Momentum’s long internal feud appears to be over. The Leadership have imposed a constitution on the organisation through an hour-long email vote of the 12-person Steering Committee; a move justified by the results of a survey of members. However, despite this same survey showing overwhelming support for ‘key decisions’ being taken through online all-member votes, the constitution was imposed without members even being consulted. For the organised Opposition this has vindicated all their suspicions of the Leadership’s unprincipled and undemocratic approach to politics. For the Leadership, it was a necessary move to keep the organisation from imploding.
On face value the Leadership have won. But that does not mean this is all over. The Opposition are now unlikely to get a constitution of their liking but, as I argued before, this was never really the point. If they choose to they can certainly prolong the conflict, undermining the organisation’s ability to operate effectively. Many now feel there is little to lose. After all, both sides saw the other as an existential threat to the organisation and for some in the Opposition it already feels like Momentum is on its way to becoming a toothless shell of its former potential.
So winning the war is not the same as winning the peace. Unfortunately for the Leadership, this is not as simple as an email vote. It necessitates that trust is rebuilt in the organisation and that energy is put into bridging the deep divides that now exist between members. The Leadership need to be willing to compromise and share power, and the Opposition must be willing to respond.
Winning the peace
The loudest voices in Momentum are in one of the two rival camps, so it is easy to forget that there is a gaping chasm between them wherein most members reside. The majority of the membership may well support online decision-making, but that does not mean they support the Leadership’s behaviour or even this specific constitution. Equally, even if the Opposition does represent a minority of the membership it may still comprises some of the most active members. For a political organisation to function it needs to not only regulate how decisions are taken, but create a culture that accepts these decisions as legitimate, and a membership mobilised to carry them out. Neither of these are currently guaranteed. The test in Momentum now – for both sides, but mainly for the Leadership – is whether they can rebuild trust.
Here are six suggestions to get started:
1) The Leadership must totally adhere to both the letter and the spirit of the new constitution.
There is a belief on the part of the Opposition that the Leadership will bend the rules and break from accepted democratic practice to get their way. The Leadership of course reject this and argue that any deviation from the previous structures was justified by their lack of democratic legitimacy. Now with a new permanent structure in place, implemented unilaterally by the Leadership faction, this argument is no longer plausible. The Leadership need to show that they are committed to these rules. This means following them when this means defeat, as well as when it means victory.
2) The first National Coordinating Group (NCG) should share power across the movement.
The 12-strong members section of the all-powerful NCG is elected by multiple non-transferable vote. What this means, in practice, is that if one side can win a slim majority of the votes, they can win all the seats and drive out any opposition. The Leadership faction is probably able to do this, but they must resist the temptation. This will only perpetuate the current conflict that is paralysing the entire Labour left. Instead they should compile a unity slate comprising activists from across the movement. This should include respected Opposition voices but also those who command authority locally and sit between the polarised factions. This latter group may well represent majority opinion. The Leadership currently have a lot of power and they should exchange some of this for trust, faith and peace.
3) The seats on the NCG reserved for affiliate organisations must be used to expand the reach of Momentum, not as factional pawns.
The all-powerful NCG is not solely elected by its members. In fact, ordinary members do not even have a majority. This has led many on the Opposition to believe that the other seats – reserved for elected officials, trade unions, and affiliated organisations – will be used to guarantee a permanent majority for the Leadership. In addition to ensuring that the members section represents the breadth of the membership, the Leadership should also treat these affiliate seats in the way that they have been presented. This means using them to genuinely develop partnerships with other organisations, not to bolster their numbers on the NCG. To this end, it is vital that key figures in the Leadership like Jon Lansman seek a mandate from the membership in an open election, rather than securing membership of the National Coordinating Group through an appointment by his blog, which rather gallingly is considered an affiliate organisation.
4) Online decision-making must be independently scrutinised.
All organisational structures require a degree of trust but some have stronger safeguards than others. One advantage of a delegate system is that the decision-making process is out in the open. You can watch as people in the meeting raise their hands to vote, and you can inspect the results of paper ballots. By contrast, decisions taken online are harder to oversee. If the Momentum Leadership organise the online elections, votes and petitions that give the membership influence in the organisation then, if they chose to, they could easily rig them. Given the abysmally low level of trust in the organisation, this is a recipe for accusations of impropriety. An organisation like the Electoral Reform Society – who manage the internal elections for the Labour Party – should be drafted in to manage the process for Momentum.
5) The NCG should facilitate easier submission of constitutional amendments in the first year.
The Momentum website contains a helpful explanation of how a member can amend the constitution. In short, it is incredibly difficult. However, it is relatively straightforward for a member of the NCG to put a constitutional amendment to an all-member online vote.
Momentum’s new constitution was justified through a survey which returned overwhelming support for key decisions being put to the membership online, and not decided by delegate-based committees. But it was implemented not through an all-member online vote, but by a decision taken by the delegate-based Steering Committee. Consequently, members have never had an adequate opportunity to debate, amend or approve the constitution. This anomaly can be rectified by the NCG facilitating members to submit reasonable constitutional amendments. A simple majority vote by the NCG would allow such proposals to go to an online vote. The NCG should do so to give members the opportunity to shape it, and to give the constitution itself greater democratic legitimacy.
6) The Opposition should stay in Momentum, criticising but not undermining.
My first five points relate to the Leadership. This is because it is they are the ones with the most power. However, the Opposition have some responsibility too. Many on this side will feel poorly treated, and not without reason. But they must resist the temptation to either split from the organisation or form a permanent faction within it. Ultimately both courses of action lead to further division, which we cannot afford. If the Leadership makes genuine efforts to share power and rebuild trust, like in my suggestions above, then the Opposition should respond. There is a sharp difference between challenging the Leadership on an issue, which is healthy, and attempting to undermine the organisation and its structures. The latter could mean either the formation of a rival organisation, or an internal structure to rival the NCG.
Momentum can and should be a key asset for all of us who want to convince the world of socialist ideas. But until now it has often felt like more of a liability. If we want to turn the corner we need more than a change of structure, we need a change of culture. Trust can be rebuilt and power can be shared. If we can achieve this then Momentum may still live up to its potential.