13 April 2021
Whatever happened to Momentum asks Dave Kellaway?
Momentum emerged from activists supporting Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership bid in 2015 with veteran Jon Lansman who had been a leader of the left wing movement built up around Tony Benn in the 1980s playing a key role. It grew to over 40,000 members by 2019. It brought youthful energy and digital savvy to Labour electoral campaigns and was particularly effective in the 2017 election where Theresa May failed to win an overall majority and the Labour Party vote share was greater than some of Tony Blair’s victories.
Momentum’s videos were seen by millions of people on social media, “Daddy, do you hate me?" was watched by 12.7 million unique Facebook users. Its foot soldiers made a real difference in a number of seats. Even a leading Tory suggested that their party needed something like Momentum.
Initially there was talk of both Labour Party and non-Labour Party members being part of the organisation with John McDonnell floating the idea. This clearly alarmed Lansman’s team which had a classic left social democratic project of working solely through the Labour party. A completely open set up would have meant all the different left groups outside Labour being involved and potentially having an influence. This could have made it more difficult for him to maintain control. Its also true that some of the methods of some of these groups can mitigate against building healthy united left currents. The fact that the organisation had been registered as a company in Lansman’s name strengthened his hand.
From there he was able to impose a structure that excluded people who weren’t members of the Labour Party though not all local groups abided by this rule in practice. and was also very sparse in terms of internal democracy. For example Momentum has held one National conference in its life – on a Sunday morning in Durham – with no resolutions or elections!! With the defeat of the Corbyn project there was a battle for the leadership of Momentum in 2020 as Lansman stepped back.
His former supporters overwhelming lost control of the National Coordinating Group (NCG) to the Forward Momentum caucus who were committed to a ‘democratising’ process. Prominent members of the new leadership include Matt Wrack, Fire Brigades Union [FBU] leader, Alan Gibbons, writer and activist from Liverpool who led the debate on the Corbyn compromise position on Brexit at the 2019 Labour conference (against Simon Hannah who contributes to this website) and Ana Openheim of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement. The FBU’s Andrew Scattergood and Gaya Sriskanthan from Labour International are the current co-chairs. The new leadership team is not the front of any particular political tendency.
Elections forMomentum’s National Co-ordinating Group are organised in five regional divisions which elect 20 members of the NCG, there are also 4 public office holders such as MPs or mayors, 6 members from affiliated trade unions (FBU, TSSA [transport and travel industry staff], CWU[Communication Workers] and BFWAU [Bakers]) and 4 from other affliliated organisations such as the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. Scotland is included in the northern division so it still has a unionist position on the British constitution.
The current NCG is made up of 50% women, including seven BAME members, seven under the age of 30 and five LGBT members. This profile is probably more representative than any other left wing groups inside or outside the Labour Party. Members can get together with other members if they disagree with an NCG decision or want to raise a new campaign priority. If they get a certain percentage signed up an online vote is held There are members councils which are randomly selected where ‘activities, resources and campaigns can be developed’ though these have met pretty erratically during the life of the organisation and its definitely the NCG which is the driving force (with some raising questions about whether fulltimers have too much influence defacto. The random selection method is that also used by Varoufakis’ DIEM and poses challenges traditional ways of organising on the radical left and merits more exploration. On the face of it it would seem to favour an entrenched leadershipAs long as different slates are allowed to compete for the NCG elections with the membership having full access to all positions this seems a reasonably democratic structure where individual members have the final say.
What has Momentum been doing?
Momentum played a key role in organising a left slate with other left Labour currents for the Labour Party National Executive elections in 2020. This Grassroots Alliance slate won 5 out of the 6 member seats as well as the youth and disabled representatives. Despite Starmer having a majority on this body the presence of a left wing bloc is important, particularly since the trade union representatives on the NEC include a number who do not support the leadership’s positions and are willing to caucus in a new way with the constituency representatives. The level of collaboration between the left TU representatives and those from the CLPS in both welcome and unprecedented.
Just recently Momentum held an on line consultation on which motions its members should push inside Labour for annual conference. 35 meetings were held across the country, 25 groups submitted motions and 2954 votes were cast.
The 8 successful motions were:
£15 minimum wage and dignity in work
Time for proportional representation
Global climate justice
Build council housing and end homelessness
Green jobs revolution
Build back fairer: attack poverty and inequality
Reject integrated care systems, renationalise England's NHS and social care
A four-day week for a society in which we work to live, not live to work.
