What’s at Stake in the Momentum Democracy Row?

by Craig Gent

3 November 2016

Craig Gent/NM

Divisions emerging over the future of Momentum’s decision-making structures have now found their way to the pages of many of the UK’s left-leaning media outlets. But as is often the case with the finer details of Momentum’s internal dynamics, the fundamental points of contention are largely restricted to conversations between insiders, so what else going on?

The context.

Since its transition from Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign into a political outfit in its own right, Momentum has been impeded by its dysfunctional decision-making structures.

Beginning as the brainchild of Jon Lansman, a close ally of Corbyn, the campaign group was formally rudderless until the establishment of a national committee (NC) in February 2016. Intended as a temporary measure to provide Momentum with a legislative unit made up of stakeholder organisations, following some contestation from local groups the NC came to be comprised of members elected from regional Momentum branches, liberation representative and others invited to represent an assortment of pro-Corbyn entities, from supportive trade unions to the Open Labour forum to Lansman’s own blog, Left Futures. From among their number, the NC nominated a steering committee (SC) to carry out Momentum’s executive functions and ensure the day-to-day running of the campaign.

The current SC was originally mandated for the same six-month term as the NC, but due to the postponement a meeting of the NC in July (because of the Labour leadership election), the SC has continued in post. The NC was next due to meet on 5 November to agree the processes of Momentum’s inaugural conference in February 2017, at which proper decision-making structures and deliberative processes are set to be decided. Following an emergency meeting last week, the SC postponed the scheduled meeting of the NC again, citing a timetable clash with the north west regional Labour conference.

The emergency meeting.

With less than 24 hours’ notice, the SC held an emergency meeting on 28 October, at which a majority resolved to: postpone the NC meeting until 3 December; take control of the organisation of the conference; and institute a ‘one member, one vote’ (OMOV) decision-making model for the conference facilitated by online voting tools.

Critics have hit out at the SC’s actions on a number of fronts. First, the issue of the surprise meeting and vote, which excluded prominent dissenters such as Jackie Walker and Matt Wrack (general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union) from attending. Second, the legitimacy of the SC’s decision-making abilities since it has been running in excess of its initial mandate since summer. Third, the decision to wrestle conference responsibilities from the NC. Fourth, the decision to assert an OMOV framework for the conference instead of the delegate model the NC was expected to opt for (particularly when many local groups had themselves been discussing the relative merits of the two frameworks).

On 2 November the SC made a unanimous announcement expressing regret at the way things have been handled, and agreeing SC-NC collaboration on the conference, which will be attended by delegates and whose motions will be voted on by members online following physical delegate debates. The conference will seek to establish Momentum’s future democratic structures, meaning there will be a lively debate over whether to institute a delegate or OMOV structure. As the fallout of the emergency SC meeting shows, the disagreement over the two frameworks is drawing out political tensions at play within Momentum.

Delegates vs OMOV.

A delegate structure would mean local Momentum branches elect a representative to put forward their motions and make the arguments on behalf of branch members at a conference comprised of other delegates. Proponents of a delegate system extol the democratic accountability that comes with holding local elections for branch delegates. Additionally, many have argued that delegate conferences avoid situations where people vote on motions without having an opportunity to be convinced of alternative arguments, the thinking being that by the time delegates get to conference the motions will have been discussed in branches and even by the time motions are presented there is still time for delegates to try to persuade others through debate.

By contrast, OMOV would mean each member of Momentum gets one vote for each motion or election at conference. The suggestion is this would take place through a website or an app, with the conference being livestreamed to all members. A key argument by proponents is that OMOV is the only way to formally include every Momentum member, particularly those outside the catchment areas of existing local branches. As the situation stands, formal inclusion would be extended to allowing any member to put forward a motion to conference. Furthermore, many enthusiasts of the ‘e-democracy’ potential of OMOV highlight the need for Momentum to capture the imaginations of more young people – a demographic which swung to Owen Smith in the 2016 Labour leadership election.

Power politics.

In terms of accountability and inclusivity, each framework has its own merits – that much is clear. What players on either side of the divide are more reluctant to admit is that there are political gains and losses offered by each model.

Within an OMOV system, members can vote for policies and candidates without participating in any deliberative internal forums (such as branch meetings), and by the same token candidates would be able to nominate themselves without having to contest elections in a local branch, opening the possibility that Momentum’s leadership figures could rise to the top without ever having to involve themselves in grassroots organising. Furthermore, organisation-wide elections run the risk of becoming popularity contests, with well-publicised names likely to be more attractive to voters than lesser-known activists from faraway branches. Regardless of intention, such processes can be expected to advantage current faces, such as Lansman, whose prominence (and Left Futures affiliation) could be challenged by a full delegate structure.

A delegate system creates bounded constituencies which engage with the national structures through their locally-elected representatives. As such, while the delegate is accountable to the branch the set-up also creates a bureaucratic layer between ordinary activists and national decision-making forums, which gives a lot of power to delegates themselves who are empowered to mediate the wishes of their branch at conference based on personal judgement. Because Momentum activists are generally keen to split their time between engaging in the democratic processes of both Momentum and the Labour party, a delegate structure which exists somewhat parallel to Labour’s structures favours those with experience and time. Regardless of intention, the arrangement gives an advantage to groups such as the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty because although it is small, it has a handful of full-time organisers and can focus activists on winning particular ‘seats’.

While decisions about democratic structures – and the arguments they entail – were always going to be necessary, each side’s defence of its own proposed solution has up until now read as though its intentions have been wholly pure (even if the execution has been messy). It would be uncomradely to suggest anyone in this debate has been acting entirely in bad faith, and there is no reason to cast doubt on any NC or SC member’s commitment to campaigning for socialism, but it would also be disingenuous for the key players to pretend there aren’t advantages and disadvantages attached to different proposals.

What kind of a thing is Momentum?

While a compromise has been reached over the February conference’s structures, the debate over the organisation’s future decision-making structures exposes more fundamental disagreements about what kind of thing Momentum should be.

Both sides say they want Momentum to be a campaign group rather than a parallel party, but there are crucially divergent visions of what this looks like. For those on the delegate side, the argument is that by virtue of being a political entity Momentum ought to have robust structures for producing and executing policy in much the same manner as a trade union or the Labour party itself. On the OMOV side, the argument is that mirroring these institutions Momentum will preoccupy members with its own internal processes instead of enabling them to be more active in changing the Labour party.

During both of Corbyn’s elections, there was a lot of talk about transforming Labour into a social movement. As Paul Mason points out, Labour cannot be a social movement as such (because it is an electoral party) but it could benefit from learning from them. The same goes for Momentum, whose lack of transparency has been damning over the last year and whose chaotic administration belies the impressive efforts of those who organised The World Transformed so successfully in September. The unresolved question of what relationship contemporary social movements and political parties can have to each other will not go away, but for any socialist project the fundamental question relates to how we can best create and harness the power of mass movement politics today. That is what Momentum needs to grapple with if it is to fathom what it means to develop a ‘new kind of politics’.

Correction (11 November 2016): This article incorrectly named  Jill Mountford as a full-time organiser of AWL. This is not the case and we apologise for this inaccuracy.

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