Momentum and the Labour left - which way forward?
MOMENTUM HAS DONE A LOT to shift the political landscape in the last two years. Its sheer energy, combined with new technology and media, has left political opponents reeling and in disarray - especially after the recent Labour conference.
But what is Momentum’s actual project? I recently noticed that the statement of principles on the website had changed. This actually occurred last November - just before the new constitution was imposed on the organisation - but since it didn’t happen through any democratic channels, no one noticed at the time.
The ‘what we stand for’ was changed in significant ways. The original version positioned Momentum as a force to build a transformative socialist movement, using extra-parliamentary and parliamentary means to bring about a series of radical demands.
The original stated Momentum wanted to: “organise in every town, city and village to secure the election of a progressive left Labour Party at every level, and to create a mass movement for real transformative change”. The new version is narrower: “organise with communities across the country to put forward Labour’s ambitious plan for Britain…”
Likewise on trade unions, originally arguing for support for workers and their unions in struggle, this is replaced with a commitment to a Labour government providing “protection at work and strong collective bargaining.”
The original statement called for a fight to “transform Labour into a more open, member-led party, with socialist policies and the collective will to implement them in government.” This was replaced with the aim to “transform Labour into a more open, member-led party capable of winning elections”. Momentum organisers have pointed out that the points removed can be found in the constitution, though why they are no longer on the website is not clear.
Referring to the constitution we find that Momentum aims to “broaden support for a transformative, socialist programme” and “to unite people in their communities and workplaces to win victories on the issues that matter to them.” We can all support a transformative socialist programme, but nowhere does Momentum state what that is.
The statement on their website is a series of perfectly good measures, such as to redistribute wealth and put people before profit. The constitution also commits Momentum to broadly support the ten policies Corbyn promoted in the 2016 Labour leadership campaign - all very important, but ultimately a vision of a social democratic regulation of capitalism.
Uniting people around issues that matter to them sounds great, but Momentum does little to back actual campaigns. This has always been a historic weakness of the Labour left - they talk a good game about ‘extra-parliamentary struggle’ but often abstain from practical activity.
Take the Picturehouse dispute - young workers fighting for the living wage. Their reps have been sacked. The company is refusing to recognise the union. What a perfect opportunity to throw the weight of the movement behind these workers to force a private sector company to pay the living wage and recognise the union. But even when motions have been passed in local Labour Party branches or CLPs very few people come to the pickets or demos - most of the Labour left is curiously absent.
The reason these debates matter is that the left has historically been very aware that a radical programme cannot be achieved solely through Parliament, that a social movement would also be needed.
As Michael Foot once said, “A left Labour MP is only as good as the movement behind them.”
The original statement by Momentum implied that the organisation was being set up to do precisely that. The policies would come from both parliamentary action and a transformative socialist movement. That has all been replaced by simply supporting a Labour government - a more passive orientation.
But this poses a more profound question. What does the Labour left think a ‘transformative socialist movement’ looks like? It sounds like people demonstrating in support of a left government when it is faced by economic sabotage. But is that all? Is the working class a stage army to wheel out to reinforce the will of parliamentarians?
Or does a transformative movement go further? Is it based on workers and working class communities taking power into their own hands, occupying workplaces, seizing the centres of power, defying bureaucrats and the establishment to rip up power by the roots, in alliance with socialists in Parliament?
Where does power really lie, in the Commons, or elsewhere in society? And until the Labour left can answer those questions with confidence, no matter how good we are at getting out the vote, we won’t be prepared to win the battles to come.