To Build the Movement in a Post-Corbyn Era, We Need to Build Democracy

by Keir Milburn

25 June 2020

Jeremy Corbyn/Flickr

The turn of the year was a bad time for the UK left. December’s devastating general election loss was followed by both the defeat of the Momentum-backed candidate for Labour leader and the loss of left dominance on the Labour party’s National Executive Committee. 

Given this demoralising sequence of events, one might have expected the election of Momentum’s governing body – its ‘National Coordinating Group’ (NCG) – to be a damp squib. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. The election campaign, due to end next week, has garnered huge attention, with dozens of articles, hundreds attending online discussion events and hustings, and vigorous campaigning from the two main slates flooding left social media and email inboxes. All indications point to a high voter turnout, and a significant jump in Momentum’s membership figures.

Despite the sometimes fractious nature of its conduct, this NCG election has been a vital moment in the necessary recomposition of the UK left. It has forced discussion of what has gone wrong over the last few years, and how we move forward in a post-Corbyn era. At times, this debate has struggled to find room amongst Twitter spats and denunciations, but even when it has misfired the election has provided valuable lessons. Crucially, it has demonstrated the need for a new attitude on the UK left towards democracy and elections.

Letters from America.

Guidance for this new approach can be found across the Atlantic in the quite different fallout of the defeat of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. While Corbynism was forced to adopt a more defensive posture, the Sanders campaign partially adopted what might be called a ‘compositionist’ approach to elections, in which election campaigns are used to build the movement. Most famously, Sanders’ early victory in Iowa owed much to the campaign’s organising work in the state’s meat packing factories

Since Sanders’ defeat, we’ve seen this strategy continue to pay off with progressive and leftists candidates winning Democratic primaries due to the organisational structures the Sanders campaign left behind. Just this week, Democratic Socialists of America-backed candidate Jamaal Bowman comprehensively defeated 16-term congressman Eliot Engel in New York’s 16th congressional district. The Black Lives Matter uprising was certainly a key factor in Bowman’s victory, but the spread of protests to small town America also owes at least some part to the 2016 Sanders run which catalysed the dramatic spread of the US left. With the right approach, even if you lose an election, you can still win.

Democracy works.

In the UK, rather than elections being put at the service of the movement, Momentum has all too often put the movement at the service of elections. The fragility of the resulting victories was plain to see this year when the general election defeat led to the left’s loss of power in the Labour party. Despite first appearances, the battle over the future of Momentum has also largely revolved around the role of democracy and elections in left strategy.

Much credit for the dynamism of the NCG election should go to Forward Momentum. I’m on the board of this campaign, so I’m far from a neutral observer, but it’s hard to see how the other main slate – Momentum Renewal – would have formed except as a response to the former. Despite starting from a small group of initiators, Forward Momentum has rapidly grown into a campaign of hundreds of activists, nearly 5,000 signed up supporters and a politically and geographically diverse slate of candidates. 

Central to this growth were rigorously transparent democratic processes, with primaries used for candidate selection and a bottom-up process of policy formation used not just to identify problems with Momentum to be addressed (and crowdsource ideas for addressing them), but also to bind the nascent group together. The picture of Momentum that emerged was of an over-centralised organisation, with moribund branches lacking the autonomy and resources to grow. There were stories of local groups ripped apart and demoralised by the imposition of prospective parliamentary candidates chosen by patronage networks at Momentum’s centre, with a fig leaf of unity imposed by diktat and bullying.

When Momentum Renewal released their own policy program, it closely mirrored Forward Momentum’s proposals, although with a less detail on implementation. On the face of it this level of agreement for reform bodes well, but it has also led to difficulties differentiating the slates, and prompted focus to drift from addressing the current situation towards big name endorsements and, at times, conspiratorial speculation.

Build democracy, build the movement.

Democracy is not easy. It requires certain preconditions to work effectively. First, it needs institutional structures that promote open, good faith debate, and as such, the outgoing NCG’s decision not to organise hustings was an abdication of responsibility. Although some local groups organised their own Zoom hustings, without central guidance on best practice, the conduct of these hustings varied considerably.

While Momentum provided an online Q&A forum, this tended to produce short formulaic answers from NCG candidates (and in the end, it was the in-depth interviews conducted by New Socialist which proved most revealing). With the provision of little formal structure from Momentum HQ, and with the campaign occurring during lockdown, much of the activity of this election has taken place on social media. However, as Richard Seymour has demonstrated, the algorithms that govern these platforms inhibit patient, reasoned deliberation by incentivising conflict and the contagious transmission of strong emotions like anger and fear.

As well as conducive institutional structures, democracy also needs the adoption of democratic attitudes. Indeed, these are related. A democratic culture is not produced by will alone – it develops when people experience democracy working. That’s why it’s so important that elections and disputes within the left are conducted in a way that avoids hard splits, increases the movement’s capacity and builds faith in democratic coordination. Most critically, we must learn not to treat opponents on the left as enemies against whom anything goes.

Eyes on the prize.

Some may look at the horrendous behaviour revealed in the Labour report leaked earlier this year and conclude that the left also has to fight dirty to win – even against opponents on the left. But the political project of right-wing Labour bureaucrats is asymmetric to ours. They want a return to rule by technocrats. We want the socialist transformation of the country, and that will require hundreds of thousands, and ultimately millions, of people coordinating democratically to exercise their power.

The anti-democratic behaviour found on the left is the product of the long, bleak years of defeat. It’s an instinctive response to attack by powerful enemies. But this defensiveness betrays a lack of belief that we really can change the world.

Democracy is no panacea – building a movement requires deep and patient organising. But as one organiser for the Sanders campaign puts it, the techniques deployed in Iowa “[were] not just tools for an electoral campaign. These are the same fundamentals we use to build highly effective grassroots community organising campaigns, labor campaigns, and more.”

Keir Milburn is the author of Generation Left and a co-host of the #ACFM podcast. He is on the campaign board of Forward Momentum.

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