Rumours abound of shadowy left-wing plots. But the true nature of Momentum is both more straightforward—and more diverseby Richard Seymour / January 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
Last week, in Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) elections, the slate backed by Corbynite campaign group Momentum swept to victory. The aftermath was as you’d expect. According to the headlines, this signified yet another hard left plot: Jeremy Corbyn had tightened his grip. A leftist clique has taken power. Dial “M” for Momentum.
These clichés are starting to look not just cynical, but foolish. Labour’s right can’t complain, every time it loses an election, that the winner is “taking over.” More importantly, many still seem to fundamentally misunderstand the plural, activist nature of Momentum.
The long game of the left
The reality is that Momentum’s candidates, led by founder Jon Lansman, won because they were popular, not because of “cliques.” In fact, if anything the left has been unlucky: it hugely increased its margin over its rivals in this election, but it will have only a fragile, working majority on the NEC.
The main panic issue is the replacement of Ann Black, as chair of something called the NEC “disputes panel,” by the Momentum officer Christine Shawcroft. The insinuation is that Shawcroft will go soft on abuse. The reality is more prosaic.
The chair doesn’t usually vote in NEC meetings but, as Stephen Bush points out in the New Statesman, she does get a seat on the eight-member NEC officers group. Black is of the left, but not especially factional—as illustrated by her support for severe NEC actions suspending branches and members during the 2016 coup against Jeremy Corbyn.
So the left is using its majority to moderately improve its institutional position. Is it not supposed to? Is this somehow unsporting? Or, is the left expected to be servile, and permanently disabled by internalised defeat?
The real question is: what has been keeping them? Momentum has benefited from having ties to the shadow cabinet and union leaders, and it has been operating in a party with a broad left majority for about two years. Yet it has been slow to capitalise on that. To see this, we need first to answer some questions about the kind of organisation the Labour Party is—and should be.
Momentum is an offshoot of the “Jeremy Corbyn for Labour” campaign, which was run by Corbyn’s old ally Jon Lansman, now Momentum Chair. The basis for the newer organisation was a database of registered supporters, which was owned by Lansman. The idea emerged when Corbyn was still unlikely to win the Labour leadership in 2015, and it was to convert the campaign into an organisation to combat the influence of organisations on Labour’s right. But it also builds on a theme of Corbyn’s campaign: rebuilding democracy depends on getting people organised.
The excitement following Corbyn’s unexpected victory in 2015 meant that local unofficial Momentum groups popped up before the organisation actually existed. But since no one expected Corbyn’s triumph, there was no agreed strategy, no principle for unity, and no structure of governance. The emerging organisation was improvised, and there were tensions between different perspectives.
Lansman, a seasoned party operator, tends to see things from the perspective of building hegemony across a complicated, pluralist party structure. The younger group around Adam Klug, Emma Rees and James Schneider favoured an extra-parliamentary focus on building a new campaigning, movementist left. The traditional hard left, given ballast by a few Trotskyist groupuscules, wanted Momentum to educate and train cadres to battle the Labour right.
These struggles sometimes culminated in ugly rows. For example, arguments about the role of the so-called “Israel Lobby” in Labour politics came amid a huge argument over allegations of anti-Semitism in Labour. After a deeply misjudged intervention at a Jewish Labour Movement meeting, steering committee member Jackie Walker was denounced publicly by other members and eventually forced out. Momentum was constantly being hounded in the press, compared with Militant, and baited for Trotskyist entryism.
Matters reached a peculiar nadir when, having resisted these smears, a faction of the organisation’s leadership claimed that it was in fact being swallowed up by a Trot plot. They used this to justify forcing through sudden, radical changes to the organisation in a peremptory email vote, which was widely denounced as a coup.
Lansman and his allies seem to have decided that the far left was a running embarrassment. But, unable to win a battle in the existing federal structures, they just used their leadership position to settle the issue. The movementist left, with whatever reservations, mostly acquiesced in this.
However undemocratic, that change laid the basis for the organisation Momentum has become.
An organisation on the rise
Momentum now focuses on four core activities: social media campaigning, door-knocking, support for leadership-backed reforms, and some activist training. And it is good at these things. It also began a detox job that, especially after the 2017 general election, changed the organisation’s image for good—even Tories began to praise Momentum after the result.
Currently, Momentum looks strong, claiming over 200,000 registered online supporters, about 35,000 members, and 170 local groups. It has over 90,000 followers on Twitter, and 185,000 “likes” on Facebook. It has close ties to the leadership, to unions like Unite, and the Communication Workers Union has affiliated. Members pay a monthly amount ranging from £3 to £50. If all members paid the lowest monthly fee, Momentum would be pulling in £105,000 a month, compared to £20,000 a month by late 2016.
In terms of party battles, Momentum is now belatedly winning some victories. Lansman’s place on the NEC will be important, given his understanding of the party’s structures. There is, though, a strong grassroots pressure to go farther, faster. Some want mandatory reselection of MPs, for example, or the powers of the National Policy Forum to be returned to conference.
Beyond that, what about grassroots organising beyond Labour? Momentum’s clout derives from outstanding electoral work. But the Corbynistas know it isn’t enough to win office, as Corbyn’s new unit for community campaigning shows. So shouldn’t Momentum, with its clout and resources, be doing this work? Is there any other organisation that could?
This is why the boring red-baiting about Momentum misses the point. It isn’t about “cliques,” it is an argument about strategy. It is about what kind of organisation Labour needs to be, and how to get there. And if the carpers had the answers to that question, they wouldn’t be out of power, complaining about it.