Sheffield Momentum held its first semi-public organising meeting this week and it really displayed what is wrong with Momentum nationally. There is a serious lack of strategy over what it should and could do - and a frightening disregard for the civil war that is raging within the Labour Party. This might be different in other branches around the country, but clearly this potential unevenness is a problem in itself for a national organisation.
Just hours before our meeting, Jeremy Corbyn had caved in, allowing his MPs a free vote on extending air strikes to Syria - which would clearly have been on the minds of most attendees. And yet the meeting opened with an extremely dull item on a local ‘conference’ planned for January 30. We heard four long introductions on the planned workshops on what the local organisers consider to be “Corbyn’s four key policies” (the economy, housing, health and defence). On the positive side, I will now not have to attend any of those because I have basically heard it already.
Suggestions from the floor to allow for conference to discuss the crucial question of “democracy in the Labour Party” and the civil war raging within the organisation were brushed aside by the chair, who promised that the local “Momentum steering committee” was on the case and taking the matter very seriously indeed. Not seriously enough though to talk about it at our conference or make any concrete suggestions on how to organise this fight.
So, while Jeremy Corbyn is clinging onto the Labour leadership by his fingernails, we are calmly organising a conference in two months time that does not even talk about the need to democratise the party from top to bottom or how to take on the rightwingers - who by then might well have succeeded in ousting or fatally wounding Corbyn. This is particularly worrying, considering that many of those in attendance are members of this or that group on the revolutionary left and should know better (some are more involved and understandably keen to keep their double membership secret): the Socialist Party and Socialist Workers Party each sent their full-timer and there were comrades from the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, Socialist Appeal, the CPGB and quite a few former and current members of Left Unity.
It was difficult to challenge the chair, as there was no agenda circulated in advance and the meeting of about 50 people had to share five copies of the printed version. Various challenges and questions were referred to the “democratically elected steering committee”, which, as it turns out, was elected at a non-public meeting on October 12, to which only selected Momentum supporters seem to have been invited. Your correspondent, who had been leaving her contact details with the national and local group more than once and has been a Labour Party member for many years, was not amongst the invitees. This is mirrored somewhat in the national Momentum structure, where, we are told, moves are underway to put together an executive - entirely behind closed doors.
But, of course, once a real movement starts, it is difficult to control it. There were numerous requests from the floor for more and better organisation amongst local Momentum supporters in the Labour Party. And more organisation is absolutely needed: there are currently no organised or planned interventions in branch or CLP meetings; there is no central mailing list (a suggestion to set one up was somewhat reluctantly agreed, though we have all left our details plenty of times); no guidance on which of the 90 members who are putting themselves forward as prospective candidates in the May council elections are supportable.
The ‘plan’ for the next three months is equally uninspiring. There will be no meeting in December, because - well - “it’s Christmas”. In February, comrades are suggesting a semi-public forum on “how to fight council cuts” and in March a “big public meeting” on exactly the same subject.
It seems the comrades organising Momentum nationally and locally are so concerned about the accusation of organising a “party within a party” that they are bending over backwards to refute it. But, speaking to a number of people after the meeting, I got the impression that there is a recognition that we need to go much further if we want to build the kind of Labour Party that can be a useful tool in the fight for socialism. Let’s hope we don’t lose all momentum.
Rise and unite
Left Unity is in transition, we know not where. Its conference was a battle between the ‘Labourites’ and the ‘independents’. The former, led by the CPGB, wanted LU to turn to the right and liquidate as a party and become part of Labour, whether as individuals or affiliates. The latter, led by Kate Hudson and Andrew Burgin, wanted to carry on as an independent party. Republican Socialists critically supported their resolution, as well as proposing the only viable alternative strategy of aligning with Rise, Scotland’s new left alliance.
Reporting on the conference, Peter Manson (Weekly Worker editor) highlights two important points. First he says I was the only mover of a resolution who was “not really interested in Labour”. Obviously, now is not the time to spread illusions in the Labour Party. It is the time to redouble our efforts to build an independent party. So I am not interested in joining, affiliating or following the rear end of the Labour Party.
So, whilst CPGB is trying to sell us an adventure in the Labour Party, in which they try to turn it into a global version of the CPGB, my resolution was the very opposite, at the extreme end of the ‘indie’ spectrum. Labour has moved left and LU must turn left by shifting its politics. If we have no interest in joining Labour, we have every interest in combating the ideology of Labourism, which has undermined Left Unity and almost destroyed it.
