The online discussions of the LP leaked report have made me reflect sadly on the first year of Momentum back in 2016.
I joined the LP on 9th September 2015, the day Jeremy Corbyn was elected party leader. By January 2016, 3 months later, there had been no meeting of my local CLP, Stratford Upon Avon, or my local branch, Shipston-on-Stour. I had had only one email from the CLP which was a sniffy reponse to my offer to help set up a branch meeting in Shipston.
I had partly joined the party in order to connect with fellow Corbyn supporters in the LP but instead still felt as isolated as I had before I joined. So I contacted Momentum and asked if there was a local group. There wasn’t so I asked if I could start one. They said please do. So I did.
They requested that Momentum groups did not replicate the constituency structure of the LP (in order to avoid the development of a party within a party), so I decided to set up “South Warwickshire Momentum” that covered my own CLP, Stratford Upon Avon, plus Warwick & Leamington CLP and Kenilworth & Southam CLP.
The very first meeting of South Warwickshire Momentum in January 2016 was publicised through Momentum’s database and unfortunately myself and only 5 others were present. Two were people I’d invited but two were from my own constituency and luckily the fifth was an experienced Labour party member from Warwick & Leamington CLP and he helped us put together a plan to reach wider numbers.
The second South Warwickshire Momentum meeting was in February and was held in Warwick to be geographically more in the centre of the area we covered. Over 20 people attended from all three constituencies plus visitors from the Coventry Momentum group. It was now clear the group was a real possibility.
The Third meeting in March had over 50 people present and now we were really motoring. We met monthly and by the Autumn of 2016 South Warwickshire Momentum was attracting 100+ to our meetings from across South Warwickshire with visitors from Coventry and Nuneaton regularly attending.
Warwick and Leamington and Kenilworth were well run CLP’s and indeed in 2017 Labour won the Warwick and Leamington seat with Matt Western becoming the MP and retaining the seat in 2019.
Stratford upon Avon however was an almost entirely dysfunctional CLP run by a radical Blairite who did not believe that the LP should be ‘member led’. Thus he ran the CLP like a private company with him as the only director. He was CLP Chair, Secretary, parliamentary candidate, conference delegate and everything else you care to mention. His wife was Treasurer.
So those of us in Stratford had a fight on our hands but the mood at our Momentum meetings was fantastic. Lots of laughter, lots of unity, lots of hope.
It was the Momentum policy at the time to allow those who were not members of the LP and even those who were members of other political parties, to join Momentum. The initial aims of Momentum were two fold, (i) To fight for democracy in the LP (ii) To recruit unaligned lefty’s to the LP (iii) To reconnect the Labour Party with the wider Labour Movement. Thus we had members of our Momentum group from no political party, from the Green Party, the CP and the SWP – And these comrades contributed hugely to our conversations and there was no factionalism and no ill will between any of the groups.
We had film screenings, cultural discussions and socials along with normal political discussions and committee business. Strangers from across the left and from across the whole of South Warwickshire and beyond became not just comrades-in-arms but friends.
Our members attended meetings of the West Midlands Regional Momentum group; attended Momentum meetings in Coventry and Nuneaton; played a significant part in the demonstrations against the Tory conference that year in Birmingham; twice spoke on platforms alongside Chris Williamson, (who was not then an MP and worked tirelessly for the LP.)
The highlight of the year for many of us was when we attended the first and most amazing World Transformed Festival at the LP conference in Liverpool in September 2016. This Momentum event was radical, exciting and important. As an alternative to the besuited, corporate hell that is the LP conference, it was packed all day everyday. A truly transformative thing to be part of.
Indeed, all the political energy of that years’s Labour Party Conference was at The World Transformed rather than the Conference itself. When Ken Loach, John McDonnell and Corbyn himself came down to the World Transformed the place was bulging not just with punters but with energy and it felt like a whole new politics was indeed possible.
The make-up of our South Warwickshire Momentum members included people who had been in the LP for 40 years but the vast majority of our members were new to the Labour Party and indeed new to politics.
The idea that Momentum was dominated by the old-school Trots of Militant from the 70’s and 80’s was certainly NOT true in South Warwickshire. In fact the political naivety of the new members was a bit of a worry but their almost complete lack of knowledge about and lack of interest in, old-school left factionalism was refreshing to say the least!
Thus the political and social energy of Momentum in 2016 was a truly amazing thing to be part of. It really, really, felt as if something different was happening on the left and to British politics in general…
Then the awful spectre of corporate Labourism raised its ugly head and very, very quickly it all turned to shit.
The first sign of this at group level was Jackie Walker being summarily removed from the National Exec of Momentum. In turn this led to the realisation that Momentum had been established by Jon Lansman as private limited company that only had two directors. This company owned the database and all the money that had come in from membership fees and donations. It meant that Jon Lansman literally ‘owned’ Momentum.
Thus it became very, very urgent that the members try to establish a democratic constitution for Momentum. A putative bottom-up structure had already evolved with the local groups being the centre of Momentum’s power and energy and with a Regional Structure and National Committee coordinating the groups with the Corbyn leadership and providing resources such as a databases, graphics and social media coordination etc.
In late 2016 it was agreed by the Momentum Exec that there would be a Constitutional Conference in Spring 2017 to decide on the constitution. The local groups and various pressure groups started putting forward constitutional models for discussion at the conference and it was all perfectly amicable and comradely.
However, the mood had already changed by then as the spectre of left factionalism and top-down Labourism was already casting a long shadow over Momentum.
Then came the death blow. In, I think, the second week of January 2017 Jon Lansman unilaterally issued a new constitution for Momentum.
