Stay and fight the battle of ideas
Despite widespread outrage over the Lansman coup, there is little appetite to split Momentum, says Carla Roberts of Labour Party Marxists
Momentum branches, groups and committees up and down the country have come out openly against the Lansman coup of January 10. Labour Party Marxists is publishing statements and motions as and when they are being released.1
Not surprisingly, most Momentum activists are utterly appalled by the crass way in which the February 18 conference has been rendered impotent, all democratic decision-making bodies have been abolished and a new anti-democratic constitution imposed by Jon Lansman and his allies. But, as can be expected, there is huge confusion on how to best move forward.
On January 13, the (abolished) conference arrangements committee released a statement (with the three Lansman allies on the committee not voting), according to which: “The CAC takes its direction from Momentum’s national committee, as per the original remit we were given. Until that body meets and informs us our role has changed, we will continue working towards Momentum’s first conference.”
A provisional date of March 11 for “the postponed conference” has been mooted. The statement rigidly sticks to the CAC’s initial brief, according to which the committee will accept only “one motion” from each branch and “one motion or constitutional amendment” from each region. The committee “advises” that the national committee should meet, as previously planned, on January 28 in London.
Clearly, the CAC statement was written shortly after the coup, when people were still very sore and very angry. And at the time many were probably up for the kind of action they are actually proposing here: a split. Of course, within Momentum, it is simply impossible to wrest power out of Lansman’s hands - that was the case before the coup and is now even more so. He set up the various companies that control Momentum’s finances and its huge database. And, crucially, he has got the support of Jeremy Corbyn.
However, it has become quite clear in recent days that very few Momentum members, let alone branches, are up for that kind of fight. And it would be a massive undertaking: anybody splitting would be hugely disadvantaged and would have to start again from ground zero. Without the money, contacts and the database.
The CAC seems to have changed its mind, too. It looks more and more likely that the January 28 meeting will become not so much a meeting of the (abolished) NC, but the kind of event that the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty is pushing for: a “local groups network” within Momentum.2
Fearful of a split, AWL members have been keen to tone down statements in branches and it is interesting that the left minority of the steering committee (which comprises AWL member Jill Mountford, AWL supporter Michael Chessum, Fire Brigades Union president Matt Wrack and Jackie Walker) has gone very quiet too, although apparently it continues to meet.3
The biggest problem for the opposition is its lack of a clear political alternative. The CAC was searching for some middle ground with Lansman. Its preferred constitution - drafted by Nick Wrack and Matt Wrack - had all the problems of Lansman’s: referendums, direct election of officers and mimicking student unions, trade unions and the Labour Party itself.
Given the absence of a well-organised and politically principled left, the idea of challenging the Lansman coup head-on was never realistic. But that does not mean we should give up the fight for the hearts and minds of Momentum’s 20,000 or the 200,000 on its database. True, quite a number of people - for example, Nick Wrack - have talked about resigning or have already left Momentum. This level of frustration and impatience is understandable, but also short-sighted.
There have been huge democratic deficits within Momentum right from the start. Ever since Corbyn collected enough nominations to stand in the leadership election, he and his allies had to play catch-up. They had no idea what to do with the tens of thousands of people enthused by his campaign who wanted to get more involved. Momentum was badly thought-out and badly executed.
One thing is for sure, however: it was never the intention of Jon Lansman to allow Momentum to become a democratic organisation that would allow members to decide on its constitution or policies. That was obvious right from the start.
After all, such an organisation could easily embarrass Jeremy Corbyn by publishing statements that were not to the liking of the Labour right. For example, calling for the mandatory selection of parliamentary candidates (which was of course, until very recently, the position of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, of which Corbyn is a member) would scupper the illusion of a ‘peace settlement’ within the party.
But any organisation that cannot trust its membership is unlikely to be able to mobilise them … even as spear carriers. The danger is that Momentum will soon become little more than an empty husk. But for now, Labour Party Marxists will continue to work in Momentum while any life in it remains. We will do so with a view to spreading our vision of what Labour needs to be.
