The nuclear option
While Jon Lansman considers ending it all, the left majority needs to press home its advantage, urges Carla Roberts of Labour Party Marxists
Left now has a majority for a serious conference
Around 60 members of the national committee of Momentum met in Birmingham on December 3 to discuss, among other things, the first conference of the organisation. It was a very fractious and ill-tempered meeting.
Crucially, a motion to recall the current steering committee (which has a majority in support of Jon Lansman, the director of the companies holding the database and the income of Momentum) and replace it with an interim body elected at the NC was voted down by 30 to 29 votes. Even three recounts could not change the outcome. Ironically, Nick Wrack had successfully moved a change in the agenda, so that this item could be discussed first, as he feared it would not be reached because of time constraints. But, had this vote been taken later in the day, it is almost certain that a majority would have voted in favour, as a number of pro-democracy members were delayed by traffic, engineering works, etc.
There were some good decisions taken, however. Most importantly, there will be no internet voting by individual, atomised members at or after conference, despite this being the expressed will of comrade Lansman. Conference will decide on a new constitution, a code of ethics and various policy motions - and all of these decisions will be taken by elected delegates.1
Fearing exactly such an outcome, Jon Lansman and his allies on the steering committee had successfully prevented the NC from meeting since May. On October 28, they even launched a deeply undemocratic coup by cancelling the meeting of the NC scheduled for November 5 and simply declared that the conference would in fact be a livestreamed national debate, with voting then taking place online afterwards. When the national media picked up on the coup and Lansman was asked by John McDonnell to ‘sort it out’, he relented and finally agreed to an NC meeting.2
In the meantime, comrade Lansman has done pretty much everything in his power to stuff the NC with members who would support his plans to make Momentum into nothing more than a big phone bank that sporadically sparks into life for this or that chosen campaign. The hastily called elections of additional NC delegates from the “liberation strands” have to be seen in this context.
Then there are the delegates from Labour organisations. However, we not only have Labour CND, Labour Against Austerity, Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, Labour Briefing, Labour Representation Committee, Left Futures (once Jon Lansman’s personal blog) but, farcically, Open Labour and Compass. These last two are not exactly known for their pro-Corbyn-stance, to put it mildly.
Momentum steering committee member Jill Mountford of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty writes:
… with the exception of LRC delegates (Jackie Walker and Michael Calderbank) the other Labour groups’ delegates voted en bloc for Jon’s proposals, and were in fact the only people getting up to support any of his proposals (which were often billed as the steering committee’s proposals).3
Comrade Lansman claimed at the meeting that it was in fact the handful of MPs who set up Momentum last year who suggested that these organisations be represented. But there is no method to take groups like Compass or Open Labour off the list of invitees or for other organisations to get involved - chiefly because there is no general method of affiliation. Only trade unions can pay an affiliation fee, entitling them to two delegates at the NC - the Fire Brigades Union and Transport Salaried Staffs Association are the only two organisations officially affiliated. Clearly, this situation is untenable.
In any case, Lansman failed this time to ensure that everything went his way. The meeting had a slim pro-democracy majority and most decisions were agreed “with majorities of one, two or three votes”, writes AWL fellow traveller Michael Chessum (who, like Marshajane Thompson, is now still on the SC, although perversely not on the NC, from among which the SC is supposed to be elected). “Regional delegates, who make up a majority of the NC, almost all arrived mandated to vote for a purely delegate-based conference,” he writes.4
A new Facebook page called Opening Momentum has been set up “for Momentum members disappointed in that [NC] decision, and who believe all members should be able to vote on Momentum’s future”. It states:
A delegate-based model was originally hoisted onto Momentum without consultation with its wider membership. Letting a small group of delegates decide to maintain their own power, at the expense of all members, isn’t a good starting point for a new political movement. Beyond February, we believe Momentum should adopt a structure that is inclusive and unbureaucratic. We are in the process of transforming the Labour Party - building a parallel organisation with the same structures and procedures as Labour would be a mistake.5
Needless to say, it is more than ironic that supporters of the man who launched an outrageously undemocratic coup in Momentum are now trying to claim the mantel of democracy.
The page also prominently features a pretty nasty, gushingly pro-Lansman report of the NC meeting by one of the two “women’s representatives” on the NC, Laura Murray. She claims: “Naively, I was excited for the national committee”, but was then disappointed by all the “infighting” at the meeting. The innocent comrade Murray complains about all the horrid “Trotskyists” who ruined the meeting: “How silly I was.”
And how dishonest. In reality, she is far from the political newcomer she pretends to be. She works as advisor to Grahame Morris MP, member of the shadow cabinet. Oh, and she happens to be the daughter of Andrew Murray and Susan Michie, who were leading members of the ultra-Stalinite Straight Left faction in the ‘official’ CPGB. Andrew Murray broke with Straight Left, formed an organisation called Communist Liaison and then finally joined the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain. Andrew Murray was chair of the Stop the War Coalition for 10 years, is chief of staff of Unite and is a close friend of spin doctor Seamus Milne. Naturally, he remains firmly in ultra-Stalinist camp.6
And look how well he has taught Laura. She assures us that she “is not anti-Trotskyist per se”, but thinks that “the sectarian attitude taken by Trotskyist groups within Momentum is destructive to our movement”. She has a go at the AWL and then turns on those purged from the Labour Party on the most spurious grounds:
Given that Nick Wrack, Jill Mountford and Jackie Walker are, in turn, blocked, expelled and suspended from being members of the Labour Party, it is unsurprising that they care little for reforming and democratising the Labour Party and even less so about getting it elected into government.7
Do we see here the beginnings of an attempt to oust from Momentum those members who have been expelled or suspended from the Labour Party?