As already mentioned he had the legal right to do this because he ‘owned’ Momentum. This Lansman constitution was presented to us all as THE legal constitution that applied from that moment on and was not open for discussion.
This new constitution made it clear that local groups had no voting rights on policy and could not send delegates to the region because the regional committees themselves no longer had voting rights and did not elect delegates to the Exec. Indeed, we were told the ONLY ‘democracy’ in the new Momentum would be online one-man-one-vote referendums on questions chosen by and presented by an Exec appointed by Jon Lansman.
In one stroke Jon Lansman had killed the very momentum that Momentum had been formed to ride…
It took a few weeks to sink in of course as people tried to process what had happened and look for a way to take back democratic control of the organisation, but Lansman’s company owned the Momentum database and all the membership money and donations and there was nothing that could be done.
By Easter 2017 it was all over; all but a handful of local Momentum groups disbanded and Momentum became an internal LP electioneering machine controlled exclusively by Jon Lansman. As such it was useful to Corbyn in the 2017 election but as the fake Antisemitism crisis started to gain traction Lansman, understandably but actually unforgivably, chose to side with those using fake allegations of Antisemitism to destroy Corbyn. By the 2019 election Momentum was an entirely busted flush and was entirely incidental to the election result.
In my view next to the Brexit referendum result, the Lansman Coup of Momentum was the most important single event that contributed to Corbyn’s ultimate defeat.
At the time I simply couldn’t understand the thinking that went into Lansman decision. For a while I tried to find solace in groups such as Labour Against The Witchunt, the Campaign For Labour Democracy and the Labour Left Alliance. But soon I started to notice a pattern of thought and behaviour in all of these LP sub-groups that I really didn’t like.
For example my first LAW meeting saw the expulsion of one of its founding members on extremely tenuous grounds – basically he had refused to comply with an order from a member of the Exec . I couldn’t believe it! An organisation set up to fight for those expelled from the LP was now expelling it’s own members! You couldn’t make this shit up.
Eventually I worked it out. All these organisations including Lansman’s Momentum are led by long-time members of the LP and are all to a greater or lesser extent infected with a a habit of political thought and action that some people call Labourism.
Both left and right are infected with this Labourist notion of politics that I would describe as having five main characteristics:
- That ONLY the corporate Labour Party can EVER be the vehicle for progressive social and economic change in the UK and that thus the LP has ALWAYS to encompass a ‘broad church’ that is effectively an unacknowledged coalition of various anti-Tory groupings from centrist liberals to revolutionary socialists that in Europe under proportional representation would all be separate parties. Thus in the UK the vitriolic factionalism so common to the global left is articulated within the LP. This inevitably leads to a culture of perpetual and extremely bitter internal battling between ideological and political opponents.
- In this Labourist world-view the “Labour Movement” simply refers to the Labour Party and the Trade Unions allied to the Labour Party. No one else belongs to the ‘Labour Movement’ – The Green Party, the CP, the SWP, non-aligned leftists, anarchists, etc, are all regarded as ‘illegitimate’ in some ill-defined way and beyond the pale. Thus the LP purposefully seeks to distance itself rhetorically and practically from everyone who is not in the LP and/or the trade union movement.
- Labourism also regards ‘politics’ as ONLY involving striving to win elections. Grassroots activism, counter-culture, history and political philosophy are only relevant to the extent that they help Labour candidates win elections. Labourist culture seems to reject concepts of hegemony and the importance of activism and counter- culture in shaping of political opinion – except in the narrow sense of Labour activists pounding the streets and manning the phones at election time and the (often inept) use of advertising techniques to ‘sell’ the party to the electorate.
- And for many from both the left and right of the Labour Party internal party ‘democracy’ is only useful to the extent that it helps candidates win elections. The leadership and the bureaucracy, have been in a perpetual battle with the trade unions and the membership since the party was formed in 1904. Labour leaders of both left and right regard anyone capable of independent thought or action as a potential threat to their ability to win elections.
- Progressive social change has been achieved through grass roots activism throughout history. The fight for Civil Liberties in the USA was fought almost entirely outside the mainstream political parties. Similarly the feminist movement and anti-racist movements in the UK were led and organised almost entirely from outside the LP. Yet the idea of grassroots activists actually helping people on the ground or independently campaigning on specific issues, rather than simply electioneering on behalf of professional politicians, is an anathema to Labour Party culture.
That first year of Momentum was almost completely devoid of this narrow Labourist perspective and the aim of “reconnecting the Labour Party with the wider Labour Movement” was interpreted by many of us as reconnecting the Labour Party with the wider socialist left. Grassroots activism and counter-culture were central to the culture of Momentum as it developed.(1)
In my view this is why Momentum generated so much energy and potential transformative power. Momentum in 2016 was reaching out beyond the Labour Party and was inventing a new way of doing left politics. The problem was that even the Corbyn left in the Party saw this potential as a threat to their Labourist view of what is acceptable politics.
Rumour has it that John McDonnell was the instigator of the Lansman Coup of Momentum. This surprised and bitterly disappointed me at the time because I was unaware of the ubiquitous dominance of Labourism within the party. But I would not have been surprised if I had understood that both McDonnell and Corbyn have been in the LP for over 40 years and are obviously both infected with this peculiar, insular, attitude to socialism and left politics.
All this convinces that the Labour Party is not the solution, instead it is sadly a massive part of the problem.
The inspiring year of 2016 shows me that a new party of the left could generate the power and energy of that first year of Momentum but it would require at least 50% of the big unions to split with the Labour Party and ultimately to stop the Tories dominating if the left was split we would need proportional representation and formal coalitions.
I’m not optimistic that is possible but I am also absolutely certain that the Labour Party is not reformable and fighting within the LP is a waste of political energy.