What kind of Momentum conference?
Momentum, the organisation created to advance Corbynista ideas within the labour movement and beyond, presents a tremendous opportunity. With 20,000 members, it provides a framework for organising discussions and activity that can take socialist ideas to a far wider audience than has been possible for generations.
Yet, reading the left media, a huge amount of energy appears to be focused, less on turning outward to engage this audience, than on turning inward to debate internal structures. Obviously, internal democracy is important and there have been serious concerns raised, that should not be underplayed, about controversial decisions taken by the organisation’s Steering Committee, at meetings convened at very short notice.
Much of the organisational debate is now centred on what kind of national conference Momentum needs. Unfortunately, discussion has quickly polarised between those who support a delegate-based conference, with attendees made up of delegates elected by local groups and affiliates, and those who favour One Member One Vote, with live streaming and online voting.
Personally I’m open-minded. I want whatever makes the 20,000 members who have joined Momentum feel engaged and that their input is valued. I want these new supporters to become active in spreading the Corbyn agenda into parts of society where it has yet to reach. I can of course see difficulties with an OMOV conference. The questions put in online plebiscites may be selected in advance by the leadership and may not be open to amendment. The whole approach is contrary to the traditions of the labour movement and I can see why trade union affiliates in particular are not keen. I would like a lot more information about how the new leftwing party in Spain, Podemos, used online techniques to construct their programme and engage their members.
But I don’t think the delegate model works ideally either. I’ve attended two London Regional Committees, made up of delegates from local groups. The first spent most of its time passing a range of policy resolutions and spent less than 15 minutes on organising around Party Conference or getting the leftwing slate elected to the NEC. The second started at 11am and finished at 4pm and didn’t even get around to the discussion on structures, so had to be reconvened a couple of weeks later.
In theory this London Regional Committee is composed of representatives from local groups. In practice, most of the people who have the appetite for a five hour meeting are highly committed activists, especially those from small left group present in Momentum. These groups also caucus beforehand and arrive with pre-prepared position papers on pretty much everything on the agenda, so debate polarises between different groups trying to win their line. Consensus becomes pretty much impossible. Ordinary members who want to build Momentum find this very frustrating.
In theory the delegates who attend these meetings have a mandate from their local groups and are accountable to them. In practice, this is dubious. I wonder if the delegate who moved opposition to supporting a broad Stop the Purge conference, focused on the witch-hunt inside the Party and sponsored by Bakers Union President Ronnie Draper, on the grounds that it was a “Zionist front”(!) had a mandate for his outburst. One of the London Region Committee delegates, Jill Mountford, was pretty annoyed about this sectarian attack - and rightly - but in her blog she criticises Jon Lansman for suggesting that Regional Committees might be unrepresentative. Nor was this an isolated example.
Clearly behind the discussion about structures there is a battle for control taking place. Some are complaining that the majority on the national Steering Committee are acting in a high-handed and bureaucratic fashion. But for some, their backing for a traditional delegate structure may just be the best tactic for empowering the hardcore activists, rather than the membership as a whole.
The left traditionally has been pretty good at squandering its chances, focusing on internal battles and polarising debate in ways that alienate large numbers of potential supporters. This time the stakes are far higher. We are under the spotlight as never before. No surprise then, that this discussion has found its way into the mainstream media. On October 21st The Times ran an article, headlined “Hard left Corbynites dismissed as softies”, which publicised criticisms made by the Alliance for Workers Liberty of Momentum’s leadership and Jon Lansman in particular.
Some will say all of this is healthy democratic debate. Others fear it’s toxic politics that could alienate our potential supporters and undermine the entire Corbyn project. It will be no victory if the “correct” side wins in Momentum, but we fail to get Jeremy Corbyn elected to power.