Wasted opportunities galore
Carla Roberts of Labour Party Marxists was appalled by Momentum’s ‘inaugural conference’ and its Duracell bunnies
Patronising the politically experienced with Duracell bunnies put in charge of ‘training sessions’ demoralises, not galvanises
Momentum’s March 25 “inaugural conference” was without doubt the worst leftwing event I have ever attended. I do not often agree with bourgeois journalists’ take on the left, but a sarky scribe from The Independent does sum up the day quite neatly:
Tom Watson and his allies who fear Momentum should relax ... They’re not capable of plotting. In a draughty old, cold ex-factory in Birmingham, no policies were being formulated - far from it - beyond the usual devotionals for Corbyn.1
It really is astounding that the best an organisation with 22,000 members and a database of over 250,000 supporters should come up with is such a lame, apolitical and tiny gathering. Who would have thought 18 months ago that the incredible energy, enthusiasm and pure joy created by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party would be so criminally wasted?
Momentum might claim that 600 people attended the event in a freezing former factory a mile from the nearest train station in Birmingham. But unless they counted people twice as they went in and then left again (for quite a few not a great deal of time passed between those two moments), they have clearly applied the creative counting method so beloved by sects like the Socialist Worker Party. No more than 350 people shivered in the graffiti-covered hall with its (literally) shitty toilet facilities.
Socialist Resistance - which in its usual Johnny-come-lately fashion only recently and only half-heartedly turned its back on Left Unity in order to join the Labour Party and Momentum2 - has published a rather hyped-up report, according to which there were about 500 people present, which meant “it was standing room only at the plenary sessions”.3 But the author fails to mention that the organisers had only put out 100 chairs.
Maybe some young, trendy east London hipsters would have felt at home here. But virtually the only young people present were the two dozen or so Momentum employees and volunteers running the thing. For the rest, I would say, that 50-plus was the average age. On paper there might be many young Momentum members, but visit any local Momentum meeting and you will see who is really active within it.
Mind you, the ‘opposition’ to Jon Lansman’s autocratic rule is not faring much better, I am afraid to say. The steering committee of Grassroots Momentum has so far not managed to meet and it looks like its first gathering will not happen before April 22 - a whopping six weeks after it was elected. And, although the SC continues to squabble over such weighty issues as how long its lunch break will be, a majority did manage to agree on one thing: not to make an organised intervention on March 25. There might have only been 350 people there, but clearly not all of them were loyal and unthinking Lansman supporters. They could and should have been engaged with, at the very least by handing out a leaflet, intervention from the floor and perhaps at a fringe meeting. There certainly was plenty of political space to fill.
But only three SC members (Tina Werkmann, Simon Hannah and Nick Wrack) agreed with the proposal to produce a leaflet, based on the decisions agreed at the Grassroots conference. The rest of the SC opposed or did not comment. This is probably going to be the only time the opposing sides on the SC (anti-Zionism campaigner Jackie Walker and the pro-Zionist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty) will agree on anything.
At the Momentum ‘conference’ itself, the day began and ended with a plenary session held in a big hall in the centre of the factory, with three one-hour-long workshops sandwiched in between. All the rooms for the group sessions had at least one wall missing - curtains were used as substitutes. This meant the noise from other sessions and the stalls area made it difficult to hear people speak.
And, when you did hear them, you often wish you had not. A majority of the workshops were run by outside organisations, without being labelled as such. For example, Labour Party Marxists supporters attended workshops that were run by The World Transformed, Talk Socialism and even Hope Not Hate. They were clearly based on ‘training sessions’ that these organisations run on a relatively frequent basis - utterly devoid of any real politics, focusing only on ‘method’ and run by young, overly eager people who reminded me of Duracell bunnies.
They included icebreakers like telling the person sitting next to you what you had for breakfast, shouting “one-word answers” about what you liked or disliked about the European Union ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ campaigns and writing “objectives” on paper plates, then sticking post-it notes onto a flipchart grid. You get the drift. It was really, really grim. Worst of all, any of these workshops could just as easily have been presented to Progress or Labour First.
Turn the other cheek
The speeches in the plenary sessions were hardly more inspiring, although I suppose you could say they did contain some politics - of a certain type.
Speaking in the first plenary, shadow chancellor John McDonnell was - as is now unfortunately the norm for him - more than underwhelming. He claimed that he and Corbyn had transformed the Labour Party into “an anti-austerity party”. I do not know how he squares that with the fact that thousands of Labour Party councillors up and down the country are enforcing the draconian cuts imposed by the Tory government - under the clear instruction of Corbyn himself, who wrote to them in December 2015, asking them to continue to set “balanced budgets” and not rock the local government boat.4
McDonnell went on to complain that he was being hammered by the media, “although I’m putting forward the same things that Ed Miliband stood for”. He is right, of course - his ideas for a “national investment bank”, a “cap” on energy price rises and “more council houses” are hardly radical. But worse was to come.
He reserved much of his speech for the need to “work in unity” with the right in the Labour Party and thought it was “striking to see members of Momentum and Progress putting their differences to one side and campaigning together for Labour”. He said he wants Momentum members to “work comradely with everybody else, listen to their views patiently”. He added:
Many people are fed up with all the divisions and splits. I am fed up with all the divisions and splits. If I can offer to have tea with Peter Mandelson, then surely we can all work together in Labour Party branches, whatever groups and political backgrounds we come from. And when you are being provoked, then meet this provocation with comradeship and solidarity.
There is so little that divides us politically. There were hardly any political differences in the leadership campaigns, for example.
So there you have it. A statement of utter capitulation to the pro-capitalist Labour right. Such a course totally rules out campaigning for the kind of programme needed to transform the Labour Party into a weapon of and for the working class. A programme that would, of course, include the mandatory reselection of MPs (needed to curb the power of the right), rescinding the barring and expulsion of thousands of leftwingers, the abolition of the compliance unit, making conference Labour’s sovereign body, etc.
Instead, everything has to be subordinated to winning the next election - no matter on what programme of half-baked reforms. We in Labour Party Marxists believe that, unless we are in a position to implement the full minimum programme of Marxism, socialists can achieve much more when we organise as a strong party of opposition. We envisage the taking of power not just in Britain in isolation, but as part of a worldwide movement of working class self-liberation that has Europe as its decisive point of departure.