MOMENTUM, THE ORGANISATION created to advance Corbynista ideas within the labour movement and beyond, presents a tremendous opportunity to take socialist ideas to a far wider audience than has been possible for generations.
Yet a huge amount of energy appears to be focused less on turning outward to engage this audience, than on turning inward to debate internal structures. Much of this debate is now centred on what kind of national conference Momentum needs. Discussion has quickly polarised between those who support a delegatebased conference, with attendees made up of delegates elected by local groups and affiliates, and those who favour One Member One Vote, with live streaming and online voting.
Personally, I want whatever makes the 20,000 members who have joined Momentum feel engaged and that their input is valued. I want these new supporters to become active in spreading the Corbyn agenda into parts of society where it has yet to reach. Of course there are difficulties with an OMOV conference. The questions put in online plebiscites may be selected in advance by the leadership and may not be open to amendment. The whole approach is contrary to the traditions of the labour movement, and trade union affiliates in particular have reservations. We need a lot more information about how the new left wing party in Spain, Podemos, used online techniques to construct their programme and engage their members.
But I don’t think the delegate model works ideally either. I’ve attended two London regional committees, made up of delegates from local groups. The first spent most of its time passing policy resolutions and spent less than 15 minutes on organising. The second started at 11am and finished at 4pm and didn’t complete its agenda, so had to be reconvened a couple of weeks later. In theory, this London regional committee is composed of representatives from local groups. In practice, most of the people who have the appetite for a five hour meeting are highly committed activists, especially those from small left groups present in Momentum. These groups caucus beforehand and arrive with pre-prepared position papers on pretty much everything on the agenda, so debate polarises between different groups trying to win their line.
Consensus becomes impossible. Ordinary members who want to build Momentum find this very frustrating.
Theoretically, the delegates who attend these meetings have a mandate from their local groups and are accountable to them. In practice this is dubious. I wonder if the delegate who moved opposition to supporting a broad Stop the Purge conference, focused on the witch-hunt inside the Party and sponsored by Bakers’ Union General Secretary Ronnie Draper, on the grounds that it was a “Zionist front”(!), had a mandate for his outburst. One of the London Region Committee delegates, Jill Mountford, was pretty annoyed about this sectarian attack - and rightly - but in her blog she criticises Momentum founder Jon Lansman for suggesting that regional committees might be unrepresentative of the grassroots.
This is not an isolated example. A member from one locality presented a motion, apparently passed by her local group, only to be contradicted by a delegate from the same group, who said they’d never seen it.
Another ‘delegate’on the London Committee claims to represent a local group which doesn’t actually meet, because the officers refuse to call meetings after members objected to their refusal to hold regular officer elections.
Delegate-based structures may work better in some organisations than others. Many Momentum members are not even involved in local groups. Rather than engaging the whole membership, a traditional delegate structure for Momentum may just be the best tactic for empowering hardcore activists, who champion face-toface politics and dismiss OMOV as passive ‘clicktivism’. But as a recent blog from Hackney Momentum remarked, “Corbyn’s victory, and thus Momentum’s existence, are only possible because of OMOV in the Labour Party.” Inclusion, it argues, is the key to transforming passivity into activity. “The ‘new politics‘ is about not delegating your responsibility to take part in and learn about politics,” it concludes.
Behind this organisational discussion, a battle for control of Momentum is being waged. While the traditional left may have a great deal of experience and historical knowledge to offer, it has not always been organisationally inclusive. Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the 2015 leadership contest was largely the result of new forms of organising, in which the online campaign was absolutely pivotal.
The left traditionally has been quite good at focusing on internal battles and polarising debate in ways that alienate large numbers of potential supporters. This time the stakes are higher than ever before. We have a huge responsibility not to alienate our potential supporters and undermine the entire Corbyn project. It will be no victory if the ‘correct’ side wins in Momentum, but we fail to get Jeremy Corbyn elected to power.