Against Lansman, for what?
On March 11, Grassroots Momentum met at Conway Hall in central London. Simon Wells and Carla Roberts report
Over 200 Momentum members attended the first gathering of the newly established Momentum Grassroots network. It could have easily been much bigger, had it not been built as a ‘delegate’ event - a decision which was overturned at the beginning of the meeting by a clear majority of the branch delegates (see interview opposite).
The organised left was there, of course: there were about two dozen members and supporters of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty/The Clarion and a handful of supporters each of Workers Power (Red Flag), Socialist Appeal and Labour Party Marxists. The Labour Representation Committee and Nick Wrack’s Labour Party Socialist Network had a few members present, though neither seemed to make a coordinated intervention.
It is, of course, long overdue for the left within the Labour movement to start to get organised. But, on the day, GM’s main political problem became more and more evident: it has been set up as a reaction to Jon Lansman’s January 10 coup, when he simply abolished all elected Momentum bodies and imposed a bureaucratic constitution. All GM supporters are united in their opposition to this highly undemocratic manoeuvre. However, when it comes to the way forward, there were - at least - three different viewpoints present on March 11:
- Some want a clean split from Momentum - the sooner, the better. There are, naturally, differences over with whom to split, to form what exactly and on what political basis.
- Some want to continue to work in Momentum for now, while at the same time almost replicating the official body - with parallel structures and similar political limitations, but on a lower level: similar campaigns, similar leadership elections, etc.
- Some - and LPM belongs to this third group - agree that we should continue to work within Momentum for the time being, but with a clear understanding of its limited shelf life, openly criticising its exceedingly pinched political outlook and subordination to the politics of Jeremy Corbyn’s 10 pledges.1
How not to
Unfortunately, the GM conference made no attempt to clarify where GM as a whole might stand in relation to those three main options. In fact, we did not get a chance to discuss anything much at all, let alone serious politics.
To put it mildly, the organisation of the event was a shambles - reflecting, of course, the ideological and political poverty of much of the left. As is now common at such leftwing gatherings, we were presented with a stuffed agenda, which included speeches from strikers - but we had no time for proper, meaningful discussion or decision-making. Of course, we support the Picturehouse workers struggle for a living wage and are with the teaching assistants in Derby in their strike against the Labour council. But should the founding conference of GM really have devoted so much time to hearing their representatives, when contributions from the floor were limited to a measly two minutes?
An exception was made for Matt Wrack, leader of the Fire Brigades Union, who was allowed six minutes, but this was not enough to outline a set of serious proposals. Comrade Wrack had personally sponsored the conference with a “large contribution” - since his election as general secretary of the FBU, he has been “setting aside a portion of my wages to help fund the labour movement”.
It would have helped if we had started the day with this comrade’s contribution, but it was not until just before lunch that he spoke. He explained that the FBU “continues to keep an open mind” about Momentum and Grassroots Momentum, but had so far declined the offer to take up a seat on Lansman’s national coordinating group. He spoke about the need to democratise Labour, fight for the selection of socialist MPs and for socialist policies - and said that in fact “we are making almost no progress in any of these areas”. He quite correctly stated that “the right is running rings around the left at conference” and “expulsions for political reasons are not being challenged”. He was also right to say that “Corbyn will lose, unless he faces these challenges head on”.
The biggest problem was the agenda, which really was the wrong way round. We were to discuss campaigns first (see interview), then democratising the Labour movement, and only then were we supposed to have a discussion on “the way forward for GM”, including how to elect some kind of a leadership. This last item was supposed to last just over an hour and a half. But clearly there were a lot of disagreements in the hall.
What kind of leadership?
LPM supporter John Bridge successfully challenged the agenda and after lunch we went on to discuss the future of GM. This challenge turned out to be quite crucial, as that discussion went on for the rest of the day. Clearly, conference should have started with it. And maybe then we would have had time to debate this question politically, rather than just decide on a method of electing a new leadership.
On this issue, we were presented with three options, which were put together by the former chair of the (now abolished) conference arrangements committee, Alec Price - himself a supporter of option 2 (incredibly, he also started chairing the session, but after a challenge from the floor sat down again).
