Momentum Renewal: Continuity at the top

The contest for leadership of Momentum is dominated by Momentum Renewal and Forward Momentum, both standing full slates for every region.

The Labour left is deeply disoriented by December’s heavy defeat and the victory of right-winger Keir Starmer in the subsequent leadership. But with capitalism overtaken by a major economic and public health crisis of historic proportions, a mass, militant, socialist left with an orientation to the class struggle is more necessary than ever.

Another aspect of the crisis is the spread of solidarity actions with the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA, raising of the issues of police violence, discrimination and social inequality for people of colour here in Britain.

As the largest left organisation within the Labour Party and, indeed, in Britain, the Momentum contest is significant for the left and working class movement as a whole. Both slates’ platforms have a relatively high proportion of BAME, women and young candidates, which is to be welcomed. 

However, both are overwhelmingly organisational in their proposals, whilst nevertheless avoiding the fight for a genuine members’ democracy. Most striking is the fact that they have provided no policies or strategy for the immediate struggles we face.

The Momentum Renewal (MR) faction, launched by the old guard on 17th May in response to the rapid rise of the challenger Forward Momentum (FM), is backed by a busload of mostly Northern MPs, councillors, and NEC members. It also has the support of Tribune‘s Ronan Burtenshaw and Novara Media‘s Aaron Bastani. Broadly, Momentum Renewal represent the pro-Brexit, labour-bureaucratic side of Corbyn’s coalition.

Carry on Momentum 

Momentum Renewal essentially wants to carry on as before, after applying a fresh coat of paint to Momentum’s discredited, bureaucratic structures. They hope to keep control and move the Momentum office (and more importantly its jobs) up north; two out of the 16 pledges detail how officers will have public email addresses and produce regular reports. This tinkering will not save Momentum: the organisation needs a radical change of direction and root and branch reform of its structures to match its new objectives.

Rather than the “new politics that is clear and bold” promised in the launch statement, there isn’t a single concrete policy about the world outside the Labour Party (and only one there, a belated pledge to back open selection). That doesn’t mean MR has no politics, but they are backward-looking. MR believes “the most important political priority” is “sustaining of the fragile coalition that constituted the Labour Left over the Corbyn era.  Their strategy is to increase the power of the unions in Momentum, and focus on community organising to build local labour “institutions” and win back the “lost heartlands” of the Red Wall towns, in line with the Lexit politics of MR’s backers. 

If you are looking for big picture thinking, you have come to the wrong place, but that is not what its backers in the labour bureaucracy want. They want to stay the course, keep control of the left, and keep hold of or regain the Labour “party structures” being taken by the newly victorious right such as the NEC, with a heavy focus on unity slates.

The Renewal statement warns that, without their inward-looking strategy, “we will be in the wilderness for a generation. We do not have the time to start all over again.” This borrowing of the Labour right’s equation of ‘opposition’ with ‘wilderness’ indicates how little value this faction attaches to mass struggles and building up organised resistance to the Tories and the bosses.

But it is “out in the wilderness” that the huge wave of anger around George Floyd’s police murder in the US exploded. It is “in the wilderness” that the fights against austerity, racism and oppression job losses and climate change will take place. Only in such fights will a renewed labour and trade union movement be forged.

To wage the fight against the pro-capitalist right inside Labour, Momentum needs to turn outwards to these struggles.

A ‘newer, clearer, bolder’ politics?

In early June Momentum Renewal took a tentative step towards politics, in the wake of Forward Momentum’s Way Forward strategy paper. But its “five pledges” are bland and vague on detail – community organising, trade union links, regaining control of party structures. The pledges for “genuine community organising” to build local labour “institutions”– labour clubs, education programmes, mutual support networks (charity) and “building alliances with wider activist groups”, sincere as these intentions may be , sound like a proposal to build a Labour-centred local ecosystem and low-horizon alternative to turning outwards to build mass resistance to the crises we face.

