest actions from Momentum’s centre has, in my opinion, crossed beyond the Rubicon of what any good socialist would call democracy. It has created the groundwork that I fear will lead some of our members down the very same path those politicians most of us decry have trod. This needs to be recognised and rectified. It is not that those who have carried out this coup need to be publicly castigated (we need to find a way for all sides to make peace and save face); but the younger members need to be informed that the actions that were taken, no matter how critical some want to paint the situation, were ill-advised and undemocratic and should never again be attempted by anyone calling themselves a socialist.

So, while we may get through this current crisis, and we may be able to find a way to heal the rifts that have grown between different factions of the movement around Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, I worry about the younger members, who are, after all, the future. What will they be taking away from all this? I do not doubt their idealism or their motives. (Although I do worry a bit that working for “Team Momentum” may be seen in the future as the new career ladder for aspiring lefties.) What I worry about is that they are being taught by those who should know much much better than this, that “the ends justifies the means” if you are convinced that you are right.

This is not the “new way of doing politics” Momentum promised; it is the oldest, most dirtiest way of doing politics; one that those of us with political histories recognise and despise. And, as Comrade Yoda spelt out for his young disciple: “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will.”

Suzanne Gannon is a member of  Momentum and is a delegate from Yorkshire and Humberside to the Momentum National Committee.

This article is shared from Suzanne’s blog “Creative Pens“.