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Where Momentum Went Wrong

To change Momentum, we need to understand the roots of its problems – a weak socialist politics which neither empowered members nor stood up to the challenges of the Corbyn era, argues Max Shanly.

Despite my working class background, I don’t come from a family with a heritage in labour movement activism or socialist politics. I grew up in a suburban town just over the London border, where the majority of the town’s economic activity is focused on one yearly event when tens of thousands of people flood in from outside to bet on the horses. Other than that, life is pretty dull around these parts. People keep to themselves and there is a class divide among the residents that falls along clear geographical lines. 

My life in the labour movement began a decade ago, when I worked as a technician and signed up to the union. I was lucky to have the experience of entering into a very active union branch – one that met almost daily to discuss issues and consider the conditions we faced. Sadly, my union was ultimately smashed by management. The most militant members were forced out, and the solidarity we once held with one another diminished rapidly as every man and woman fought for themselves. 

It was the limits of industrial politics that prompted me to seek real solutions to my worries; this brought me to the socialist cause. Soon after, I joined the Labour Party and found my home within the Labour Left, finding myself under the tutelage of John McDonnell and later (although to a much more limited extent) Tony Benn.

The Labour Left prior to 2015 was a very different beast to the Labour Left of today. It was incredibly insular in nature and more focused on itself than the party, let alone what was going on outside of it. It was detached from the wider left as a whole, it had no foot in the myriad of social movements that had sprung up in the decade or so prior. The fact it was propelled to the leadership was as much an act of pure luck as it was a spontaneous uprising of the ‘movement of movements’ we hoped to create in Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. 

In 2015, many in our number were not prepared for the challenges ahead of us. When I tried to raise the issues at the time, I found myself cast out of the first Jeremy Corbyn leadership campaign. Even as the level of entrenched opposition to socialism became clear within the party, and the degree to which right-wing elements were prepared to play the role of saboteurs, the warnings I raised about our political direction seemed to fall on deaf ears.

Momentum’s Beginnings

There have been many worthwhile critiques of Momentum in recent months, a number of which I substantially agree with. However, when people point to Momentum’s failings, they often start with the undemocratic imposition of the organisation’s constitution in late 2016. While many are right to criticise the processes involved, I think it’s wrong to make this controversy that moment where the problems began. 

The root of Momentum’s ills as an organisation go right back to its foundation – and although I wasn’t involved, I had the benefit of observing closely. The organisation was founded in early October 2015 in conditions not of its own making. The abundance of pressure coming from above (in the form of the party leadership) and below (the movement that had propelled Corbyn to the leadership) led to the launching of an organisation without a clear plan of what it sought to achieve, without a structure or strategy. 

Momentum was more of an idea than anything concrete. This meant that the organisation quickly became all things to all people. Many of those active on the pre-2015 Labour Left wanted simply to recreate their already exisiting organisations on a much larger scale, while those who had just joined the ranks of the Labour Left wanted something that was outward-facing and focused on building a social movement that could propel Labour to power.

Momentum’s structures were initially dominated by the pre-2015 Labour Left. I know this to be true as I was a member of the original National Committee and attended its meetings where I already knew two thirds of the attendees by name or face from years gone by. It simply wasn’t representative of the movement that had propelled the Labour Left to its leading role in the party, nor was it representative of the 30,000 or so people that had joined Momentum, many of whom did not participate in or were not represented by local groups. Further to this, the post-2015 Labour Left were themselves divided over what Momentum’s purpose should be.

There were two main strategic poles. The first believed that Momentum should act as an engine for change inside of the party, spearheading the democratisation and wholesale socialist transformation of the party and the adoption of a socialist programme. The second saw Momentum as a coordinating body for activists in the wider society who aimed to build campaigns, organisations and ultimately power sufficient to not only secure a socialist-led Labour government but to carry that government’s policy platform through. 

For the next year and a half, a battle was waged inside of Momentum between these two proposals, with neither side realising the obvious — that for the Labour Left to succeed it needed to do both. In the end, it failed to do either.

