Pro-Corbyn Group Momentum Tries To Work Out What It's Actually For
Ahead of a high-level Momentum meeting this weekend, one activist said the organisation, with no leadership battles to fight, was yet to adjust to "civilian life".
Momentum, the Labour-supporting activist group that grew out of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership campaigns, is at a crossroads this weekend thanks to an internal battle pitting traditional left-wing organisers against those who want a more open system based on online democracy.
The group's national committee is due to meet in Birmingham on Saturday, and among the proposals to be discussed are multiple challenges to the individuals who helped found the organisation, and a demand for one key ally of Corbyn to hand over control of activist data to the wider group, as well as multiple complaints about the decision to sideline activist Jackie Walker over disputed allegations of anti-Semitism.
The situation is forcing the 20,000-strong group to confront the question: Given Corbyn's position as party leader is now relatively secure, what the hell is Momentum actually for?
Answering this can be difficult.
“Momentum is this huge, complex tradition with all these different strands," said Michael Chessum, a Momentum activist. "Increasingly it’s about being in and for Labour, having a party which has good socialist policies but is also capable of taking power. Then there’s the independent social movement role. Ideally we want to call big demonstrations and be in communities running campaigns around cuts, privatisation, and the NHS."
Chessum is one of those proposing an internal democratic system for Momentum based on delegates, similar to traditional left-wing approaches to organisation used by trade unions.
He said it is time for Momentum to change structure and "adapt to civilian life" without a leadership election to fight.
"It’s the most promising organisation that I’ve ever seen on the British left," he said. "It’s full of energy and has hundreds of local groups."
On the other side of the battle is Momentum founder Jon Lansman, a veteran of internal Labour struggles who wants a new system built entirely around all members being allowed to vote online for their favourite ideas, with the top-ranked policies going forward to the central organisation.
The split between the two sides has already let to infighting, with one group accusing Lansman of adopting tactics "worse than anything Tony Blair managed to foist on the Labour party" when he called a meeting at short notice.
This time around, the agenda for the meeting of the national conference reveals the ideological split as to how the group – and therefore a significant part of the British left – should organise. Lansman's proposal would hand the vast majority of power to ordinary members who could vote for their priorities.
However, many of Momentum's regional groups want to return a large amount of that power to themselves: One motion up at the committee meeting accuses the current Momentum leadership of attempting to undermine "democratic good practice in the labour movement", which risks turning "Momentum into a top-down, officer-led organisation".
There are also calls for Lansman, who personally controls the Momentum-branded company that owns data relating to Corbyn's leadership campaign, to hand over control of it to the main party.
Arguing over organisational details is already exhausting some of those involved. One Momentum insider, who insists they are optimistic about the group's future, nonetheless despaired at the "utterly tiresome" focus on internal structures rather than launching new campaigns to boost Labour's standing.
"All the exciting and interesting bits have come away from traditional bureaucratic structure," they said. "The things that have been most effective in both leadership campaigns and in Momentum have generally been the things which are new, less bureaucratic, and organised by generally younger people in a distributed network way.
"Look at the volunteer operation and the social media operation in the first leadership campaign, how Momentum set up to begin with and managed to run rallies."
Opponents of handing key elements of decision-making over to direct democracy raise the example of MxV, Momentum's recently launched open online platform for policy suggestions. Soon after launching it was filled with demands ranging from the straightforward to the slightly bizarre to calls for an endorsement of the UFO-loving Trotskyist Posadism movement.
Several of the most popular proposals currently on the site involve radical changes to the media, such as a suggestion of setting up a left-wing version of the BBC's Question Time featuring "teams made up of socialist celebraties [sic] and socialist experts", and a new 24-hour pro-Corbyn TV news station that will stop mainstream media lies and provide "an alternative narrative that captures public immagination [sic]", plus a call to define socialism once and for all.
Staff changes have also affected the group. James Schneider, who spent a year as Momentum's figurehead and spokesperson, has now moved over to working in the leader's office full time.
Meanwhile, Labour First, a pro-Labour but anti-Corbyn group, is attempting to raise funds to hire staff to take on Momentum, although their crowdfunding efforts are not nearly as impressive.
A spokesperson for Momentum said they welcomed the motions and were looking forward to the meeting: "Discussion and debate is central to building a diverse and dynamic movement capable of re-energising politics and helping secure a Labour government."
However, Chessum suggested that Momentum faces another challenge as it tries to work out its purpose. One issue is that members who originally joined the organisation because they were interested in Corbyn are now increasingly turning their focus towards the Labour party itself rather than running semi-independent campaigns.
“A lot of new people joined Momentum thinking they want Corbyn but want to do stuff outside the Labour party," he said. "A lot of those people have now realised that what we need to do is transform the Labour party."