The Battle for Momentum: What Just Happened?

by James McAsh

18 January 2017

Chris Beckett/Flickr

On 9 January 2017 Momentum was gearing up for its first National Conference where delegates from local groups would create a constitution for the organisation. This was heating up to be a showdown between the two rival factions – which I label the Leadership and Opposition – over the purpose and structure of the organisation.

On 10 January, everything changed. The twelve person Steering Committee voted over email, in the space of just over an hour and with no meaningful discussion, to dissolve all the organisation’s existing structures and impose a new constitution from above. The conference was replaced by a day of training and the National Committee which called it was disbanded with immediate effect, justified with reference to the results of a members’ survey. Just like a nuclear strike, the Steering Committee’s vote won the war for the Leadership with devastating speed. But also like with a nuclear strike, we may need to wait until the dust has settled to truly understand the effects.

The new structure.

The imposition of the new constitution settles – at least on paper – a number of debates inside Momentum. There was disagreement over the extent to which Momentum should focus on the Labour party, and the extent to which it should seek to be part of extra-parliamentary social movements. The constitution’s written aims include the clause “To unite people in their communities and workplaces to win victories on the issues that matter to them,” but by and large the structures are set up to be Labour-facing. In part, this means restricting membership to those in the Labour party. More significantly, it means that its internal political life will be quite limited. The idea behind this is that Momentum members’ time is better spent on the Labour party than on Momentum. Say goodbye to the Regional Committees, the National Committee, the Steering Committee, and the delegate-based National Conference.

In place of these is now a single committee to run the organisation – the National Coordinating Group (NCG). This committee will be nearly all powerful. There will also be a council of members chosen at random, but this will only have an advisory role, and though members will have the right to challenge the NCG’s decisions through an online process, this will involve such great hurdles that successful challenges are highly unlikely. The 26-strong committee will comprise twelve positions elected by ordinary members, four elected by Momentum members who hold elected office (councillors, MPs, and so on), six chosen by affiliated trade unions, and four chosen by other affiliated organisations. The structure has been compared to the Labour party’s own National Executive Committee. It also shares similarities with Progress’ (the influential Blairite faction) ‘Strategy Board’. Crucially, local groups have no formal role in this structure.

As I have argued before, the structures debate is a proxy for the bigger question of Momentum’s purpose, and the structures should be interpreted with this in mind. If you see Momentum’s role as being to mobilise people in support of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party more broadly, then the structure is fine. However, if your vision for Momentum is for it to intervene in the Labour party to shape policy, then the structures are wholly inadequate. The NCG is insufficiently accountable for a body which would frequently make political decisions, and the internal structures do not allow enough debate for an organisation which wants to carefully consider policy positions. But the Leadership do not want Momentum to fulfil this role, so it has not created structures suited for these tasks. Key figure on the Opposition, Jackie Walker, slammed the new constitution as “a leftie version of Progress”, but I suspect that this is precisely what the Leadership want.

Rival factions, rival histories.

These divergent views on the purpose of Momentum explain the existence of its two factions. But the organisation has only become so polarised because this debate was never had out in the open. Consequently, the implicit assumptions held by both sides have led to the construction of contrasting narratives of what has happened so far. The principled and honest heroes of one narrative are the unscrupulous villains of the other.

As far as the Leadership is concerned the previous structures – National Committee, Steering Committee, and so on – were no more than temporary, ad hoc measures and never part of a meaningful constitution. They served a purpose in guiding the organisation through its first year, but lacked legitimacy for the future or indeed the present. The Leadership ascribed this illegitimacy to the poor turnout at local groups, from which all other positions were ultimately elected. The Leadership suspected the membership wanted a structure based on online voting, and the results of their survey supported this.

When the organisation’s National Committee voted against such proposals, the Leadership did not see this as evidence of the proposal’s deficiencies but rather the National Committee’s unrepresentativeness. After all, a committee overwhelmingly comprised of delegates from local groups is likely to be biased against structures which remove power from local delegates. For the Leadership, the temporary structures lost all utility when it became clear that they would not approve the kind of constitution which the Leadership felt was both needed and demanded by the membership. Even if it is not ideal to impose a constitution with no vote amongst the membership, they had no other choice. Their hands were forced, and the ends justified the means. Crucially, the Leadership believed that if the organisation was not restructured to prevent this unrepresentative minority from controlling it, then members would disengage and the organisation would ultimately wither away.

The Opposition’s version of events provides a stark contrast. For them, the starting place had to be the existing structures. These may have been temporary but they nonetheless formed the only legitimate means of taking decisions. They were de facto the sole constitution of the organisation. As far as the Opposition faction is concerned, it openly and honestly pursued its goals through these structures: people argued their case and won votes fairly. Moreover, they did this despite numerous attempts to rig the system against them. At various junctures, the rules were changed – for instance when online-elected members were added to the National Committee – but the Opposition won nonetheless.

However, despite consistently following the rules and consistently winning the votes, the Opposition do not feel like their decisions have been properly implemented. For this they blame the undemocratic and unaccountable Leadership. The imposition of the new constitution is just the latest in a series of actions which, for the Opposition, prove beyond any reasonable doubt that the Leadership will never cede any power. It is simply impossible to win fairly and democratically. Crucially, the Opposition believe that if this continues, the organisation will become stagnant and – just like the Leadership fear – ultimately wither away.

Where now, and where next?

This is where Momentum is right now. Its two sides could not be more divided, and their original disagreements on structure have long since been dwarfed by their mistrust of each other. Not only do they disagree on where Momentum should go, but they cannot even agree on where it has been. They each see the other as an existential threat to the organisation. But the real threat to the organisation is that this infighting continues, wrecking any hope that working relationships can be salvaged, and alienating the vast majority of members who fall into neither camp in the process.

It looks like the Leadership has won the war. But this is not enough, as winning a war is not the same as securing the peace. This will only be achieved if trust is restored and bridges are built, and the Leadership and Opposition will both have a part to play.

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