Momentum: don’t break it!

December 5, 2016 at 5:30 pm (campaigning, Johnny Lewis, labour party, political groups, reformism, sectarianism, stalinism)

By Johnny Lewis

From Labour’s defeat in 2015 socialists were confronted with two tasks: organising for Labour to win the next election and – regardless of its outcome – establishing Labour as a social democratic party; in effect transforming the Labour Party. While it is possible to work for a Labour victory without working for Labour to become a social democratic party it is inconceivable that transforming Labour can be achieved outside of the campaign to win the next election. These tasks were equally applicable in the wake of the 2010 defeat, the major changes being that Corbyn has massively increased the possibility of achieving the second of these goals and Labour is much closer to fragmenting under the impact of the populist Right.

It may be this timeline is truncated by a snap election (a disaster) it may be the tempo of the class struggle changes demanding a change in approach but these are maybes and we need to work from where we are rather then speculate on what might be.

Rather than seeing these tasks as a `struggle for socialism’ they are concerned with class power as both an election victory and Labour becoming a stable left wing party are predicated on how far we are able to halt the competition between workers and develop the class as a whole both in its material well-being and organisational strength. This approach stands in contrast to the idea of a faction which sees the Party as a recruitment opportunity or as a vehicle for the politics of identity. In the latter case parties, movements or campaigns are an aggregation of identity based groups and individuals are understood by, and political activity is mediated through ascription.

The class-based approach can only be undertaken by a tendency which holds on tight to the Labour Party, and is concerned with putting down roots in the working class movement and through its activity bring into its orbit existing labour movement activists, radicals who have joined through Corbyn and most importantly the union rank and file. The Party membership provides fertile ground for such a tendency as a majority of long-term constituency members are on the left alongside the Corbynistas

The many thousands who have joined in support of Corbyn fall into two groups 58% (106,521) were never in a political party – of the 42% ‘retreads’ 31% (56,933) are re-joining the party, the other 11% coming from the Greens and the far left. While the dominant ideological trend among the `never beens’ is  heavily influenced by identity politics (something many of the retreads have also absorbed), their core views are rooted in various strands of neo-Stalinism: support of Stop the War, failure to understand the importance of bourgeois democracy and the view of Jackie Walker as a ‘victim’.

Some 20,000 of these Party members are now in Momentum and it is Momentum which should be the crucible in which this class tendency is formed. It would do so by combining three interlocking areas of activity:

  1. Winning over other Labour Party members and pursuing the internal struggle to democratise the party.
  2. Taking part in Labour’s policy debate not by putting forward a programme rather taking proposals for discussion and debate. The model here is the Fabians and the most pressing proposals need to focus on an economic alternative.
  3. Campaigning activity: the primary aim of such activity would be to decouple the white working class vote from the populist right, to develop class consciousness to a point where workers are ready to vote Labour. Such campaigning activity should be undertaken jointly with the unions and dictated by Labour and the unions rather than Momentum or non-Labour party campaigns or organisations.

It is these practical and common tasks that should bind Momentum together as a class tendency while its activity would transform the Party, reconfigure relations between Party and unions and ‘reset’ Labour’s relations to the working class.  

Momentum is very far from becoming that tendency. They show little interest in such prosaic matters, rather they are focused on the three way factional dispute between the organised left, the neo- Stalinists (animated around Walker’s removal) and the leadership. By all accounts this is a vituperative fight infused by identity politics and has effectively paralysed the organisation: it would be astonishing if it were to survive another six months in its present form.

Standing behind the immediate issues which generated this faction fight is the broader question of Momentum’s relationship to the Labour Party. Although a majority view themselves as Labour Party supporters, the organised left and the retreads have introduced the ‘New Party’ question: ie the formation  of a new party or social movement (I use the shorthand NP to cover both) to supersede Labour. It is this conflict between transforming Labour and the NP which underpins the faction fight.

The NP proposition came to prominence during the heyday of anti-austerity campaigning and should have died with the 2015 election results.  At first glance its representation inside Momentum seems absurd but many of the  Corbynistas are but a sub-set of anti-austerity movement transposed into the Labour Party, and for many of them NP ideas are deeply embedded in their political makeup. This ambivalence towards Labour is also reflected in Momentum’s structure with its adherence to social movements and the frankly bizarre notion that it should be open to non-party members.

There are two types of NP advocates – those who have a casual attitude to the LP, viewing it as a convenient staging post to some undefined alternative and those who argue Momentum should take programmatic positions on a range of issues. Whatever type of alternative they may wish to peruse the crux of the matter is they view Momentum as the embryo of the NP and so its focus is always something other than the Labour Party. NP ideas are wrong-headed for a number of reasons – most obviously the lack of a mass movement to which they can engage.

