Momentum: An analysis of the latest Rows.
New Kind of Politics?
The Independent reports,
Labour’s grassroots movement risks being taken over by a ‘disruptive, over-bearing and ultra’left’ faction, according to a new member of its national committee
Trotskyists are a ‘vocal, disruptive and over-bearing’ presence within Momentum, whose ‘sectarian attitude is destructive to our movement,’ according to a new member of its central committee.
Laura Murray, who also works as Special Advisor to Labour Shadow Housing Minister Teresa Pearce, attended her first Momentum Committee, since being elected to the post of Women’s Representative, and has written a lengthy and scathing blogpost of the divisions within the movement that evolved from the campaign to elect Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015.
Ms Murray said Momentum “would be engaging in collective self-denial if we were to downplay [Trotskyism’s] prevalence in Momentum. Dyed-in-the-wool Trotskyists are not the majority in Momentum. But they are a vocal, disruptive and over-bearing minority who have won themselves key position in the regional committees, National Committee and even the Steering Committee.”
Labour List led the way this morning with its account of the Momentum splits:
Fresh splits have emerged in Momentum in the aftermath of a crunch meeting to decide on reforms to internal democracy.
Laura Murray, women’s representative, has claimed that the tactics of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty are contributing to a form of “hard-left warfare” in the Corbynite group.
She published a highly critical blog, following Saturday’s meeting of Momentum’s national committee, in which she alleged there was a “plot” to oust Jon Lansman, chairman and veteran Bennite organiser.
Murray said the two suggested groups in Momentum – those from a Labour Party background and those from movements such as Occupy and UK Uncut – had been joined by a Trotskyite faction.
“Some people take offence at this term being used — understandably, as it is Tom Watson and the Labour right’s insult of choice for us. But we would be engaging in collective self-denial if we were to downplay it’s prevalence in Momentum,” she wrote on Medium.
“Dyed-in-the-wool Trotskyists are not the majority in Momentum. But they are a vocal, disruptive and over-bearing minority who have won themselves key position in the regional committees, National Committee and even the Steering Committee. To be clear, I am not anti-Trotskyist per se, and I recognise the enormous contributions that some Trotskyist thinkers and groups have made to political discourse, but the sectarian attitude taken by Trotskyist groups within Momentum is destructive to our movement.”
Nobody from Momentum could be reached to comment immediately.
They also noted,
Controversial activists Jackie Walker has been elected to a key organising role at Momentum.
Walker, who was removed as vice-chair earlier this autumn after offending many with comments about anti-Semitism, has won a place on the conference arrangements committee at Momentum’s national committee meeting.
The meeting, on Saturday, came after repeated cancellations of the meeting by the steering committee, which meant that the national committee had not met in seven months.
Walker, who was suspended from the Labour party over comments made about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, was removed from her position as vice-chair of Momentum in the wake of her suspension from Labour.
Walker said she had not found a definition of anti-Semitism she could “work with”, and accused Holocaust Nemorial Day of not being sufficiently inclusive in an outburst at a Jewish Labour Movement event at Labour conference, which was filmed and subsequently leaked.
Numerous senior Momentum figures were said to be deeply unhappy with her remarks, and the head of the TSSA union Manuel Cortes described her views as “abhorrent”. Walker, who is Jewish, later apologised.
Laura Catriona Murray‘s controversial Blog began,
Waking up the morning after the Momentum National Committee, I had that feeling you have after a horrible break-up from someone you love. When you momentarily forget what happened, then you remember and the feeling of loss comes crushing down on you like a ton of bricks all over again.
She cites as a basis for her analysis: Lewis Bassett of Lambeth Momentum has eloquently described the inevitable conflict between the two political strands which merged with Momentum’s inception — Labourism, those people steeped in the traditions and ideology of the British Labour movement, and Movementism, those activists which had previously spurned party-politics in favour of innovative and exciting campaigning organisations like Occupy, UK Uncut and Climate Camp.
Bassett summarises his argument:
I cover three developments of Corbyn’s left-wing advance guard, the extra-parliamentary group that evolved out of Corbyn’s initial leadership campaign: first the transition from “social movement” activism to parliamentarianism; second, how the extra-parliamentary politics of post-movementist activists are being tapered by the Labour Party; and third, the way movementist tropes regarding democracy are being operationalised in order to sideline the decision-making structures in Momentum which benefit the traditional left. I end with a critique of the traditional left’s position in Momentum at present.