These motions express a decent class struggle platform of resistance although there are some strange omissions around zero covid and around asylum.
The high vote for proportional representation (PR) reflects the head of steam building up within Labour on this question and drew strong backing from John McDonnell. It is a positive rejection of some traditional left wing arguments rejecting PR and to a degree reflects the younger demographic inside Momentum (see the socialist arguments for PR here) However Momentum activists need to be aware that post-Corbyn even passing left motions at National Conference will be much more difficult and that any that do slip through will definitely be left out of the manifesto. Nevertheless the motions provide a focus for campaigning and struggling in the here and now.
Alongside its transforming Labour focus, Momentum is organising in the community and reaching out to workplaces. A big priority is to support private renters. It is working alongside ACORN, and with the London Renters Union. Housing action groups have been set up by Momentum members to support renters, to try and stop evictions and to inform people of their legal rights. Discussing ‘socialist solutions’ to the housing crisis is also part of the action groups’ agenda. Letting agents are targeted and motions proposinglaws to bring in rent controls, an end to no-fault evictions and debt forgiveness are promoted. Direct action is planned as well as an eventual national demo. According to their website there are around a dozen housing action groups in the London area and 35 nationally.
Setting out its strategy: Socialist Organising in a New Era 2021-4
During the whole Corbyn project from 2015 to 2019 there was never really a centrally produced document or book by Corbyn or McDonnell or anybody else that laid out the overall strategy of what they were trying to achieve. There were books on the economic and other policies that a Labour government would implement but nothing more than that. In a way it is probably in the nature of left social democratic political projects that political theorising is kept to a minimum. If you basically accept the framework of existing political institutions, the state and the legitimacy of the capitalist market (albiet a lot more regulated) then there is less strategy to be discussed. Furthermore a certain English empiricist antipathy to Marx and too much theory in the labour movement reinforces that tendency. So for Momentum to sit down, discuss and write down its four year strategy is an interesting and positive move. Around 50 discussion meetings were held in the run up to this document’s release in March. You could make a good argument for suggesting that post-Corbyn this is the political quintessence of Corbynism on paper.
Here is some of the key declarations:
Momentum is a socialist and anti-racist organisation committed to a fundamental and irreversible shift in wealth and power to the working class in all its diversity. Our socialism means the democratic transformation of society and the economy to serve human need and flourishing, not profit (…)Momentum’s role is to build popular support for socialist ideas and policies through political education and campaigns, and to organise to advance them in the Labour Party, with the aim of electing a socialist Labour Government to deliver them (…) Momentum will act as a bridge between extra-Party struggle and Labour, helping to channel the demands of social movements and working class communities into the Party’s policy platform, while encouraging our members to get involved in trade unions and community struggles. This is the long-term work needed to build a democratic movement for socialism in a way that canvassing cannot.
Although it does not define itself as ecosocialist, it does include support for the Green New Deal and the ecological struggle generally. Given that today’s capitalists will not tolerate any sort of fundamental or irreversible shift in wealth and power this is implicitly anti-capitalist without clearly articulating it. Will profit as the prime economic mechanism to allocate resources remain or not? Can human need be served while profit exists? Social democrats and Marxists could both accept the sentiment but with very different analyses and projects.
More problematic is the means by which we will achieve this transformation. Basically for this document it is a battle of ideas, of winning people electorally to the idea of this better society, through political education and campaigning. You win the battle of ideas in society and make them real in terms of a manifesto and a ‘socialist’ Labour government which will implement them. Absent is any understanding of the political or class relationship of forces in society.
How do you organise not just to get people to agree to support an idea of socialism but to actively impose this vision through the power of class action in the communities, on the streets and in the workplaces? These will shift the relationship of forces more than votes at the balance sheet – but it also gives agency to ordinary working people rather than investing it all in representatives.
Of course the need for organised defence of a socialist project is because the capitalist class and its state will not just sit around and allow themselves to be voted out of power by a ‘socialist’ Labour government. A left wing government could conceivably win a parliamentary majority but working people would have to organise to control the workplaces and communities if we really wanted to wrest power from the bosses.
Any socialist perspective involves the idea of a break, a rupture with existing structures that requires mass political self-organisation, not entrusting the task of transformation to a few worthy MPs. We saw how the media, the establishment, the state organised against the threat of a Corbyn government that threatened capitalist stability to some extent. Imagine the reaction if there was a more radical government challenge.
