For Momentum to Agree Which Route to Take, It First Needs to Agree a Destination
by James McAsh
13 December 2016
Momentum, the legacy organisation to the Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader campaign, is engulfed in a bitter spat concerning the structures of the organisation. The sides are polarised and trust in each other is low. The organisation is divided at a time when unity is paramount.
There is, of course, more to it than meets the eye – debates about structures are rarely just that. For Momentum it is a proxy war over the central two questions for this, or indeed any, organisation: what is its goal, and what is its strategy? The answers to these questions have never been agreed. Had they been, Momentum would not be in this mess. As it stands, the organisation is discussing everything back-to-front – fiercely arguing the merits of different routes without first agreeing the destination.
A divided organisation.
There are two clear sides to the debate, although neither is homogenous. The tone of the discussion has lowered so much that each one describes the other in the most unfavourable terms: wreckers, Stalinists, sectarians, rightwingers. I will try to use less value-laden labels: the Leadership and the Opposition. I should also emphasise that while the loudest voices fall into one of these camps, many members are involved in neither.
Those in the Leadership camp support a system of online voting for all major decisions, such as campaign priorities and elections of the governing committee. They suggest this would bolster membership-engagement because there are much lower barriers to participation with an online vote than with a physical meeting. They crudely argue that more people voting means the system is more democratic. The Opposition faction disagrees, claiming there is no guarantee that more people will be engaged online, further arguing that the quality of debate is much lower in an online space. The Opposition contends that this system would create an unaccountable leadership whose proximity to the Momentum office would give them unrestrained ability to determine the organisation’s decisions.
Those in the Opposition camp advocate delegate democracy. Under this system local groups meet in person to discuss policy and elect delegates to regional or national conferences. Delegates would in turn debate, amend and decide policy, and elect a governing committee. The Opposition believes this would allow policy to be debated in far greater detail, and would ensure that the leadership is accountable to local groups. The Leadership faction criticises the proposal as inaccessible and privileging those willing to spend hours in dull meetings. It claims it would allow those with marginal views (such as Trotskyists) to impose their position on the majority not through winning the argument with the membership, but by out-organising them in local meetings.
Each side accuses the other of advocating a system to their own advantage. This is true. Under online voting the existing leadership would have much more freedom to do as it wishes with weaker ties of accountability to hold it back. Similarly, a delegate-based system makes it much easier for the highly-organised and highly-committed to win policy debates and secure election to significant committees, even if their ideas are unpopular in the wider membership. But it does not follow that each group’s support for its chosen system is cynical. I am convinced that each side believes the merits of its own arguments, and thinks its proposal is in the best interest of Momentum as a whole. It is hard to overstate the extent to which people will believe that which is in their own interest. Both sides genuinely believe that the best outcome is the one that secures them the most power and influence. This power-struggle is exacerbated by the vacuum that exists where there should be an agreed goal and strategy.
Agreeing a goal and strategy.
So what should these be? Here is a modest proposal. Momentum’s goal should be to elect a socialist Labour government. Its strategy should have two components. The first is to activate and train left-wing Labour members before putting them into positions of influence. The second is to persuade an electoral majority of our ideas, through campaigns and events.
This strategy can then shape the structures at a local and national level. Locally, the major task is to engage members and organise events and campaigns which reach out to the local community. This can and should be done by local Labour parties where possible. In cases where the local party is obstructive then it makes sense for a local Momentum group to fill the void. The local Momentum group should also coordinate the election of left-wing members to positions of influence. None of this requires much more than a mailing list and a set of impromptu working groups. Nationally, the situation is a little more complicated. There needs to be a way to decide national campaigning priorities so the office can then produce materials and coordinate groups. There also needs to be a way of deciding candidates for Momentum to mobilise behind in internal elections. However, none of this requires anything more complex than an elected committee to govern the organisation, and a way for members to decide campaign priorities. Both of these are possible through either online or delegate voting.
I suspect most would agree that Momentum should do what I have just advocated. The often unspoken source of disagreement is with what is omitted. In my view, a delegate system is essential for two things: debating intricate policy and empowering local groups. The Labour party (and many of its sections like Young Labour and Labour Students) should aim to do both, so a delegate system is desirable. Momentum should aim to do neither; consequently, it does not need a delegate system.
This is the crux of the debate over structures. The Opposition faction, by and large, thinks Momentum should have its own independent policy programme which it can argue for within the Labour party. Consequently, it wants structures suited to achieving this. Effective policy deliberation is not as simple as choosing a campaign priority: positions need to be thoroughly debated, reconsidered and amended. This requires physical meetings – frequent and long. Then to effectively intervene in the Labour party – to promote these policies – Momentum needs active local groups.
But Momentum should not aim to develop its own policy programme. In re-electing Corbyn last summer the party endorsed a radical platform which, although certainly not immune to criticism, is a historic leap to the left for the Labour party. Moreover, we have no reason to doubt that it has the genuine support of Corbyn and his top team. So the priority for Momentum is not to develop its own policy programme with which to intervene in the party. Instead its role should be to make it easier for the Labour leadership to pursue the vision it has already articulated. This means building a party that is united behind this vision and which reaches out to persuade the wider population with the left-wing ideas given a platform by Corbyn’s leadership. Momentum can facilitate this by turning outwards and campaigning on the issues outlined in Corbyn’s ten policy pledges issued over the summer. By contrast, the development of an independent and comprehensive bank of policy encourages Momentum members to turn inwards to fight for ideological influence over its own policy, despite Momentum never being able to implement any of it.
Not only does Momentum not need policy, it does not necessarily need active local groups everywhere. Where a local Labour party is hostile to left-wing ideas, it might fall to the Momentum group to organise campaigns and discussions. But a Momentum group’s success is best measured not by its own output but by the output of its local Labour party. The most successful groups will have no local Momentum meetings at all because everything it wants to achieve is done under the Labour banner. A delegate system would force these groups to spend time meeting as Momentum, distracting from the much more important tasks in the local party and community.
I want Momentum to be an outward-facing and inclusive organization which is tolerant of internal difference, relates to the concerns of the general population, and seeks to build a majority for a Corbyn-led government. I do not think either side of the ongoing debate has been consistent in promoting this, and I think the behaviour of the Leadership camp deserves much criticism. However, on the discussion of structures itself it is clear to me that Momentum needs to be a streamlined organisation that directs its members into Labour party activity, not its own structures. On this issue, the Leadership faction has got it right.