My experience suggests that “social movement” activists from the recent period of struggle (the alter-Globalisation era) have had a tendency to prefigure the world they want to see, such that at times they have announced the premature death of an existing one. These proclamations have often included the death of the nation state as well as the traditional left which, it turns out, have only been dormant.
In the first part of his analysis Bassett is not uncritical of “movementism”. He describes them in abstract terms – the shift to “state-centred” strategies and then offers an outline of how the Greek left, Syriza has operated in the face of the restless hostility of the EU Troika, which is a largely external and hard-fought over history. Discussing Podemos, he alludes to the centralisation of the party, from its initial circle based democracy, to the present day centralised -E-democracy. Bassett does not discuss the possibility that the adoption of some of the recipes from Laclau and Mouffe’s analysis of ‘populism’. That is, how to articulate political protest through relations of “equivalence” into a machine that pits the People against the ‘Casta’ (the ‘elites’ as French and English language populists call it), and the importance Laclau gave to strong leadership figures to do this.
Bassett however does not discuss the organising principles that have come to the fore in many (post the new millennium) social movements, from Occupy onwards. Consensus-decision making, with its roots in 1970s US feminism and the Quakers, is considered by many activists to have been an obstacle to wider participation – how it could be applied to Momentum is a thought worth considering! He also does not mention that the latest widely publicised social movement, Nuit Debout in France collapsed this summer without making any serious impact at all beyond a limited circle of activists. One of the reasons lay in these organising forms (although the Place de la République meetings allowed a modified form of majority voting).
Bassett continues in terms of a contrast between the two trends he cited above.
Or rather he does not discuss what exactly the ‘traditional’ left is.
One could argue that ‘social movement’ trend has the same 1960s and 1970s origins as the present Labour and an important section of the extra-Labour far-left. One only needs to look at post-May 68 in France to see both trends (themselves a galaxy of different approaches) converging, party, anti-party, movementist, a revival or mainstream political parties. The British left saw a similar, if much less profound, emergence of differing, but allied, currents.
Both were marked by political and social objectives wider than capturing the existing state structure (ideas about participation), recognition of the importance of issues of gender, sexuality, cultural and ethnic (‘race’) oppression, and an expressed wish for more democratic political forms.
No doubt what might be called ‘traditional’ is an emphasis on the central importance of class inequality and class struggle, (the more radical ideas of self-management and workers’ control were also developed) but each strand is recognisable as part of what was once called the ‘New Left‘.
These priorities, this cultural shift, extended to some nominally Leninist – or ‘Trotskyist’ groups – though clearly not to others who remain thoroughly – and mendaciously – anti-democratic.
An interchange between these different strands happened during the Rise of the Labour Left, from the late ‘seventies till the ‘eighties. The late ’80s Chesterfield Socialist Conferences, supported by Tony Benn, were perhaps one of the best known examples of this approach, arguing for socialist and social movement initiatives “inside” and “outside” the State.
Therefore it is not without precedent or surprising that this happened,
…social movement’ actors and organizations became inflected by an emphasis on class as well as a renewed awareness of the material and ideological power of the nation state, which, in the theories that had been popular among the movementists, was thought about only in terms of its erosion (eg Hardt and Negri, 2001). This shift in political consciousness was the prerequisite for ‘social movement’ activists adopting state-centered strategies.
Having worked with Negri I am sure he would be flattered at this degree of influence, though I doubt if anybody moved from the “multitude” to the Labour Party through any deep reading of, say, Commonwealth (2009) to seeing the Labour Party as a vehicle for establishing the ‘common’.
The reason for the support for these activists is a lot simpler: Corbyn’s election to the head of the Labour Party….
The two trajectories discussed here – the movementist and the traditional left – converged on Momentum. Corbyn’s election demonstrated an organic demand for a movement that could outpace the Party in terms of organizing. Tens of independent meetings were held to discuss the victory and ask where next, while in many official Party Ward and Constituency meetings the election was brushed over with an embarrassed shudder by the caste of incumbents.
There are good reasons for this: if these activists intend to pursue their own strategy – protest – how are they going to govern?
A centre to Momentum began to crystalize around the right to possess and access the data gathered during the leadership campaign. The names and contact details of tens of thousands of supporters were made the possession of a board of trusties composed of several Corbyn-friendly MPs and the seasoned Labour Party activist Jon Lansman. With a name provided by popular left-wing commentator Owen Jones, Momentum was officially founded and all other independent pro-Corbyn initiatives and the mass of supporters accepted the branding.