Labourism is the British form of social democracy - the programme of the social monarchy, which created the Elizabethan welfare state. Better housing, more public ownership, improved social welfare and higher taxes on the rich - all laudable aims - were implemented by his majesty’s Labour government after the war. Labourism is a combination of social reform and constitutional conservatism.
The central pillars of Labourism are support for the British constitutional monarchy and the union of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The Labour Party is thus a loyalist and unionist party. Left Unity was founded on nostalgia for the post-war social monarchy, symbolised by the ‘spirit of 45’. It was a front for Trotskyist groups and many ex-Trotskyists of various kinds, alienated by New Labour. Now it has to change.
At conference I alluded to Left Unity’s constitutional conservatism. Peter reports my comment that it was paradoxical that conference was “not interested in the democracy of the country” and everyone only wanted “to talk about Labour Party democracy”. In my version it was disinterest in the “constitution of the country”, compared with the focus on tinkering with the “constitution of Left Unity”. It doesn’t matter which version you remember - the paradox is explained by Labourist thinking.
Peter explains his version of the paradox as “That’s because the debate was about the Labour Party, Steve!” No, I was in a debate called “the future of Left Unity” and it was the ‘Labourites’ who thought it was all about their new love. If LU is to have a future, it has to address the gaping hole in its politics.
Ignoring the UK’s failing democracy and dangerously broken constitution makes Left Unity more like a tennis club, or now a fan club, discussing its own rules ad infinitum and not a party that aims to govern the country. In the latter case it would need a clear policy about how the system of government and its political laws should be transformed by the mobilisation and politicisation of the working class. We need a democratic political movement of the working class like the Chartist movement and the Chartist party in the 19th century.
Left Unity began life as an ideology in search of a party. With the rise of Corbyn, it has become a party in search of an ideology. In Chartism, as Trotsky pointed out, we have an alternative conception of mass working class, democratic politics. In republican socialism we have its upgrade for the 21st century. In Rise we have the opposition of anti-unionism to left unionism, albeit confined to Scotland. In Rise and Left Unity we have the possibility of an alternative programme to Labourism, which reunites socialists in England and Scotland - a different kind of left unity.
Left Unity and Rise
Their other hats
Last week I reported that Teesside People’s Assembly had voted to submit to the PA’s December 5 national conference a motion advocating the abolition of the standing army and the formation of a people’s militia under democratic control (Letters, November 26).
Alas, it seems the people assembled for the conference will not be allowed to debate the motion. An agenda for the conference published on the PA website on November 27 contained 26 motions from affiliated organisations and branches, but there was no sign of the one from Teesside nor any explanation for its omission. I contacted PA national secretary Sam Fairbairn, who wondered if I was willing to withdraw the motion, as “there’s a general feeling that it’s not in the remit of the organisation”.
As secretary of the Teesside branch, I therefore wrote to the PA committee objecting to the motion’s exclusion and making it clear that we didn’t wish to withdraw it. The motion had been debated in a properly called branch meeting and supported overwhelmingly. If the committee felt the motion proposed something that was not in the remit of the organisation, then surely that argument should be made to conference and delegates given the opportunity to consider the matter democratically. It ought to be the conference that determines PA policies, not the committee. The event had been advertised as a conference, not a rally.
I pointed out that the PA’s ‘What we stand for’ statement currently advocates policies on a number of issues relating to Britain’s defence/military policy - eg, “Bring the troops home” and “Scrap the Trident nuclear programme”, as well as “Government must end the cost of war in blood and money” - and the published agenda for the conference has a motion regarding the nuclear deterrent. The Teesside motion advocates democratising Britain’s military organisation so as to protect a government seeking to implement an anti-austerity programme from the threat of military intervention.
Moreover, it is established good practice within the labour movement that, where a conference motion is considered ‘out of order’, it is nevertheless published with the conference papers, along with a statement specifying the reasons for that. Then all involved have the opportunity to know what branches have proposed and the chance to challenge such a ruling.
I concluded: “Teesside is one of the PA’s most active branches, meeting regularly, debating issues, organising many actions and events, and it has gained a relatively high media profile. Its active membership represents a broad cross-section of the movement - half of the members at the meeting that backed this motion are members of the Labour Party, others from the Green Party, Left Unity and the CPB, plus non-aligned comrades. It would be hugely disrespectful to our activists for this motion to be entirely disregarded.”