The document has the good sense to recognise that Corbyism failed in part because “support for socialist transformation is not as deeply rooted as it needs to be, either in the Labour Party or in the country”. Corbyn did not emerge from a rising tide of mobilisation but rather after decades of defeats and retreat by the labour movement. The enthusiasm of the crowded meetings and hundreds of thousands of new Labour members disguised the true level of political consciousness, social embeddedness in the working class and the degree of self-organisation. Corbyn particularly lacked cadre for his cabinet and party apparatus since he won the leadership with a group of a few dozen ‘left’ MPs. Momentum recognises that Labour has to organise better in the communities and that trade unions need revitalising. The reference to canvassing not being the road to build a socialist movement is telling. It makes much of organiser and leadership training as well as getting left councillors and MP candidates.
However the problem is not just the technical preparation of new leaders and organisers but what sort of political education. If what you are saying to the new leaders you train is essentially just more and better Corbynism then the whole cycle of building up a left and then being smashed by the apparatus, aided by the capitalist state, wil repeat itself. What we need is lots of new leaders and organisers but with a political culture that understands there has to be a break and that working people will have to achieve higher levels of self-organisation.
Above all it is highly unlikely that the Labour party will stumble along intact through all this process. Corbyn’s defeat proves that Labour will split if a real anti-capitalist current develops. A key lesson of the defeat is to prepare for that.
Another positive aspect in the document is the recognition that the previous Lansman top-down model of organisation was negative and needed changing. Throughout there is a lot of emphasis on grass roots organising and democratic organisation.
Momentum’s website is distinct from other Labour left currents such as Briefing or the Alliance for Workers Liberty insofar it does not post articles or debate. There is no discussion of international, ecological or feminist issues. Information reports on their members organiser site just updates people on what it is happening in say the housing or Kill the Bill campaigns. Political education appear to be more about educating people about how the Labour Party works, how to be a good councillor or it is outsourced to the World Transformed. There does not appear to be a space where you can discuss your opinion on Starmer’s leadership or tactics on the evictions campaign or a discussion of policing. Today we have quite limited networks who organise lively websites of articles like say Labour Hub but are nor organised as a political current and then you have Momentum, the biggest political current in Labour, without a magazine or newspaper type space for articles or discussion by or for their members. Whether there is some sort of fear by the current leadership that such a forum would weaken their unity or effectiveness is unclear.
Do the limitations of this strategy mean Momentum is a dead end for the left?
As long as Momentum organises people in such a way that lessens the likelihood they will become demoralised and drop out of politics; that is a good thing. Similarly their principled stand in opposition to Starmer’s leadership and his witchhunt against the left helps the struggle for a socialist alternative. The document says clearly that suspended members are welcome to remain in Momentum and it will organise in their defence.
How do we assess the current size and continuing impact of Momentum. it does not have 40,000 active members today as per its official figures in 2019. But voting figures give us some idea of how many active people there are.
7500 voted in 2020 to select candidates for Labour leadership election. In 2018 there were 7500 votes for the NCG and 13000 when regional votes were held. Around 8500 voted for the new leadership in in 2020 and as we have seen nearly 3000 participated in the votes on motions just recently.
So in terms of people who attend meetings and are involved in campaigns you can reasonably estimate around 5000 with a bigger paper membership. This would make it bigger than any other left groups either inside or outside the Labour party. Its audience is undeniably bigger – it has 8,500 subscribers to its You Tube channel and 313,000 likes on its Facebook page.
Obviously the context of people still leaving Labour in disgust at Starmer’s headlong rush to the right will continue to affect it. However its success in the NEC elections, its campaigning, the World Transformed group that it sponsors and the existence of a significant apparatus with resources and a number of full timers means that it may well be able to consolidate itself at around its current size.
For activists both inside and outside the Labour Party it is still a political space worth supporting and a political ally, although local groups may vary in their effectiveness. It is a genuinely broad class struggle current and is not a front for any one political group. Today it is more democratically organised. It has made a positive break with the Lansman regime. Consequently it is less wishy washy and vague that Corbyn’s Peace and Progress Project. It expresses one fragment of the more politically active and class conscious vanguard.
We have to build support for an anti-capitalist resistance both with those young men and women outside Labour, who are involved in street protests against the Police crackdown bill and male violence, as well as those young people still committed to a new form of the Corbyn project inside the Labour party, in a current like Momentum. Indeed we could add a third group of those activists involved in XR rebellion or attracted to the Greens. There is no need to prioritise one group above another. Unsurprisingly you will find them all of them often in the same mobilisations.
Dave Kellaway is a supporter of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.