The battle over the constitution saw the first side win out, but facing its own problems. As the sociologist Robert Michels pointed out over a century ago, the mere existence of an organisation creates the conditions for the establishment of political oligarchy. Momentum itself developed a bureaucracy to rival that of the party. Many criticisms have been levelled at the organisation’s leadership – and on some of these aspects, such as the dilution of reform proposals in the Democracy Review, I share a number of these myself. But it’s important to understand that this isn’t Momentum’s only bureaucratic malaise.

A substantial proportion of people running Momentum were people who volunteered full-time at the dawn of its creation. If we’re honest, these are people who got into their positions only because they had the financial means that afforded them the opportunity to devote endless unpaid hours to a project based in central London. Jobs were mostly given out on the basis of the experience that people had gained as full-time volunteers. This is not the way to build working-class organisations, full stop. So the problems are not just ‘at the top,’ they run right through Momentum — and include many people who are backing the Forward Momentum project today.

A Better Momentum

Recent defeats have highlighted Momentum’s failings more acutely than any other time in the organisation’s existence. The right-wing resurgence in the party is now in full swing, largely because of a failure to not only win the hearts of the membership but their minds as well. Precious little work was done in political education over the past five years; rather than building their intellectual and organisational capacities activists were treated as tools for mobilisation, especially around elections. 

In part this is due to the fact Momentum was never explicitly a socialist organisation. In fact, the word socialism doesn’t appear once on its website’s homepage, and appears only once on the ‘About’ section. This is not a small problem — if the socialist wing of the Labour Party, whose aim is to win the party for socialism, cannot even define what its vision of socialism is, then it is fundamentally unsuited to the task it has set itself. This helps to explain, too, why political education was so lacking — how can an organisation with such limited attachment socialism hope to make socialists of its members? 

The failure to fight the battle for socialist ideas in the movement had deep strategic consequences. In place of a rigorous left-wing strategy, Corbynism too often fell back on doing deals with the trade union bureaucracy for piecemeal reforms to the party’s apparatus and constitution. If you want to win real constitutional, organisational and cultural change in the party you have to organise amongst the rank-and-file in the unions to win support and commitment for those changes within the unions. Campaigning for greater democracy in the party will inevitably raise the question of greater democracy in the unions, hence the trade union bureaucracy’s lacklustre support.

Momentum largely failed to do this due to pressure from the party leadership not to rock the boat. Corbyn and McDonnell believe in greater party democracy in theory, but if the Democracy Review is evidence of anything it is that, in practice, they shied away from the fight. The reason for this is that the Corbyn coalition was never fully committed to the project of party transformation. The easiest solution in the face of this reality is to cry ‘betrayal,’ but that isn’t learning the lessons of the past five years. We need a left that is clearer in its socialist commitments and capable of carrying through the complex institutional battles in the party and the wider movement, not one which retreats into its marginal spaces where battles rarely have much meaning.

As I see it, the immediate tasks for Momentum moving forward are:

  1. Building a new generation of democratic socialist activists who are not weighed down by the failures of the past. This would mean building a comprehensive political education programme for Momentum members that would cover everything from procedural classes to political economy. This should include the employment of a political education officer directly under the supervision of a political education working group of the NCG.
  2. The creation of a trade union section that focuses on working with trade union broad left sections , including those not affiliated to the party. These efforts should be aided by the hiring of a trade union organiser under the democratic control of the NCG and representatives of the rank-and-file.
  3. An open and participatory process to rewrite Momentum’s constitution, led by the NCG under the parameters set by the membership via online democratic engagement. This is necessary to make the organisation fit for purpose, truly democratic and structurally dynamic.
  4. The development of a comprehensive programme for party reform that covers not just constitutional changes but proposals for changes in party organisation and culture.
  5. Mass engagement in community organisation and social movements in such a way to play a positive participatory role, to learn from the masses as to what their demands are and to be capable of articulating a socialist response to them.

These are the priorities I want to see Momentum organising around. After much thought, consultation, and encouragement from a diverse range of comrades across the labour movement, I’ve decided to put myself forward as a candidate in the forthcoming elections to Momentum’s NCG. I am doing so on the basis of wanting to resolve the issues I have outlined above, and the desire to build a fighting socialist organisation that can succeed at not only democratising the labour movement but society itself. If you agree with these outlined principles, then I hope you will trust me with your vote.