What kind of democracy does Momentum need?

By Rebecca Armatrading

Why democracy matters

The working class is facing a triple crisis – the pandemic, the recession and climate change. Corbynism is over and we face these crises under a Tory government with a right-wing party leadership. If we want to make Momentum relevant to the struggles that will emerge from these crises,  we need structures that allow members to harness Momentum’s resources to coordinate and build the resistance.  

A sovereign, annual conference allows members to take charge of Momentum’s politics, strategy and constitution, ensuring that we decide what Momentum is and does. It is essential to guarding against paid staff or NCG members watering down members’ proposals or standing aside from struggles in the name of compromise or “electability”, as happened repeatedly in recent years on issues like open selection and free movement.

However, neither Forward Momentum (FM) nor Momentum Renewal (MR) propose a sovereign annual conference. Forward Momentum promise a one-off refounding conference but decided against supporting an annual conference, and both factions propose to increase the use of online ballots.  

Clicktivism vs activism

Whether decisions are made at conferences or through online all-member ballots is not just a matter of convenience but a fundamental question of an organisation’s purpose. 

A conference requires discussion by local groups to decide what proposals they support and election of their delegates on that basis, followed by debate and decisions at the conference. It forces the leadership and the members alike to put their arguments to the test in public debate, and gives people a chance to challenge the claims of their opponents.

The alternative – decision-making by OMOV (One Member One Vote) – sounds democratic because everyone gets a vote, but in reality it disempowers members and makes leaders unaccountable. A leadership presiding over an OMOV system gets to decide what question to ask members, how to interpret the answers and even whether to bother asking members anything at all.

This model is more appealing to those who see Momentum as an auxiliary force for elected officials and paid full-time organisers in the Labour Party or its affiliate organisations. For them, the purpose of membership engagement is winning online ballots (e.g. the NEC election), managing the membership as a support base for policies agreed by the leadership, and mobilising a volunteer army at election time. Full members’ democracy represents an unacceptable risk that the organisation will be taken in a direction embarrassing to the elected officials – whether too radical or otherwise controversial.

When the Momentum coup happened in 2017 this argument was abstract but our experience of Momentum over the past three years has demonstrated the democratic deficit in the current constitution. Apart from NCG elections, only two OMOV ballots have ever been held. The rest of the time, the leadership kept members out of decision making and there was no way for members to hold them to account. 

One of the ballots asked members to endorse the NCG’s recommendations in the Labour leadership ballot through a yes/no vote. Members were not given the choice to endorse Richard Burgon for Deputy Leader, despite the fact that he was clearly to the left of Angela Rayner, the NCG’s recommended choice. Members also weren’t told what would happen if they voted down the NCG’s recommendation.

The other was the result of a petition signed by over 10% of Momentum members which triggered an all-member vote to decide Momentum’s Brexit policy. The NCG delayed the vote until after the party conference so it ran no risk of actually influencing events, ran a convoluted poll with bizarre option choices and leading questions, reported the results in a selective manner and did nothing about the outcome.

Despite promises that OMOV would make Momentum’s decision-making more accessible and lead to a vibrant internal culture, in retrospect we can see that online democracy was designed to suit one purpose – suppressing the membership’s independence while maintaining their support for Corbyn’s leadership under a thin veneer of “movementism”.

What would a democratic Momentum look like?

For Momentum to stay relevant in the years ahead, it needs to become an activist organisation, joining the real life struggles outside the Labour Party. Momentum will only be useful in this context if members can organise themselves through its structures. This necessarily means a more involved type of democracy – where members can debate a full range of political issues, make decisions about what to do, and then use Momentum’s resources to do it. Full-time staff, whose salaries are paid for by the members, must organise around members’ priorities, and there need to be mechanisms for members to replace officials if they won’t comply.

In addition to an annual conference, we need local activist groups that jointly control their membership data with the NCG. These groups should decide their local priorities and what local candidates to back and be given funding to run meetings and coordinate local campaigns. The groups should control regional committees and the annual conference through their delegates, and ultimately the NCG through recallability.

While democracy on its own won’t be enough to revitalise Momentum – for that we’ll need a political programme to make it relevant to the working class – it is the essential basis on which an independent, self-confident socialist movement must be built.