Under false colours
Jon Lansman’s departure and the advent of a new regime held out the promise of radical change. Clive Dean of Labour Party Marxists tells the sorry tale of bureaucratic control, missed opportunities and political cynicism
The process of ‘refounding Momentum’ that began with the departure of founder/chair/owner Jon Lansman has recently concluded with a raft of 17 organisational changes designed to ‘restore decision-making’ to members.1
However, these changes do not amount to rolling back the constitution imposed on the organisation in 2017 following Lansman’s coup. In particular there will be no representative democracy based on local groups, regions and delegate conferences. The changes leave in place the atomised online voting process for members’ involvement, where click-based choices provide no opportunity for real participation in meaningful debates.
Momentum emerged in 2015 from Jeremy Corbyn’s successful leadership campaign. By 2016, when I joined, there was talk of 20,000 members organised in local groups all over the country. In my local group, meetings attracted 20-30 people - both members and some frightened political opponents. We held policy debates and organised left slates for elections within the Constituency Labour Party. Later that year I attended a regional meeting of Momentum, where delegates from a dozen active local groups exchanged experiences and established comradely connections for future campaigns. Like many regions we used the Loomio platform to collaborate and develop coordinated interventions.
There was an air of confidence within the Labour left at that time. Preparations were well in hand for the first Momentum delegate conference and leadership elections in early 2017. Then on October 28 2016 Jon Lansman staged his coup, using the steering committee to cancel a meeting of the body it was subordinate to, the executive committee.2
With the full support of Jeremy Corbyn and others in the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs he went on to cancel all the preparations for the conference and then introduced a new constitution, abolishing the regions and downgrading the role of local groups. Lansman used a members’ survey to claim endorsement for his new constitution, ensuring he kept control of his private property. Naturally, the dynamism and enthusiasm of Momentum quickly drained away, along with the members and the local groups.
Momentum became just another lifeless campaign, with all decisions taken at the top, and, despite the veneer of digital democracy, a membership reduced to the role of canvassing fodder. The oh-so-close general election result in 2017 obscured the decline, but with the 2019 election disaster, followed by Sir Keir’s victory as Labour’s leader, Momentum needed a serious overhaul.
In May 2020 Lansman announced his departure and the overhaul began. Things had got so bad that the rest of the existing leadership decided a new image was required. Their slate for the June 2020 elections to the national coordinating group (NCG - Momentum’s leading committee) adopted the brand, ‘Momentum Renewal’, and promised changes. But instead the fresher faces on the new ‘Forward Momentum’ slate won all 20 seats in the members’ ballot.3 The old guard had to make do with the remaining 14 NGC seats, elected or appointed by other routes.
The Forward Momentum pitch picked up on some of the grievances within the organisation:
Too many decisions have been made in back rooms, unwanted candidates have been imposed on local groups, and bold socialist strategy has been abandoned, often for no strategy at all. Momentum is failing because of this. Members have left in droves and trust in the organisation is at an all-time low. We are standing to change this.4
The process of meetings and consultations seemed to drag on for ages, but by May this year the refounding proposals were ready to be voted on by the membership - online, of course. Yes, there were 17 subjects where a choice was required, sometimes with three or four options, and very brief technical ‘supporting arguments’ to clarify the wording. But, having gone through each vote, and selecting the most radical in terms of member participation, you were left at the end with the distinct feeling that nothing fundamental would come of it all, that really it was just about tinkering with the details.
To illustrate, the topic of the first vote was ‘A Momentum convention’. This was the nearest we would be offered to a sovereign annual national delegate conference. There were four options here:
- A convention of all members every two years to debate and vote on campaigning priorities;
- As 1, but with delegates rather than all members;
- An online convention of all members, but with voting deferred until later to allow offline members to participate;
- No convention - existing routes to influence Momentum policy would remain.
The result for this vote was a win for option 1, with 41% support. We were not told how many members voted for it, or how much support the other options received.
Briefly, other decisions included:
- Allowing members to decide who Momentum endorses in leader/deputy leader elections (backing Angela Rayner rather than Richard Burgon for deputy leader did not go down well).
- The re-introduction of the regional level of organisation - though this is very much for ‘coordinating’ and ‘helping’ rather than decision-making.
- Providing a formal framework for Momentum local groups, including many requirements and standards they have to meet - thus providing a convenient stick to use against troublesome opposition: “Local Momentum groups that do not meet these standards will be transitioned to ‘Groups in recess’”!
- Momentum endorsement of candidates in selection processes to be decided by local groups. This seems obvious but caused a few rows during the Lansman era.
- Also included are some requirements for MP/councillor accountability - absolutely a good idea, but hard to enforce, I think.
- Single transferable vote rather than ‘first past the post’ in NCG elections, which ironically should prevent a repeat of the 2020 result referred to above!
- Finally an attempt to ensure that all members are nominally in a group, even when they are miles from a functioning local organisation.
Here the supporting arguments were revealing. We learnt that “Only a very small percentage of Momentum members are currently organised in local groups”; and “Very few Momentum members fall in the catchment area for a local Momentum group (approximately less than five percent)”. My logical deduction from these two statements is that Momentum is now a collection of dispersed individuals rather than an organised political force.
On June 13 Momentum will open nominations for this year’s NCG elections, with voting beginning on June 28. So far two slates are known to be standing: last time’s winners are now branded as ‘Your Momentum’, and they are being challenged by ‘Momentum Organisers’. Hopefully we will be able to report on some real political differences during the campaign.
The turnout in 2020 was 8,580. Given that the last two years have been dominated by Starmer’s reign of terror against the Labour left, we should expect a much smaller involvement this time. Indeed many groups that share Momentum’s terrain are struggling to survive. Momentum’s insistence on Labour Party membership will not help here either, given the large number of activists who have either been expelled or hounded out of the party, with hardly a whimper of protest from Momentum.
Where Momentum is still having an impact is in its promotion of The World Transformed - the major Labour left fringe umbrella that accompanies the annual party conference. Last year at Brighton it hosted 120 events, and it is now gearing up for Liverpool in September this year. Momentum also provides training courses for its membership, to enable them to function better as organisers within the milieu of protest politics, and to oil the career paths of would-be councillors and MPs (though maybe having Momentum on your CV could be an impediment just now!). In this educational activity Momentum is partnered (organisationally and financially) by the Berlin-based Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Indeed Deborah Hermanns, who was elected to the NCG in 2020, is listed as an employee at the London office of the RLF.
The RLF functions as a vehicle for the German Left Party (Die Linke) to receive millions of euros from the German state. With this funding it promotes political research and education activities around the world - it has offices in over 20 countries. The link between Momentum and the RLF is a cosy fit politically - left reformism with a radical edge of anti-racism, feminism, pacifism and climate justice, so Momentum is a fortunate beneficiary here.
However, for genuine Marxists such a relationship would be problematic. First, we pride ourselves on our financial and political independence. In our movement there are too many examples of revolutionary politics being abandoned by parties which became dependent on direct or indirect government funding, whatever the government. Second, the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg projected by the RLF - ‘democratic socialism’, coupled with identity politics - is in complete contrast to the real Rosa Luxemburg: a communist revolutionary who fought against opportunism in the German Social Democratic Party, and an ally of Lenin who was committed to spreading the Bolshevik revolution beyond Russia to the heart of European capitalism.
Dare I suggest a session on ‘Rosa Luxembourg, the party and proletarian revolution’ for this year’s The World Transformed?
See ‘Sole director wants to dispense with representative democracy’ Weekly Worker November 3 2016: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1129/sole-director-wants-to-dispense-with-representativ.↩︎