The reply I received via comrade Fairbairn was very disappointing:
“The … committee has decided not to accept a motion submitted from Teesside People’s Assembly group. We felt the motion was outside of the remit of the People’s Assembly and the practical conclusions impossible for the organisation to undertake.
“The Teesside motion makes reference to support/advocating/campaigning for an armed revolution: ‘the working class must equip itself with all weaponry necessary to bring about revolution’. The People’s Assembly has never taken policy on support for revolution. The People’s Assembly was launched on the basis of agreement with the founding statement which allows broad support on limited demands. These limited demands enable people from every political background to unite to form the largest opposition possible against government austerity measures.
“Where the People’s Assembly has campaigned and supported other initiatives, from anti-war actions, solidarity with refugees, campaigns against climate change, our involvement in these has always been related to austerity and government spending - eg, ‘Welfare, not warfare’, ‘One million climate jobs’, etc.
“The motion also calls for ‘The dissolution of the standing army and the formation of a popular militia under democratic control’. This is something that, even if conference voted in favour of, would be practically impossible for the organisation to undertake.”
I find the logic of this response perplexing. It is not as if the PA could have responded to the multiple motions condemning cuts by halting those cuts itself. That is not something it has the power to achieve. Similarly, PA statements calling for the scrapping of the Trident programme do not imply that the PA will require its national secretary to deactivate the nuclear warheads himself. And are we really supposed to believe that the PA has been campaigning against military intervention in Syria this last week solely because it is concerned about government spending?
On Saturday we will likely see a conference hall where a high proportion of the participants do in fact describe themselves as ‘revolutionaries’ when wearing their other hats, but it seems we must all be careful not to discuss the realities of the class war.
The full text of Teesside PA’s standing army motion can be read in the branch minutes published at http://bit.ly/tpa17nov15min.
Congratulations to David Ellis on his letter (November 26). I too have been horrified in the recent period by people ostensibly on the left acting as a left cover for the most horrendous and murderous actions of Islamic State and other fundamentalist, anti-secularist, theocratic fascists. So engrained is the belief that any criticism of anything which calls itself Islamist is racialist criticism, some sort of critical support is being offered regardless of how crazed, tyrannical and anti-human the cause of those people or how many people they are prepared to massacre in its name.
We get the bizarre inference, to which David alludes, that IS are some sort of anti-imperialist group. More commonly that they arose like dragon’s teeth from the corpses of Iraqi and Libyan civilians and that bombing and killing by US and allied troops were the recruiting sergeant of IS and al Qa’eda. Something like a fascist group bombing London in revenge for the Soviet civilians killed at Stalingrad! Or loyalists flocking to the UVF and UFF in revenge for Bloody Sunday!
The politics don’t make sense. Al Qa’eda and other Islamist theocrats hated Saddam and they hated Gaddafi - they were their mortal enemies. The war by the west was the biggest birthday president anyone could have given them. It opened the gates to allow them in. In the middle of the resistance by deposed Ba’athists it was the Islamists who fought as a fifth column against them, launching massive, purely sectarian attacks on hapless communities already reeling from imperialism’s ‘liberating’ bombs. So, yes, the war on Saddam and Gaddafi did indeed lead to the presence of al Qa’eda and then IS taking over chunks of those countries and securing forces across the region into Syria - but not in revenge for the fall of those secular states, which was the aim of the theocrats too.
‘What aboutism’ has been described in this paper before: basically, change the subject. ‘What about the kids dying of thirst in Africa?’ Such cretinist and inhuman comments declare that we just get on with life and ignore the theocratic terrorist chopping our neighbour’s head off, or taking over vast tracts of African and the Middle East and imposing viciously sectarian, anti-libertarian and anti-female regimes. After all, they reason, ‘we’ have invaded all these countries, so ‘we’ have no right to comment.
IS, al Qa’eda and all such tyrannical, reactionary groups and ideologies are, however, the enemy of anyone who calls themselves a socialist or a libertarian. They do need confronting and defeating by all means necessary. That needs to be said - together with the obvious conclusion that imperialism has no intention of doing so. It is intent on regime change in Syria, which is poised to fling wide open the floodgates to even more reaction and feed Islamist regimes in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the ever growing reactionary forces in Turkey.
We need to state loud and clear that we are against political-religious reaction and the US and Nato imperialist agendas at the same time, so it can never be that we are soft on one to be hard on the other. I am proud to hear that there are revolutionary socialist and anarchist wings of the Kurdish militia already active in Syria fighting IS as mortal enemies. I wish them every success.