By Ewan Cameron
It may be a sign of the times that the current Refounding Momentum process has failed to really capture the imagination of the UK left. A few years ago, elections to Momentum’s National Coordinating Group were a hot topic of debate, one that was not always comradely, but nevertheless contested with a vigour that suggested that the direction of Momentum mattered. This year’s Refounding process has failed to ignite the same passions, partly due to a somewhat uneven methodology.
Last year, deliberative democracy was the watchword as assemblies of Momentum members from across the country came together to carefully debate and construct a series of choices for the membership. This year, however, those choices have been put to the members in a ludicrously short time period with members given just two weeks to read and make 17 different votes on the proposed structure of the organisation. It’s also been revealed that the union vote on the NCG essentially held a veto over any part of the proposal they disagreed with, meaning that the proposals on offer are a watered down version of what the assemblies agreed upon.
For those that hoped that such a process of refounding would have brought the autonomy debate to the fore, these proposals will be something of a disappointment. The focus here is generally on the structuring of internal organisation and there is less chance to deliberate on the more strategic relations to the Labour party.
With all that said, I would still argue that this refounding matters, particularly in some key areas. Momentum do hold a claim to being the UK’s primary left wing institution – a claim that depends on whether you feel that they are sufficiently autonomous from the Labour Party or not – but a claim nonetheless. There are a couple of votes that do offer the chance for a more radical direction, and the one I wish to focus on here is that of Proposal 10 – term limits.
The question of term limits speaks directly to what we imagine an organisation should be. An organisation with incumbent leadership over many years has a sense of stability and may also allow for continuity of purpose. And yet, if institutional rules allow for leaders to potentially rule in perpetuity, then the relationship to the membership becomes more clientele than comradely.
Leaders in these institutions are bound by the very structures to devote large amounts of energy into campaigning and building up networks of patronage to ensure their re-election. In these scenarios, power resides mainly in these informal networks and exercises in member democracy become close to ritualistic.
This in turn leads to a wider chasm between the rank and file and those in positions of power, as key creative and intellectual decision making takes place ‘behind the scenes’, with incumbent leaders trading support for appointments, while rank and file members are expected to contribute only their canvassing labour.
Perhaps this may sound far-fetched, but even when we consider the more straightforward issue of representation, terms limits are simply common sense. Regular rotation of leaders ensures diversity of representation when it comes to class, race, gender, disability, sexuality and a multitude of other intersectional identities rooted in concrete lived experiences under capitalism. It may be argued that quota rules for the NCG already speak to this need for diversity, yet without term limits we risk a situation where representation becomes mere tokenism. An NCG that is constitutionally mandated to allow for new leaders means that representation itself is stronger.
Term limits would also dynamically shape Momentum’s political education and capacity of members. One argument that people make against term limits is that there aren’t enough people to hold leadership positions and therefore we should stick with the ‘experienced’ current leadership. Anyone who’s ever faced the Catch 22 of applying for a job they want to gain experience in only to be told you haven’t got enough experience will point out the logical flaw in this argument.
Enacting term limits is dangerous, according to those who oppose them, because we risk putting unqualified people in positions of power. However, such a position rests on a very dim view of the membership. Are we really to assume that from a membership of thousands only a dozen or so are qualified to take responsibility? Such a view seems more cut from the cloth of Tory elitism than anything radical or progressive.
Allowing new leaders to emerge would also incentivise a much more dynamic approach to political education and capacity-building in Momentum. There is always a danger that political education mimics education in capitalist society at large, whereby learners are divided into a minority of leaders and a majority of followers. In an institution where the leadership is regularly refreshed there is a much higher incentive for current leaders to implement political education programmes that genuinely empower members.
In an institution where leadership is incumbent, much political energy goes towards electioneering and power games, yet in systems where leadership change is mandated, it become imperative for leaders to ensure that their successors have the skills and political capacity to replace them. This means that political education will become much more about building skills than simply imparting knowledge – truly a chance for radical political education.
In summary, mandatory term limits are far from a restriction on Momentum’s political organising. Instead it would be a radical break from the tired political orthodoxy that has prioritised the patronage of individuals over democracy. While collective democratic power is something that all politicians on the left speak to, it is not something that can simply be willed into existence, but must be built into our institutions.
Ewan Cameron is a member of Notts Momentum
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