Peter Willsman: democracy in Labour, but not in Momentum

Inconsistently democratic

Stan Keable of Labour Party Marxists reports on the CLPD annual conference

As I anticipated, the majority at the February 25 AGM of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy in London disgraced the organisation by failing to stand up for democracy in Momentum. How can the CLPD then campaign effectively for democracy in the Labour Party?

In place of the principle of working class solidarity - an injury to one is an injury to all - we were treated to the spurious, bureaucratic principle of so-called “non-interference” in the affairs of any fraternal organisation - a method of double talk which does not ‘do what it says on the tin’. “Non-interference” is far from neutral, as its proponents pretend. It actually means taking sides - in support of the status quo.

In this case it means the CLPD has taken the side of the ruling Jon Lansman/Christine Shawcroft faction of Momentum against the deposed national committee, conference arrangements committee and regional committees. This was made explicit by the rejection of Steve Forrest’s amendment to motion 5: “The CLPD endorses the now dissolved Momentum national committee and Momentum conference arrangements committee as the legitimate, continued voice of nationally coordinated, local pro-JC groups nationwide ...” The amendment stated that “approximately 39 local groups have rejected” the dissolution of the NC and CAC, “in comparison to only approximately five in support”, and noted the “new Momentum local groups networking conference on March 11 in London”. But these points cut no ice with the CLPD majority, which displayed a blind loyalty to its own leading faction that should embarrass any democrat.

Neither the way the January 10 anti-democratic coup in Momentum was carried out nor the new constitution itself gave them a problem. The byzantine constitution was imposed suddenly, with neither discussion nor the opportunity of amendment, by the votes of six members of a defunct steering committee. But it can only be amended or overturned against the wishes of the newly established national coordinating group by a positive vote of 30% of the membership in an online ballot - the kind of threshold the Tories would like to impose on trade unions to prevent industrial action. And, were such a vote to be achieved, we should only expect more of the same - another counterrevolution from above allowing the dominant faction to stay in control.

These bureaucratic shenanigans in Momentum ought to be anathema for an organisation which - according to Pete Willsman’s motion 1 (carried overwhelmingly, of course, with a few supplementary amendments) - campaigns within the Labour Party:

Momentum has just undergone rule changes which ‘significantly decrease’ democracy, junk conference sovereignty, render the ruling faction effectively unaccountable to the membership, and make permanent the illegitimate interference by Momentum paid staff and their controller in the running of the organisation, as against the now abolished NC.

The CLPD majority were willing to overlook the junking of conference sovereignty in Momentum, while obliviously voting through Francis Prideaux’s motion 3, which “recalls that the Labour Party’s supreme authority on policy and organisation is the party’s annual conference.”

Labour Party Marxists motion 5, which I moved, “reaffirms that the CLPD remains committed to campaign for democratisation of the Labour Party, including mandatory selection of parliamentary candidates”. It is good to know that the CLPD still supports mandatory reselection, which was achieved in party rules - and in practice - in the 1980s, but then reduced to meaninglessness by the introduction of trigger ballots. But will the ‘non-interference’ principle prevent the CLPD from demanding, on the national coordinating group, that Momentum starts campaigning for mandatory reselection?

Our motion also criticised “undemocratic behaviour in Momentum” and regretted the “curtailment of normal democratic procedures”. However, this part of our motion was deleted by Barry Gray’s successful amendment. Somewhat dishonestly, my dear friend, Richard Price (of the ‘original’ Labour Briefing split), claimed that the wording was “too vague” to be supportable, as no-one could be sure precisely what “undemocratic behaviour” the motion condemned. We should have been “more specific”. But then, no doubt, the motion might have been ‘too wordy’, or whatever - as if anyone in the room did not know about the Momentum coup.

Of course, I accepted Richard’s other point, that the “democratic procedures” achieved in Momentum were less than perfect, before any development was unceremoniously cut off on January 10. Lansman first attempted a coup on October 28, when he cancelled the November 5 NC meeting, which looked likely to go against him. But rebellious NC members went ahead with a meeting on that day. Then, after John McDonnell convened peace talks with Matt Wrack, Lansman was forced to allow the NC to meet on December 3 - and many new delegates were elected by regional committees and liberation groups in the run-up to that meeting.

If Lansman had got his wicked way on December 3 - a neutered, non-decision-making annual conference of the kind which the CLPD abhors in the Labour Party - there would have been no coup. But the refreshed NC wanted a sovereign delegate conference with decision-making powers, albeit with some online voting. So the NC was immediately subjected to a red-baiting media smear campaign involving the likes of Laura Murray, Owen Jones and Paul Mason, followed up by the new year ‘survey’, which was deceitfully designed to legitimise the instantaneous scrapping of what there was of Momentum’s democratic structures.

Barry Gray’s amendment, carried by a large majority of the 120 or so present at the AGM, replaced criticism of what has happened in Momentum by an entirely positive text. All is well in Momentum, it seems:

CLPD welcomes the opportunity to participate in Momentum and to promote CLPD objectives and priorities through that collaboration. The task facing all of us is to defend Jeremy Corbyn and build an effective party that wins the general election. That has been CLPD’s prime focus and must always be, together with uniting all progressive forces around that central focus.

A more pleasing outcome came with the majority vote in favour of Martin Green’s motion 2. With Pete Willsman’s blessing, the meeting decided:

to revisit CLPD’s earlier campaign for a more meaningful clause four (rather than the existing version drafted by T Blair). We ask the EC to set up a small working group (this can involve non-EC members) to draft this new clause four for agreement at our next AGM and, if that AGM agrees, the new version will be circulated as a model rule change.

To help this along, I circulated a model motion - ‘For a socialist clause 4’ - with the text of three versions of clause four - the 1918-59 state socialism version; Tony Blair’s 1995 abomination (“the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition”, etc); and LPM’s draft for 21st century working class socialism.

It has to be said that, for an organisation campaigning for democracy, the debates were very pinched, allowing only three minutes for each speaker. Motion 1 - Pete Willsman’s impressive list of tasks to be undertaken during the coming year - was taken near the start of day, with the secretary’s report. The other six motions, plus several amendments, were squashed into one hour in the afternoon. Totally inadequate for actually thrashing out ideas.

The rest of the day was more of a rally than an AGM, with a range of speakers. We learned that Kelvin Hopkins wants the national policy forum abolished - good! Salma Yaqoob is “passionate about Jeremy Corbyn” and assured us that he “stays constant, whatever the weather” - forgetting about his backsliding on republicanism, Palestine, Trident, and his silence in the face of the anti-Semitism smear campaign. Claudia Webb told us that Labour membership was 543,645 on January 1, making Labour the biggest party in Europe, while Unite assistant secretary Diana Holland put trade union membership at 6.5 million. Trade unionism is not enough, she said, as not everything can be solved in the workplace: “The unions need legal and political action”, while Labour “needs its link to millions of workers”.

Quite right. Talk of Labour’s imminent demise seems a bit - well - off the planet.