Demands for boycotting Momentum - crucially the February 18 ‘conference’ organised by team Lansman and the elections to the new ‘national coordination group’ (NCG) are mistaken. There is no reason to impose isolation upon ourselves. Indeed we should use every opportunity, every avenue to spread the ideas of Marxism. True, Momentum’s new constitution is a travesty of democracy. But the same can be said of the United Kingdom constitution, with its hereditary head of state, unelected second chamber and ‘first past the post’ elections to the lower house, which leave minority parties massively underrepresented. Nevertheless, it is right to stand in parliamentary contests.
Of course, the left should organise and debate the road ahead - first on January 28 and then March 11 (perhaps). That can involve electing delegates from Momentum branches. But there should also be a conscious effort to involve the groups and fractions committed to working in the Labour Party: the Labour Representation Committee, Red Labour, The Clarion, Red Flag, Labour Party Socialist Network, Socialist Appeal and, of course, Labour Party Marxists.
Such a conference should establish a Momentum opposition and a politically representative steering committee. Obviously there can be no hope of winning a majority on Momentum’s NCG. Jon Lansman has ensured that he will enjoy a permanent stranglehold: a maximum of 12 people on this body (which will have between 27 and 34 members) will be elected by Momentum members - the rest being filled by unions, affiliates, MPs and other “elected representatives”.
And it is far from certain that the 12 will be made up of leftwingers - for example, Lee Jasper is one of the 17 who has already thrown his hat into the ring.4 Ken Livingstone’s race relations quango chief has the undeniable advantage of having name recognition. Ditto Paul Mason or Owen Jones, should they decide to stand or be persuaded by Lansman and Corbyn to do so.
In any case, the Momentum opposition can link up branches, organise joint action and fight for more space for leftwing ideas in Momentum.
To be a member or not? There is some dispute over the status of all those left Momentum members who have been expelled from the Labour Party for political reasons: Nick Wrack, for example, Tony Greenstein and a whole lot of members of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.
The key point in the constitution, point 5.8, states that “Any member who does not join the Labour Party by July 1 2017, or ceases to be a member of the Labour Party, or acts inconsistently with Labour Party membership, may be deemed to have resigned.”5
Labour NEC member Christine Shawcroft - Jon Lansman’s successor as director of the company Momentum Data Services Ltd, which controls the vast database of the organisation - assures us on Facebook that this
does not mean expulsions. 5.8 says if anyone ceases to be a member of the party they may be deemed to have resigned. Not will, but may … Even if we were to take action under 5.8, the member will have a right of appeal under 5.10. So there is no witch-hunt, no expulsions (well, only under very unusual circumstances, we hope).
Some hope. “Christine speaks with forked tongue”, writes Jackie Walker on Facebook. She is right. The new rules are actually very clear:
- Those expelled by the LP for political reasons can appeal to the Momentum NCG to be allowed to remain/become members of Momentum” (rule 5.106).
- But even if those are allowed to become Momentum members, they will not be allowed to take up elected positions, either on the national coordinating committee (rule 6.27) or in local groups (rule 12.78).
The current formulation, centring on the word “may”, means that we will basically have to wait and see how actively those expelled by Labour for political reasons will be hounded out of Momentum. The Momentum office has assured members that they will do no such thing. That begs the question as to why these rules have been put in the constitution in the first place.
They are not there to prepare Momentum for affiliation to the Labour Party, as has been claimed. Members of affiliated organisations - eg, trade unions and socialist societies - do not need to be members of the Labour Party. Instead, they are entitled to become “affiliated members” of Labour.
No, these rules are clearly there to get rid of troublemakers from the left, as and when the need arises. It is never a good sign when rules are written in a way that leaves them open to interpretation. Needless to say, the interpreting will not be done by anybody appealing to the kangaroo court run by the NCG, but the ‘judges’.
And if you have indeed managed to convince the judges that you are worthy of Momentum membership, you might still be thrown out for being “a member of an organisation disallowed by the NCG.”9
6. “Where a member may be deemed to have resigned in accordance with rules 5.7, 5.8 or 5.9 there will be a right to be heard by the NCG or a delegated panel before a final decision is made.”
7. “The NCG shall consist of Momentum members who confirm (and can provide evidence on request) that they are current Labour Party members.”
8. “Anyone who stands for office, such as chair or secretary, in a group or network shall be a member of the Labour Party and in the event that they cease to be a member of the Labour Party within their term of office, they are deemed to have resigned such office.”
9. Point 5.1.ii in the constitution.