Forward Momentum: putting members in charge?

By Andy Young

Forward Momentum was launched in early April just days after the Labour Left’s defeat in the leadership and NEC elections, signalling the decisive collapse of the Corbyn project. The Momentum leadership admitted that its tactics of imposing candidates on members backfired and helped split the left.[1] This was the last straw for many Momentum members, adding to the crisis of defeat and disorientation. Out of it came Forward Momentum (FM) as a rebel alliance to overturn the dead hand of the Momentum bureaucracy. Sure enough, its launch spurred the old guard to action, with the rival faction Momentum Renewal (MR) launched a few weeks later.

Both platforms commit to united left slates and want to “unite the socialist left and transform the Party”. Beyond that, they appear to radically diverge. The question is, however, would FM turn Momentum into an organisation capable of organising the Labour left to face the triple crisis of the pandemic, the recession and climate change and would they lead an uncompromising fight against the Starmer leadership and the witch-hunt? 

To show its commitment to ending a politics of “back room deals”, FM’s slate was chosen by an online vote or “primary” of 2000 Momentum members who selected FM’s candidates. The problem with this method is that while it appears innovative and democratic, it also produces a contradictory slate and contradictory politics, with candidates ranging from old, compromised Momentum insiders to newer, more radical lefts.  To square this political circle, FM produced its policy document Plan to take Momentum Forward, but the process for deciding this was anything but transparent. Rather than being debated and voted on by those who participated in the primaries, the FM platform was put together by the candidates and the shadowy FM “board”. This process of compromise between the candidates and higher profile supporters of FM has left them with a contradictory set of policies. 

Left or not so Left?

A word-cloud of Forward Momentum and Momentum Renewal pledges and platforms would likely show that the two slates say a lot of similar, uncontroversial things in similar language: 

  • Momentum is “too London-centric” and funding, organisers and offices need to be redistributed to the regions and nations;
  • There needs to be greater focus on organising in workplaces and communities, providing a “strong voice for the left in the Labour Party” and strengthening the connections that Momentum has with trade unions and social movements; 
  • Momentum is “not sufficiently member-led”, political education, organiser training, member-led campaigns, giving Momentum members a say in key decisions such as campaign priorities and slates for Labour Party elections.[2]

So beneath the usual left phrases, where are the two slates different?  Despite Forward Momentum’s focus on democracy, they have not committed to an annual sovereign conference, and actually voted it down when it was proposed in their policy committee. However, unlike MR, FM does at least have some policies.

There are significant nuances – MR’s community organising to build “labour institutions” versus FM’s promise to unleash the mass membership with national campaigns – and outright differences. Most importantly, FM’s platform proposes an immediate campaign for a just and green response to Covid-19, laying out demands such as “rent freezes, an end to evictions, and no forced redundancies”. It  supports the Green New Deal (GND), and argues for “an internationalist response to COVID-19, centred on migrants’ rights and combating nationalism”, including advocating for “free movement of people, safe passage for refugees, universal access to public services and funds, the closure of detention centres, and the full voting rights for all residents.” These are left-wing policies which merit attention, especially when compared with Momentum Renewal, which has no policy and doesn’t even mention the GND once on their website or Facebook page!

However, their strategy as a whole fails to meet challenge of the crisis we face.  Minimal demands like rent freezes and opposing redundancies are a start, but how about a Momentum that also connects these to strategic socialist goals like nationalising the private health companies, or challenging the right and ability of companies to make redundancies?  And FM fails to advance the forms of organisation necessary to achieve their demands – action committees, rank and file movements in the union – or emphasise anticapitalist, transitional forms of struggle from below such as workers control.

Democracy’s glass ceiling

Forward Momentum repeatedly pushes its democratic credentials. “Refound Momentum and put members in charge.” “Trust the members. Build the movement. #VoteForward24.”[3]

As Keir Milburn, author of Generation Left and a prominent FM activist, says, we need “Momentum as an effective campaigning and election-winning organisation, led by and supportive of its members and local groups. You can’t have one without the other.”[4] True, only members’ democracy can make a left organisation capable of the hard struggle for socialist policies. And there are a few very good demands, such as supporting the “joined-up self-organisation in BAME, LGBTQ+, Women’s and Disability Momentum sections” to analyse and campaign against oppression from a class standpoint.

But overall it is questionable how democratic a Momentum they want, and how willing they are to confront politicians and union leaders in Labour to democratise the party and fight for their radical policies too.

In two meetings of candidates and FM’s board, a number of policies and slogans were adopted but then never made it to the final Plan.[5]   Radical demands that would have strengthened the struggle, such as “campaign for democratic ownership of energy and finance” were voted through but dropped. Presumably this was so the platform didn’t look to radical, or face a backlash from councillors, MPs, union leaders.  But what will these candidates do if they are elected when these powerful forces at the heart of Labour really exert pressure?

