Don’t be a fan club
William Sarsfield of Labour Party Marxists calls for a serious fight to transform Labour
Jeremy Corbyn: we should aim to be critical
The dramatic events in Momentum over the past few months have revealed the crassly undemocratic ethos that informs the approach of Jon Lansman - effectively the ‘owner’ of the organisation. Predictably, the right’s victory in the Februaryopinion poll-turned-plebiscite, used to justify the imposition of a bureaucratic constitution, has prompted a wave of demoralisation, falling numbers at Momentum meetings and a growing atmosphere of denunciations and restrictions on debate directed against “the enemy”, as the Momentum left is now being dubbed by some - with the blessing of the national centre, it seems.
This anti-democratic farce has been well documented in the pages of this paper, plus in the bulletins and general commentary of Labour Party Marxists. The question now is: what does the left do about this? How do we fight back?
The omens do not look good, if we are to judge from the agenda and discussion papers produced for the dissident gathering of the Momentum left in London on March 11 - convened as the “Momentum Grassroots networking conference”. The comrades organising this national meeting appear utterly clueless about what to do next in relation to Momentum and - like the ‘official’ Momentum - the work that needs to be undertaken in the Labour Party itself. So the organisers (the previous conference arrangements committee, plus the old steering committee majority before both committees were abolished by Lansman) have issued a document “as a starting point” for the discussion on what the Grassroots of Momentum is and what it should fight for.
Sensibly, it recognises it would be wrong to “split from Momentum”, but equally it would be a mistake to “waste unnecessary energy fighting a battle that can’t be won”, given the Lansman clique’s stranglehold over the apparatus and the backing he enjoys from the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott. There is also a nod in the direction of the tasks of “democratising and transforming the labour movement” and “fighting … unjust suspensions/expulsions/exclusions” from the Labour Party.
However, the meat of the campaigning work that this draft sets out for Grassroots is the standard left fare of:
- Fighting austerity.
- Defending the NHS - “including supporting national demos” and “Labour days of action, local campaigns and industrial action by health unions to smash the pay cap”.
- “Defending migrants’ rights”.
- Supporting “workers in struggle”, joining picket lines, etc.
- Supporting the popularisation of Corbyn’s “10 pledges”.
- Mass council house building and renovation.
In other words, precisely the sort of activities that the local units of the Labour Party itself should be (and often are) involved in. What exactly would be the point of the small Grassroots campaign if it tried to substitute itself for the campaigning life of a mass party?
Ironically, the same sort of surrogate impulse hangs around the Lansman organisation. After all, the Grassroots founding document cited above makes clear that the campaigning work it commits to encompasses “all previous campaigns” agreed to by the official organisation, including the ones listed above.
In this context, there is an interesting Guardian article by Momentum/‘The World Transformed’ organiser Deborah Hermanns that notes that Momentum branches around the country have been “making an effort to build community” in areas devastated by cuts. She cites film screenings in “halls and community centres”, donating the proceeds to local food banks and homeless shelters, etc. Far more needs doing, she concedes - “social spaces, cinema clubs, food banks and sports centres … providing the space and security people need to build their own, unique political and cultural identities”.
But it is on a “limited scale” due to the “shoestring” budgets local Momentum organisations are able to deploy. The real point is the Labour Party itself, she correctly writes:
Corbyn’s Labour, with thousands of branches across the country, millions of pounds in its coffers and a membership of more than half a million, could flood key areas with resources, ideas and activists to support and get projects going that actually help out the community.1
Quite right, and a vision this paper has championed for some time. But, for that to happen, Labour itself must be radically transformed - the parliamentary party subordinated to the mandate of the membership as part of a democratic revolution within Labour; the pro-capitalist right wing excluded; bans and proscriptions on working class political organisations overturned, etc. In short Labour must be transformed into a mass movement for socialism that unites the trade unions, co-ops, leftwing societies, socialist and communist groups and parties.
This is the key, defining task that Grassroots comrades should commit to. An uncritical ‘support Jez’ stance is worse than useless, because Corbyn’s game plan is useless. Unsettlingly, the right honourable Lord Daniel Finkelstein, Tory peer and associate editor of The Times, appears to have a more realistic grasp of what is required than Grassroots, the official Lansman organisation or the Labour leadership team itself:
His only hope must be as a subversive challenger, relentlessly organising to take over the party and talking about his efforts to do so. He should come out with huge, earth-shaking, radical leftwing policies and not care that Yvette Cooper and I both think that they are bonkers ... He should organise to deselect critics and win selection contests for his people.2
This internal battle for the heart and soul of the Labour Party is the key link to grasp in this period. As Corbyn supporter Matthew Turner notes in a March 6 posting on TheIndependent website, “an authoritative and relentless streak” needs to be developed and “the democratic right of CLPs to reselect and deselect their parliamentary candidates” is crucial “to ensure that young, up-and-coming, ‘fire in the belly’ leftwingers replace those who are actively seeking to undermine the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.”
The shared weakness of the Turner and Finkelstein commentaries is that both make this change reliant on a change of heart on the part of Corbyn himself as an individual politician. In fact, the real starting point for the left of the party is to organise on the basis of a bold, principled and strategically clear perspective ... and to refashion the Labour Party from top to bottom on that basis. That is what Momentum Grassroots needs to discuss and vote on.
1.The Guardian March 7.
2. The Times February 28.