Bassett outlines the internal situation:
At the newly-formed centre, Lansman and behind him a network of activists with deep roots to long embittered struggles within the Labour Party, represented one pole of attraction; on the other were the three members of staff and group of unpaid volunteers drawn from the leadership campaign, among them James Schneider whose own checkered political history diverges dramatically from that of the typically “tribalist” Labour Party activist. Schneider’s thoughts on the development of Momentum reveal his intellectual “fit” with the movementist trend, evidenced by a weariness of trade union practices (motions and delegates, for example), a preference for UK:Uncut style tactics and an expressed desire to make the Labour Party “more like a social movement” (Schneider, 2016). Unprepared and under siege (both within and outside of the Party) Momentum’s centre and Corbyn’s offices contributed next to nothing that would definitively shape the early development of the organisation. Likewise Lansman’s initial efforts to limit and control the spread of local groups was counterbalanced by the movementists in Momentum’s office who ensured a laissez-faire approach. The result was that the aims and structure of Momentum took shape without a shred of authoritative guidance, a power vacuum into which the traditional left gained ascendance.
Can the ‘social movement’ and the traditional left trajectories work together productively? It is possible that the traditional left has the ideological maturity to counter a post-movementist turn to short-termist Fabianism. On the other hand the movementists offer a useful skepticism regarding bureaucracy and a greater sense of post-colonial and contemporary feminist perspectives. Between the two tendencies is Momentum’s office, the core of which will be probably unwilling to hand over the keys to any national structure that fails to make Labour the movement’s primary vehicle.
Whether this is the real division in Momentum remains open to discussion.
Murray makes the reasonable critical point of how Saturday’s Momentum meeting seemed to be developing which locates the most immediate problem.
This system of using inwardly-focussed and off-putting meetings to elect delegates to hierarchical structures and to discuss motions which are very rarely implemented has failed the left for at least the last century.
It is fairly obvious that the present clashes are leading away from either possibility: towards faction fights, people advancing their personal bug-bears (see ‘anti-Zionism’ above).
Murray’s own comments are hardly above the fray,
the AWL — a group with such extreme Trotskyist politics that they are almost a caricature of themselves — and their fellow travellers. Subtle support for imperialist wars, uncritical support for Israel and fanatical support for the European Union are amongst their policies.
It is perhaps not a good idea to make up the political views of your opponents when you complain about ‘factionalism’, as this farrago indicates…
Though many will sympathise with this more considered judgement:
those who feel very supportive of Jackie Walker, many of whom know her through the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) or anti-racism campaigning, and feel outraged that she was removed as Momentum’s Vice-Chair. I have sympathy for this group because I’ve campaigned for Palestine my entire adult life and know that censorship of free speech on Israel is a very real and dangerous thing. However, I — like many others — believe that Jackie Walker’s comments on Holocaust Memorial Day and security in Jewish schools were insensitive, unnecessary and entirely inappropriate to make at Labour Party conference, as Vice-Chair of Momentum. The rage felt by many when she was removed as Vice-Chair — which was a badly-handled and unpleasant affair — has rendered them unable to grasp the nuance of the situation and unable to appreciate that the action taken by Momentum’s Steering Committee was a reasonable compromise in the face of an escalating situation which Jackie Walker herself could have easily avoided.
Seven months in which those who rallied around Jackie Walker had their initial hurt and anger stoked by baseless allegations of racism and of a ‘Zionist conspiracy’ against absolutely everybody who didn’t agree with them. Seven months in which these various groups did their upmost to whip everyone else up into a frenzied atmosphere of hatred of Jon Lansman. Online and in local groups, Jon Lansman is demonised, vilified and dehumanised by people who have comparatively not committed an iota of time or energy to the cause of the left in their lives.
I can only say that the more I hear against Landsman the more I concur with Murray’s statement.
In fact the more I hear the more I like Landsman.
But I personally want the Labour Party to be a successful democratic socialist party, with a modern European radical left programme.
I do not want it to be just a “social movement”. I do not want it to be a play-ground for left factions.
I want it to change this country, as part of an internationalist left movement that transforms the world, starting with Europe.
On the evidence Momentum is not, at present, part of that future.
As counter-evidence one can read Michael Chessum’s eminently sane report: Thoughts on finding a positive way forward after the Momentum NC.
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