FM members have criticised Momentum Renewal candidates for their lack of support for open selection in the past, so it’s great that they voted (50:4) to go further in terms of democracy and “campaign to make the Labour Party conference sovereign with a final say on manifesto policies”, but why was this dropped from the Plan?[7]  Of course, this is another red line for MPs left and right. Even Corbyn continued the approach of Blair and every Labour leader before him of giving the NEC final say over the Manifesto, even if it contradicted policy (e.g. ignoring the 2019 conference vote supporting free movement).

And in terms of Momentum democracy, they haven’t shown much appetite for putting members in charge or trusting them. While a majority voted to support autonomous local groups (again dropped from the Plan) it also voted against holding “an annual Momentum sovereign conference to decide policy and strategy” or even regional conferences to coordinate the campaigns and elect some representatives to the NCG.  There is a glass ceiling on FM’s democracy and trust of the members – is that really so different from Momentum Renewal? 

So on several key questions the rights outweigh the lefts in Forward Momentum, but almost as crucially, without any names by the votes, you can’t tell which are the left candidates and which are the right ones, and which you are voting for.

Fight the Power?

The FM board voted against a proposal to “Give members the data and resources to organise autonomous Momentum networks in trade unions to push for democracy and radical action in unions”. Yet this is exactly what Momentum needs to do if it is to build counterpower to the union officialdom’s inaction and pressure, an even more so to clear them out in a democratic transformation of the unions into rank and file controlled, class struggle organisations.  Momentum Renewal knows what it wants – more power of the unions in Momentum itself – but FM doesn’t really have a policy other than building links and empowering the unions; all very good but for a left organisation pretty standard.

Similarly FM goes miles beyond MR by committing to a “radical programme of municipal socialism for local government, to fight cuts and democratise services and decision-making, working with a strengthened Councillor Network” but in its final platform slims this down and leaves out fighting the cuts and holding them to account, the two central points.  Organising against austerity not for elections should be the priority.  Given Labour council candidates who refuse to administer cuts won’t even be selected, this evasion is implicitly building in compromise in advance without a strong commitment to fighting all cuts and councillor accountability, which Momentum members will need to fight against.

Elsewhere, in a collective response to questions from the Labour Left Alliance, FM stated that it defends the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement from charges of anti-Semitism, commits to ensuring the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism does not restrict free debate on Israel and Palestine, and calls for an overhaul of disciplinary procedures, with expulsion only a last resort in serious cases.  However it does not mention the scores of activists, many Jewish, who have been expelled, or commit to fighting the witch-hunt.

FM candidates are to be congratulated for refusing to sign up to the sectarian, undemocratic “Momentum against the AWL” campaign, unlike the majority of MR candidates. However, the FM board did block the AWL’s Ruth Cashman from standing in the primaries without any reason, demonstrating a lack of commitment to democracy.

What kind of Left do we need?

In many ways FM is clearly bolder and has taken positions to the left of Momentum Renewal. The problem is its political diversity or lack of coherence means it goes silent or doesn’t follow through on key questions like fighting the council cuts or the witch-hunt, presumably under pressure from FM’s right wing.

Members’ democracy that can hold NCG members to account, with a sovereign conference and recallability of officials, is key to having the power to pursue radical demands without leaders buckling under pressure. Clearly the FM candidates who voted against such demands want the “flexibility” to do just that. But a sovereign Labour conference and rank and file democracy in the unions, a sovereign Momentum conference and genuinely accountable NCG, a commitment to fighting the witch-hunt – these are all litmus tests for a fighting labour left that FM has not passed.

The left candidates who were a minority in these votes have not broken ranks with slate unity to voice their dissent. So if a member votes for their local FM candidate, what are they voting for? There is no way of knowing so long as they stick to the collective obfuscation.  If FM win a majority in the election and their right-wing candidates dominate the NCG alongside MR, the effect could well be the same as if MR had won.

For that reason, the Anticapitalist Platform was launched to stand in the huge space to the left of both factions and raise solutions to the key questions confronting the Labour left and determining whether it has a future:

–  A turn to the struggles outside Labour, not just fighting for policy and position inside it while waiting for the next general election.

– Developing anti-capitalist policies for these struggles from council cuts to unemployment and Black Lives Matter, and linking them to the struggle for complete liberation with a socialist programme for Momentum.

– A thoroughgoing internationalism that rejects nationalism and fights for free movement and migrant rights, rejects imperialism and builds solidarity with its victims across the semi-colonial world.

– Rank and file democracy in Momentum centred on a sovereign annual conference.

– Independence from the labour bureaucracy, and a fight for rank and file democracy in Labour and the unions.

Those who don’t have the option of voting Anticapitalist and are attracted to voting for the #Forward24, if for no other reason than to keep out Momentum Renewal, should actively demand answers on these questions from their candidates at the very minimum before casting their ballot.



[3] Fourth slogan from Our Plan to Take Momentum Forward; FM strapline for election materials

[4] Milburn


[7] Later under questioning from the Labour Left Alliance FM stated implied that it would abolish the National Policy Forum and Labour conference “should be absolutely sovereign” but without mentioning the manifesto.