By Mike Phipps and Liz Davies
One of the bitter consequences of the 2019 general election defeat, particularly for Party activists, has been the fragmentation of the forces that united to create the transformation of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. Some key unions have peeled away. The Labour left is not just divided but increasingly polarised between its constituent organisations. The failure to agree a slate recently for the by-election posts to the NEC constituency section was symptomatic of this malaise and it has proved costly. The split on the left let in candidates of the right and they have quickly exploited their marginal advantage.
Momentum too is internally divided. As the largest organisation of the Labour left, it is unsurprising that it has attracted considerable criticism for tactical errors made in the last five years. Some on the left have never forgiven it for closing down its elected regional bodies a few years ago and conclude that the organisation is irretrievably lost as a force on the left. They blame it – and it alone – for the failure to agree a joint NEC slate with other organisations in the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance process, which led to a range of left wing candidates running and the subsequent gains for the right. So, with a range of alternative organisations on the Labour left ready to win activists to their uniquely correct programmes, do the internal debates now going on in Momentum therefore matter very much?
In our opinion, they very much do. Whatever its failings, Momentum, specifically created to support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, attracted between 20,000 and 40,000 members mainly from an important generation of new activists, previously unreached by Labour. The worry is that some of the members who joined because they were inspired by Corbyn will leave the Party now, not only because Corbyn is no longer leader, but because of despair fuelled by the leaked report, the likely gradual abandonment of policy gains from the Corbyn era and the avowed strategy of the Party’s right wing to “replace the membership”, as Tony Blair put it.
Our view is that Momentum, more than any of the other forces on the Labour left, is likely to be most effective in regrouping and organising those demoralised members.
Within Momentum, different factions are now contesting elections to its leading body, the National Coordinating Group (NCG), later this month. Forward Momentum was created to produce a slate for precisely this purpose. Its origins and ideas are explained fully on its website. Its five point platform to “unite the socialist left and transform the Labour Party” are sound and many of its key figures have a strong track record of Party activism. More significant is what it proposes to do if it wins a majority on Momentum’s NCG. Highlights include refounding Momentum through a member-led process, leading to a Refounding Convention in May 2021; placing data under the democratic control of the NCG; ending selection stitch-ups and backroom deals; ensuring that local groups decide which candidates to support locally; and a big emphasis on education within the Party.
Forward Momentum compiled its slate for the NCG elections after a series of regional primaries, and then a One Member One Vote election. We have each signed up as Forward Momentum supporters and support this process and its policies.
Forward Momentum had not long been in existence when Momentum Renewal was launched. It too wants to transform Momentum, according to its website, calling for left unity, with an outward-looking approach that will put local groups back at the heart of Momentum, giving them more access to data, with stronger links to the centre, more control over its national orientation and greater local involvement in selecting the left candidates in council and parliamentary elections.
The degree of consensus between the two slates could be seen as recognition that there is a lot of truth in Forward Momentum’s critique and that Momentum really does have to improve and become more democratic and accountable to survive and grow. This debate may have been won before a single vote is cast.
Reading between the lines, there are hints at a rehash of the debate, post-Brexit and the general election, over where the Party needs to rebuild, so as to win in the future. We should be very wary of falling into a false binary between supposedly young, middle class southern activists and the old northern working class. The reality is way more complex, with activists and trade unionists everywhere, a fact that is reflected in the high calibre of the candidates on both slates. Many have a great deal of experience and ability.
We will be voting for candidates who, once elected, will put aside factional loyalty in order to tackle those really urgent tasks that Momentum faces – stopping the Party’s abandonment of popular socialist policies, preventing the erosion of internal Party democracy, and inspiring socialists to stay in the Party. Urgently, Momentum must focus on there being one united left slate for the NEC elections. Unless we are successful in these endeavours, the different nuances between Momentum’s internal groupings will matter very little at all. We urge Momentum members to do their research into the candidates and vote accordingly.
Mike Phipps is a member of Brent Central CLP and editor of For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power (OR Books, 2018), https://www.orbooks.com/catalog/for-the-many-preparing-labour-for-power/
Liz Davies is a Momentum member and member of New Forest West CLP. She was previously Secretary of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP (2017 – 2018) and an elected member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (1998 – 2000).