The same goes for their democracy proposals. MR proposes to “give” members and local groups more training, funding, better data and communications, to assuage members’ anger over top-down decision making. It recognises that e-democracy “has rarely been used beyond toothless consultations and rubber-stamping exercises”. However, it is not the use of e-democracy but e-democracy itself that is the problem. Online ballots allow the leadership to rule by plebiscite – setting the question, the timing, and interpreting the results. In response, MR pledges only a “biennial strategic review” to be debated at Momentum’s conference, but with no commitment that this will be a sovereign, decision-making conference that puts members in charge.

Their commitment to democracy is further undermined by the conduct of many of their candidates. Nineteen of them have pledged to not work with other candidates who are members of the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL), or those they consider close to the AWL. This is testament to the low political culture of parts of the Labour left the bureaucratic method of Momentum Renewal. The pledge reveals their attitude to Momentum’s members and their democratic right to choose their own representatives.

Finally, the pledge to “strengthen the role of trade unions within Momentum” is a double-edged sword. If it means that Momentum should actively support rank and file workers in struggle through solidarity with strikes and unionisation drives, this is just what we need. But if what it means is greater power for the union bureaucracy inside Momentum it should be rejected. They already have six seats on the NCG. Rather, Momentum should organise its supporters inside the unions with the aim of democratising them – starting with the Labour link structures.

‘Genuine power’

MR’s final pitch as voting opened gives a good summary of the core of their message and political priorities:

  • Break out of the London bubble and build socialist politics rooted in our communities
  • Forge stronger relations with our trade union movement
  • Work to build a single left slate for the NEC elections
  • Strengthen our political education and training

This reorientation to the regions, to the unions and their bureaucratic structures, to low-level “community organising” to build “labour institutions” fails to miss the real radicalism of the situation we face where the decisive struggles are outside Labour. Meanwhile members’ democracy is replaced by top down “education and training”.  

On that note one of MR’s rare rhetorical splurges puts forward a radical goal, actually at odds with this strategy, that “the left membership should not merely be foot soldiers for a party machine but should hold genuine power to make real change” in Labour. Absolutely right, as inadequate as MR’s policies to make that happen are. But surely for that to happen, the members must hold “genuine power” in Momentum first?  They won’t if MR is elected to the top table. 

London bubble vs Red Wall?

MR’s first pledge released on June 5th stated “Momentum’s focus must be the lost Labour heartlands”, while its launch statement attacked Momentum’s London-centredness, stating that its renewal “requires breaking with a stifling, suffocating London bubble and ensuring that what you know is always more important than who you know.”  

The idea that MPs and councillors up North are somehow less immersed “deep in the machinery” of the parliamentary system and municipal politicking takes some imagination, just as the idea that London CLPs and union branches are smooth, cynical networking politicos compared to their honest-John Northern counterparts is plain BS.

In reality, this is a conservative view in both senses. At its heart the Lexiteers’ concern to “get Brexit done” is a concession to the anti-immigrant sentiments which drove the 2016 Referendum vote in the first place, while at the same time it points towards an orientation to the smaller towns hit hard by de-industrialisation and the many older workers that were pensioned off in this process, many of whom turned to the Tories in 2019 (or Ukip in the 2000s). The only progressive way forward for Momentum is to turn towards the working class as a whole but particularly its newer sections  – precarious, often young, often women or BAME or immigrant – and stand for full immigrant rights and free movement, as part of building a class consciousness worthy of the name which can only be internationalist and socialist – in Marx’s words, “the working class has no country”.

As ACP candidate Urte Macikene said on the Momentum website, “the notion that Momentum is somehow ‘too London centric’ is used by some people as dog whistle against our multi-ethnic capital city which has a huge working-class population. I agree that we need to spread resources and delegate powers across the country and Momentum shouldn’t be run by a clique, but that is a political question, not one that can be solved simply by moving the office.”

Blaming London and the other big cities in the Midlands and the North that stayed Labour is sheer demagogy – playing on ignorance and prejudice. Certainly the “red wall” towns have real and burning social problems – youth unemployment, housing, healthcare, schools, social care. Labour needs to fight in the coming years for national plan to regenerate them under the democratic control of their inhabitants. The huge increase in unemployment that will follow the end of furloughing will make this more urgent. In the process Labour needs to be fiercely internationalist, multi-ethnic, and anti racist.