THE DEBATE IN MOMENTUM about the organisation’s future structures hit the news recently and some journalists clearly enjoyed seeing a public disagreement blow up within the Corbyn-supporting movement. But we should not be afraid of debate. There are differences of opinion and these should be discussed at all levels of Momentum. In my view the key areas of disagreement relate to two issues. Firstly, what is the role of local Momentum groups - especially in their relations to the London-based office? Secondly, what type of Momentum conference should be held in February? Should it be a delegate-based conference or some sort of ‘online’ event?
One thing that has emerged is a level of distrust of local groups from some people - including people on the Momentum Steering Committee. On occasion Momentum members at local level have been referred to as ‘self-selecting activists’.
This approach results in opposition to a delegate type structure for any conference. We need to address these different aspects of the debate. What is the role of the activists? (Indeed, what is an activist?) And, secondly, what is the best way of organising an event (conference) to take the movement forward?
In defence of activism
One of the most famous stories from the US civil rights movement is of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Her subsequent arrest led to the Montgomery bus boycott and was a key moment in the emergence of a new phase of mass struggle for equality, democracy and civil rights. Rosa Parks is now internationally seen as an outstanding and heroic figure.
The myth is that she was just a tired woman who wanted to return from work and that the demand she should give up her seat for a white person was simply the final straw which provoked an ‘ordinary’ woman to rebel and (perhaps accidentally) to help to create a new mass movement.
But, of course, the role of Rosa Parks in those events was not accidental. Parks was an activist. She came from a family of activists. Her husband had been involved in the campaign for the Scottsboro Boys (black teenagers falsely accused of rape). Rosa was member of the main civil rights organisation, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She had attended the Highlander Folk School - which trained labour movement and civil rights activists. Even the tactic of refusing to move from a seat reserved for whites had been discussed and attempted before. Like the best campaigning tactics, it emerged from the real experience of those affected. The point is that no mass movement or campaign can be built without activists.
Activists are those who are not simply supportive of a cause but are prepared to put themselves out to discuss and organise for it. Every strike, every struggle of ordinary people, every gain made by the labour movement has required the involvement of activists. It is also often the case that activists are maligned and abused in their own time (as was Parks or King) only to be sanctified by those in power once their battle has been fought and won.
So we should not accept any denigration of activists, self-selecting or otherwise. The truth is that since activism is a voluntary function it must be, by definition, self selecting. The trade unions and the Labour Party rely on activists - as does Momentum - and we should not remotely apologise for that.
What type of conference?
The second aspect to the debate relates to the type of conference which Momentum should hold. The people who don’t like the role of activists (despite being activists themselves) have argued for an online or virtual conference. It is said that this reflects ‘new politics’ and a ‘new way of doing things’. My fear is that this approach might avoid one set of problems only to create another.
It is argued that the online approach would encourage wider participation. The truth is that it would create different problems. If everything is online, why would anyone even attend a conference? Who would therefore speak or make proposals? Simply a different group of self-selecting activists!
If voting is to simply be online who frames the questions? Anyone who has ever experienced a management ‘consultation’ of the workforce will know that these things are easily rigged and never inspire confidence in those consulted. Local authorities, NHS Trusts and a whole range of public bodies do the same thing. The question is set by those who control the process and is designed to produce the ‘right’ answer. As a result there is widespread public hostility and cynicism to such consultation processes.
Secondly, the online approach favours particular activists over others. Those who have an active social media profile or who have access to email lists and databases will have a significant advantage over those who may simply be campaigning at a local level, in a local CLP and local Momentum group.
So a key question is what are we trying to achieve? For me, if Momentum is to establish itself as a serious left wing campaign of Labour Party members and supporters, the starting point has to be local groups. It is at local level where we need to build the Labour Party, where we need to help people train and develop themselves. The local groups are certainly not perfect, and they don’t exist everywhere, but if Momentum is to develop and sustain itself for the long term the local groups need to be built and to be the basis of the campaign - the building blocks for the future.
With good will the difficulties and disagreements can be overcome and a way forward can be found. That can involve online discussion and decisionmaking but it also needs to have representatives from local groups at the heart of the process and of the conference. Let’s find a way through.
is General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union