The Guardian, which quotes extensively from her article, writes: “The development has meant that Lansman is threatening to walk away from Momentum, Labour sources said.”8 This is no doubt designed to silence the internal critics on the left. If he did go for the nuclear option and walk - he would presumably take with him the database of about 160,000 people, not to mention the thousands of standing orders to Momentum. He has already moved to put at least one of the two companies associated with Momentum into liquidation.
But closing Momentum on the basis of losing a vote to call a democratic conference is a high-risk strategy. Doubtless he will claim that the “sectarian groups” - the AWL, Red Flag, Labour Party Socialist Network, Labour Party Marxists, etc - have taken over with the intention of wrecking the whole thing. Then, presumably, he will use the database, and his team of full-time employees, to launch a brand new organisation - Momentum 2, Original Momentum, or maybe Opening Momentum.
Clearly, comrade Lansman is very unhappy with these decisions taken by the December 3 national committee:
- Conference will take place on February 25 (or one week either side of that date).
- Branches will elect delegates (two per 100 members or any part thereof).
- Each local branch, “liberation group” and affiliated union may submit one motion, along with the NC and each regional committee.
- Members in areas without local Momentum groups are to be “represented at the same rate as members in groups, elected by Omov [one member, one vote] ballot in regions”. Any 30 of those members can also submit a motion.
- Motions on aims, structures, ethics, policy and campaigning may be submitted up to three weeks before conference.
- An open e-forum for all members will be set up, where motions can be discussed, amendments mooted and compositing processes arranged.
- A conference arrangements committee (CAC) has been elected (which has a leftwing majority of one). We sincerely hope that this will prevent those decisions being ditched.
But, as we all know, Jon Lansman and his allies have overturned decisions before and he basically makes up policy as he goes along. He is the sole director of various companies that “own” the Momentum database and its income. And he treats it very much like his private property.
For example, in mid-November he launched the MxV platform, which asks members to post “proposals” (ie, motions) for conference, which are ranked according to how many members have clicked the ‘support’ button featured next to each headline. There is now a long list of no less than 300 proposals, which range from the supportable to the bizarre. Clearly, very few people will read them all - and that, of course, is the point of the Omov system favoured by Lansman: it is not “empowering”, as people like Paul Mason claim9: it is exactly the opposite. It alienates people, makes them less engaged with Momentum, sidelines the branches - and concentrates power at the top.
It is, of course, noteworthy that comrade Lansman launched this platform a couple of weeks before the December 3 meeting of the NC, which was tasked with deciding on how motions should actually be submitted. Clearly, he thought he had it in the bag and that his proposals for an Omov conference would be supported at the newly stuffed NC. (I recommend the report by Josie Runswick, LGBT rep on the NC, on this matter, as she usefully publishes Jon Lansman’s full Omov proposal, which can only be described as a bureaucrat’s wet dream.10)
Also, there are enough ambiguities in the motions voted through by the NC for us to remain on our guard:
- The NC voted in favour of an “online priorities ballot”, which can only mean that some motions submitted will not be heard at conference. Such a ballot (presumably organised via the already existing MxV platform) is also designed to bring easily digestible and short motions to the top. Who wants to read a proposal for a constitution that could work (and therefore would have to be a certain length). In fact, conference ought to be sovereign. It should decide on all such matters.
- Local branches are “encouraged to composite motions (motions composited by more groups will move higher up the agenda as incentive to composite). Amendments to be circulated before the conference.”11 However, it is not stated which bodies can actually submit amendments or how many. The tight time frame will also make it rather difficult for branches to meet and discuss motions.
- The NC and regional committees “may send one motion or constitutional amendment”. The problem is that there is no constitution yet, so how can it be amended? Or does comrade Lansman have some kind of draft constitution in his back pocket that he will surprise us with just before conference?
Just like the Labour Party itself, Momentum is split - though, of course, the fault lines do not run between those that want to keep Corbyn and those busy plotting his overthrow. Momentum is split between those who want peace with the right (justified by the mantra that any Labour government is better than a Tory government) and those who think we should be fighting for some kind of socialism.
All those pesky lefties who come to Momentum meetings and talk about mandatory reselection of MPs, the need to transform the Labour Party into a real party of the working class or the fight for socialism are viewed as nothing but a diversion. In fact, branches are seen as a diversion, especially those that function well. Momentum was intended to be an extension of the Labour machine - but one designed to support Corbyn in the event of the next coup (which will come sooner rather than later).
Of course, it is excellent that the left, pro-democratic wing of Momentum has managed to win a few votes on the NC - clearly, it is all still to play for. But, as long as comrade Lansman is in charge of the organisation, it cannot be anything more than a fan club for Jeremy Corbyn. And not a very dynamic or effective one at that.
1. For a critique of ‘one member, one vote’, see ‘A party within a party, within …’ Weekly Worker November 10 2016.
2. See http://labourpartymarxists.org.uk/jon-lansmans-coup-in-momentum.
6. There are enough examples on his Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Murray_(campaigner_and_journalist).