Last weekend saw Momentum’s celebrated The World Transformed (TWT) festival of politics, art and culture run alongside a Labour party conference where the left sustained one of its most catastrophic conference defeats for years.
Rule changes mean the left has now lost its majority on the national executive committee (NEC), which could well cost Jeremy Corbyn his leadership and will certainly be a block to many of the party reforms the left needs to make (say goodbye to a fair trigger balloting process or shadow cabinet elections). How did this happen? And what tensions does TWT expose in Momentum going forward?
TWT didn’t integrate with the Labour conference.
As with many things, location is everything. The way a space works makes a huge difference to the success of something like conference where you have thousands of fringe events. Liverpool’s conference centre was actually not ideal itself, with spaces that felt far too large and too far apart, and there was a shortage of communal spaces to mingle. Likewise, the extent to which TWT felt like a part of conference was always going to hinge on its physical proximity to the main complex. Unfortunately, with the venue over a mile from the conference centre, movement between the two was limited and impractical.
Even small tokens of integration – for example an advert in the conference fringe programme or leaflets for the festival – were completely absent from the main complex. At the conference centre the only sign that something new and exciting might be happening down the road were a handful of people like myself donning stickers on the back of their conference passes, wearing them like bizarre envoys between these two distinct worlds.
Why hold TWT during conference?
You could argue it doesn’t matter whether or not TWT integrated with conference. After all, TWT was hugely successful in bringing in new people who would usually find conference too expensive or ‘wonkish’ to contemplate going. However, if the primary function of TWT was just to engage the new membership then why hold the festival the same week as conference? Surely the purpose of TWT should have been to shape the narrative at conference, influence delegates and organise for votes?
TWT could have been an opportunity to lead the conversations which were rife at conference itself about how Labour can meaningfully engage a mass membership, and how Labour can update its party structures to suit this. Conference always has ‘themes’ of conversation; this year the theme was the rule changes (to gerrymander the left out of its majority on the NEC) and a growing sense from left and right that the party structures are ill-quipped to deal with the new membership surge (the left thinking the structures need updating, the right thinking the membership needs to stop surging).
Momentum, as the champion of the new members, should have been at the heart of these discussions – it was the question at conference. Instead TWT focused on big ideas about socialism and crafting a new vision for the world, whilst seemingly oblivious to the huge defeats the left was sustaining on conference floor.
It wasn’t Labour right-wingers who were annoyed by TWT.
Considering the uproar the right made about a ‘rival conference’ when TWT was first announced, you could be forgiven for thinking they complained about it non-stop at conference. But they didn’t – they didn’t care, it made zero difference to them. For the left, however, it was intensely irritating to be moving back and forth between two events a mile apart. Most people at conference have stuff to do – whether a delegate, a fringe organiser or just leafleting. Rule number one of being a faction: don’t make it harder for your own people to organise.
Conference is about winning votes – not art, workshops and fringes.
It’s not just that TWT’s separation was often a hindrance for the left organising at conference; its stated aims also mark a peculiar departure from the fights of the established Labour left. TWT’s programme tells participants they can expect to ‘participate in discussions, learn new skills and meet new people’. This all sounds fantastic, and is absolutely a part of what the left needs to do in general – but it actually has nothing to do with conference.
First and foremost, conference should be about winning votes. It is the highest decision-making body in the party. Tony Blair depoliticised it and turned it into the collection of boozy fringes we have today. For decades it has been the left who have been fighting for it to be the sovereign decision-making body again. Indeed, the first point in the mission statement of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (a left faction that predates Momentum but is politically close to it) is to fight for ‘a real policy-making annual conference’.
For Momentum to host a festival that barely acknowledges conference, does not discuss its votes, and takes people away from conference floor is a real divergence from old Labour left. It is a step backwards from conference as a place to make democratic decisions, and a move towards conference as a place to just hear from interesting speakers. Of course those of us on the left want both, but the emphasis should very much be on the former. Discussing socialist utopia is all well and good but it will not happen if the left loses votes in the very place Labour party policy is set.
Momentum must be the organised faction for left-wingers within Labour, not an alternative space for them.
The left’s defeats on the conference floor – sustained while Momentum held a packed festival a mile down the road – have opened up a tension which has been brewing for some time: the purpose of Momentum. Broadly speaking this is between those on the Labour left who have been party members for years and know how critical internal organising is, and those who came in during the Corbyn surge and see Momentum as a community organising tool.
People from the established Labour left grow exasperated as they ask themselves how can it be that an organisation which has the muscle to muster rallies of thousands at a moment’s notice cannot get a majority of conference delegates elected and can lose such critical votes, all whilst support for Corbyn amongst the membership has been growing all year.
There is a danger that spaces like TWT become safe havens for the new membership, particularly when so much of the party establishment has treated them with contempt. But Momentum must be the mechanism for the left to organise within Labour – not a parallel structure. Right now it sits dangerously close to the ‘party within a party’ criticism. The perception of so-called ‘entryism’ is not the main reason this is dangerous to the left. The main danger is that the left simply cannot win internal battles if large swathes of the new membership do not get involved in Labour party structures and feel a sense of affinity with Labour that can outlast a vulnerable left-wing leader.
Momentum must be the mechanism for this integration, not the alternative to it.