It was the depth of the recession that determined one of two types of working class response to the economic crisis. Where the crisis was severe in Europe, political and state institutions come under pressure from below. Witness Spain where some 8 million participated in the 15-M Movement or Ireland where around 17% of the population demonstrated – equivalent demonstrations in the UK would have mobilised 4 million on the streets. In these cases, as with Greece, mass movements fragmented existing left parties and a process begun of establishing new political formations which have yet to mature into political parties. A second permutation which was seen in the UK was one where the crisis was limited. In this instance while the anti-austerity movement drew many into political activity it never reached the scale where it constituted a mass, insurgent, or social movement. Without such a mass base there was no pressure from below to challenge Labour to the point where it would fragment. Instead political institutions have remained largely intact with right wing populism and left wing radicalism flowing into their respective parties which moved them away from the centre ground to the political poles. This is not to argue these political institutions are not undergoing a process of degeneration rather the tempo and character is very different from counties where the recession was deepest.

As important as the scale of the movement is its social composition: where mass movements emerged there was a definable working class element, but this was not the case in the UK. The social profile of the Corbynistas, (a proxy for the anti-austerity movement) shows them to be similar to the pre- Corbyn Labour Party membership except a tad more middle class, socially liberal, politically radical and older.

Whatever variant of the NP project some Momentum members might hold, without a mass movement attempts to will the NP into existence are futile. Such NP supporters are, `trapped’ within the confines of the Labour Party’s existing structures and routines, and it is this reality Momentum’s NP supporters refuse to acknowledge.

Non-acceptance of this reality is expressed through counterposing a NP belief to the actual struggle taking place within the Labour Party. In practice this ‘non acceptance’ can take a number of forms, for example refusing to support a Labour Party campaign because its demands are not radical enough or believing one should run a Momentum campaign separate from the Party because `your’ demands are more radical, or attempting to get Momentum to adopt ‘your’ programme. In this manner the NP advocates separate themselves off from the struggle in the Party: this represents another form of sect building, well described by Hal Draper. The practical consequences are to separate themselves off from Momentum members who disagree with their programme and stymie Momentum’s activity within the Party.

While sect building is as old as the left, what is an altogether new twist (at least outside of a Stalinist state) is how the left has substituted Corbyn for the mass anti-austerity movement and in so doing has raised him up as the personification of that movement. His deification obscures any understanding that it is the Labour Party which oxygenates both Him and the Corbynistas. Without the Labour Party you could not have Corbyn, and outside of the Party he would rapidly wither on the vine while the Corbynistas would find themselves thrown back onto another imagined mass movement, the People Assembly. However to grasp this point would mean facing the fact the Party is not the repository of a mass movement which Momentum can somehow lead to a life independent of the Party.

It may be Momentum can pull back from the brink, although I doubt it has either the collective will or for that matter the interest. While the consequence of a split will lead to rancor and recrimination among the combatants it will also provide an unpalatable lesson for NP proponents. A cold wind will blow around the would be masters of the universe as they find there is no mass movement for them to lead rather like Corbyn they draw sustenance from the Labour Party and that their relationship is first and foremost with the Party not the Corbynistas.

A split however will do so much more. One has to ask what lesson those outside the faction fight will draw when they see on the one hand the populists at the gates and on the other hand Momentum’s response – a faction fight. While the factional participants will rationalise ‘the struggle’ the lessons most will draw is the inability of the left to ‘make’ anything of value. However the real tragedy is that the potential for transforming Labour will at best be set back indefinitely, but all too likely lost altogether. Such an outcome will play no small part in letting the populist Right breach Labour’s walls.

6 Comments

  1. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    ‘perusing the internal struggle to democratise the party’ – I presume you mean ‘pursue’?

    Can we not just all admit that ‘Momentum’ was a mistake?

    We already had a CLPD and a ‘Grassroots Alliance’ which could have been turned into something more than an electoral label to be slapped on NEC candidate leaflet every other year.

    But no, the normally sensible Jon Lansman just had to listen to the idiots prattling away about new social movements – and so we end up with something too diffuse to actually do anything useful like get actual left-wingers elected as conference delegates – and too bureaucratic and wedded to Labour to actually become a genuine social movement.

    I am actually rather grateful to Jackie Walker for making it impossible for me to join an organisation in which she is a prominent member.

    • Jim Denham said,

      Thanks for those comments, Roger. I have corrected the author’s spelling mistake.

  2. @pplswar said,

    Seems Lansman became ‘dizzy with success.’ Hopefully something like Sanders’ Our Revolution emerges out of the wreckage of Maomentum.

    • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      Too adapt Kant out of the crooked timber of the UK left no straight thing can ever be made…

      • @pplswar said,

        I’m slightly more optimistic. If hundreds or thousands of people participating in this mess don’t give up and learn the right lessons, perhaps the struggle won’t be for naught.

  3. Stephen Bellamy said,

    Can’t see any future between a rock ( Lansman and a hard place ( Mountford )

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