I remember my first real experience of the collective solidarity and potential of Momentum. At the time I was a local trade union rep embroiled in a bitter dispute with Fire bosses over attacks on firefighters, and we were well on our way to taking strike action.
It was about four years ago and as one of the reps leading that dispute, I was asked by the first of many local Momentum groups to speak at their meetings. What struck me as I entered the back room of a fitness gym in Walsall was that the atmosphere didn’t feel like your average Labour Party meeting. The room was packed with enthusiastic activists, all eager to discuss the situation and get stuck into campaigning.
It probably goes without saying that this Momentum group, along with all the other local groups I spoke to, committed their full support to my trade union and its members. In the weeks following, they backed that up with concrete solidarity and action.
They lobbied councillors, wrote letters, used social media, gathered petition signatories – and none of this went unnoticed by the firefighters who felt boosted by their efforts. The dispute ended successfully and as much as it was the firefighters’ steely determination that ultimately won it, this was the first time that I could personally remember when Labour Party activists had organised effectively to support a trade union in this way. This was Momentum at its best.
As I began to get involved in Forward Momentum and discuss what the future of Momentum should look like, Walsall was the first group whose views I wanted to seek.
But things have changed since four years ago. A vibrant group of activists has been ground down by unwarranted attacks, a succession of problems in Momentum, and disillusionment with the Labour Party’s recent setbacks, and their numbers have dwindled.
Yet the drive is still there. The principles of the Corbyn surge that brought them together remain but they are desperate to rebuild a Momentum that is fit for the new era. To do that, Momentum must change.
Momentum has always had criticism from across the political divides. Much of it is unfair, but much of it is warranted. Some of you will recognise it from experience, as those activists in Walsall did.
Momentum’s leadership has often ignored or worked against local groups – failing to provide support, cutting members off from key decisions, helping to impose unpopular and often unsuccessful candidates, and contacting them only to ask for money or to vote in an unengaging ballot.
Not only has the Momentum leadership lost touch with the members, it often feels like it’s lost touch with class struggle. Because without any real mechanisms to hold the leadership to account, they have failed to take the lead and have lasting success in areas that members want to see real progress: supporting militant workplace struggles and organising inside the Labour Party.
Many of us launched Forward Momentum to change this. Our vision is to transform what Momentum does and how it does it: re-energising and uniting the Labour left and strengthening its commitment to organising in working-class communities.
Momentum’s role should be to build vibrant networks of activists, focused on democratising the party, engaging in political education and winning votes on conference floor. But Momentum should also give local groups the support and resources they need to organise around workplace and class struggles, rooting our politics in working-class communities and borderless solidarity – not staking everything on a Labour government alone.
Balancing priorities has always been a challenge for Momentum and it would continue to be. What will make it possible is a genuinely democratic and member-led Momentum, another aim of Forward Momentum. But this isn’t democracy for democracy’s sake. Even though we have made clear from the start that the democratic commitments on Momentum members shouldn’t be onerous, the simple fact is that democracy builds investment, capacity and perhaps above all else, unity.
If Momentum members had been meaningfully asked in 2018 about Open Selections then they would have certainly backed them, and Labour Party Conference 2018 may have turned out differently. Our defence of Corbyn against right-wing smears, many of which came from within our own movement, would have been more organised and robust.
If members have a real stake in Momentum’s decision-making and a say over how resources are allocated, they are far more likely to follow through with action on a local level, and Momentum is much more likely to be successful.
But democracy is about culture too. While Momentum’s initial appeal was huge – reaching far beyond usual left circles – many members have struggled to fit in: worried that they do not know enough about political theory or made to feel unwelcome by cliques and faction-fighting. For many workers bought into politics by the Corbyn surge, Momentum was a world away from their struggles on the shop floor and the two were disjoined.
This can partially be solved by the better involvement of trade unions, especially rank and file members, but it can be also improved by opening up spaces in Momentum for productive discussion and political education. This has happened in some Momentum groups, but Momentum nationally should support every group to do this.
These are just some of the ideas that we think are necessary to transform Momentum, and many thousands of Momentum members have their own ideas that must be listened to.
Forward Momentum has become the main home for these ideas, and over 4,000 people have signed up to the campaign. Almost half of these voted in our open primaries to democratically decide which candidates would represent the campaign in the upcoming NCG elections, where we’re hoping to bring about a change of leadership but more importantly a change of direction for Momentum. If we win, we’ll make sure we deliver nothing less.
Yet when Forward Momentum first launched, one of the accusations we faced was that we were splitting the left at a time when unity was essential. Unity is important, and we’ve seen the consequences of disunity with the left failing to keep a majority on the NEC, Labour’s ruling body.
But unity can’t just be imposed from above, or by one group over another. No one person or one faction has ownership over the correct position, and they do not have the right to dictate to grassroots members. Unfortunately, this attitude has often been present in Momentum, and it usually has the exact opposite effect, causing division and disunity. Because unity does not come from demanding “unity” the loudest.
Nor does it mean compromising our socialist beliefs or sacrificing our democratic principles. Quite the opposite. Momentum will only become the united organisation we need if it allows members a proper say in shaping its direction, it’s strategy and goals. And through a process of engagement and discussion, Momentum must lead in forging real unity across the many organisations of the Labour left, without the bitter sectarianism that has blighted our debate in recent years. Our ultimate goal is to foster a consensual environment where left unity is more likely, not less.
This is needed now more than ever. We are at a historic crossroads. The last few years have seen some of our greatest victories and our worst defeats. We cannot go back to the Corbyn years and we must not go back to the New Labour years. We need to learn the lessons of success and failure, and build an organisation that makes the socialist left stronger. For that to happen we need a truly democratic, member-led organisation rooted in class struggle, with the power to organise and win both inside the Labour Party and in our communities. Momentum can be that organisation, but only if we all decide to change it.