- Option 1 was not very serious: keep things as they are, with the remaining members of Momentum’s official national committee (also abolished), who were elected many months ago, continuing to meet. Only one or two people voted for this.
- Option 2 was favoured by the ex-CAC members and was given by far the most time: local groups would affiliate to GM and send two representatives each to a leadership meeting every three months. Plus, conference was to directly elect a ‘coordinating group’ of six named positions. These two bodies would work together in perfect harmony, with the national meeting of branch delegates supposedly being the superior committee. But this is obvious nonsense. In practice the six directly elected officers would be unaccountable little Bonapartes - an all too common practice of the left and fervently opposed by LPM. Much to the consternation of the top table, after a couple of recounts, option 2 was defeated with 83 for and 89 against. Those who had already divvied up the six jobs between themselves were visibly stunned. For a good five minutes they literally did not know what to do.
- Option 3 was textually the briefest and allowed for “15-20 people” elected at conference to form a “steering committee” that “can elect an executive if they wish”. This was successfully carried with 88 for and 68 against.
In general, option 2 was supported by comrades who want a politically narrower leadership (specifically in this case excluding the AWL/The Clarion) - about half the conference. As we had no proper discussion on this issue, it was projected onto the 30-second (!) hustings contributions by the 40-plus candidates who put themselves forward for the 20 national committee places. Without any consultation, let alone a vote, the chair announced that a least half the committee had to be female (ie, the quota system loved by liberal bureaucracies everywhere). And it is no surprise, especially given the numbers they had mobilised, that the AWL candidates did well. They make up around a quarter of the committee (that despite the fact that in the morning session they badly lost out when they spoke against the proposal to include in GM’s basic platform opposition to the bogus ‘anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt).
The left within Momentum is, though, surely split on the most crucial question before us: what it is we hope to achieve in the Labour Party.
Is it about following the masses into Labour and building this or that social movement? Is it about splitting off a leftwing minority to form the core of a future revolutionary ‘party’ - ie, one of the sects writ large? Is it about working for a Labour government and hoping that Jeremy Corbyn manages to hang on till 2020? Is about fighting for a left-reformist Labour government that will carry out a limited range of progressive measures within the confines of the existing monarchical constitution?
Or, on the contrary, is it about transforming the Labour Party into a permanent united front of the entire organised working class, a party programmatically committed to republican democracy and a new, socialist, clause four? If it is the latter - which is certainly the case with LPM - then this means recognising that taking such a course will ensure that Labour remains a party of extreme opposition for many years to come. We prefer that to forming a government that has no chance of carrying out the full programme of Marxism. Hence 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.
There is clearly no real political coherence among the comrades involved in GM at this stage. This is something we shall seek to rectify through a process of debate, discussion and involvement in what should be our common struggle to influence Momentum’s 22,000 members. This means that, in our view, GM should as a matter of tactic, not principle, remain a part of Momentum - just so long as we can make our voice heard in it and there are people to listen.
That does not mean we politically subordinate ourselves to Jon Lansman or, for that matter, Jeremy Corbyn. Of course not. But, if we arm ourselves with principled politics, we will have the opportunity, in however limited a way, to win many thousands to the cause of socialism. For example, LPM secretary Stan Keable stood in the recent Momentum elections to the national coordinating group for the South East constituency. He won a respectable 458 votes on a Marxist platform, which included a strongly-worded condemnation of the Lansman coup, naturally. Where is the downside of that, exactly?
The following were elected:
Sahaya James, 95
Tracy McGuire, 93
Jackie Walker, 93
Nick Wrack, 89
Simon Hannah, 82
Delia Mattis, 82
Kevin McKenna, 80
Jill Mountford, 75
Graham Bash, 71
Rosie Woods, 71
Rida Vaquas, 69
Lee Griffiths, 69
Alec Price, 67
Pete Radcliff, 64
Ed Whitby, 63
Tina Werkmann, 61
Jan Pollock, 58
Richard Gerrard, 56
Joan Twelves, 53
Further results: www.grassrootsmomentum.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Grassroots-Conference-Steering-Committee-Election-Results.pdf.