“Let’s end the cycle of defeat”

Martin Abrams sets out the case for Momentum Organisers, who are campaigning to win positions on Momentum’s leadership

This week has seen the best and worst of the labour movement. We have seen a massive mobilisation by RMT members and Mick Lynch running rings round the Establishment media, while socialist Labour MPs defied the leadership to show their support for rail workers striking to protect their pay, terms, and livelihoods.

Meanwhile, the Starmer leadership reached new lows by attempting to ban shadow ministers from the picket line. MPs who have stood with the labour movement now face being disciplined, yet another attack on the left. All in all, it’s a neat encapsulation of how the conditions for socialism are growing, just as the political force crucial to realising it is marginalised.

Make no mistake: the threat facing the Labour left is existential. Long-Bailey, Corbyn, Young Labour and multiplying proscriptions are not the end of it. The threat to Socialist Campaign Group MPs over NATO is a precursor to a full-on attack on Momentum and the left’s most prominent leaders in Parliament. It’s not enough to speak about opposing this McCarthyite war on the left; we urgently need an organising programme that will regain the power in the Party necessary to defeat it.

These NCG elections matter because the truth is that Momentum has not been fully committed to the fight in recent years. The upshot is that, far from ‘building power’, as the ‘Your Momentum’ continuity slate claims, we have steadily been losing it. This Panglossian optimism is summed up in the highly dubious boast of “winning every internal Labour election” at a time when the Labour left has suffered defeat after defeat. The reality is that hundreds of thousands of comrades have left the Party, with thousands leaving Momentum too. Momentum should face up to the reality of two-and-a-half years of defeat and decline, rather than trying to sell its membership bromides.

And though the 2019 General Election defeat dealt the organisation a bad hand, much responsibility lies with the Momentum leadership, now running for re-election. Nothing sums up Momentum’s costly errors in recent years better than Labour Conference 2021. In the run up to Conference, the Starmer project was in trouble – the defeat in Hartlepool and poor local election results put his lifeless leadership in jeopardy, and the extremely narrow victory in Batley and Spen merely bought it time. His first Conference as leader would be crucial – and a first test of power in the Party.

Clearly, Momentum should have been gearing up for a fight by focusing on getting socialists elected as delegates, especially in a year with no NEC elections, no internal elections, no parliamentary selections, and a low level of party activity due to COVID-19. But incredibly, the attention of Momentum’s leadership was elsewhere. Fresh from slashing the organising staff team, it was still trying to revive its flagging and utterly ineffectual Evictions Resistance campaign, needlessly duplicating the great work of renters unions such as ACORN and the London Renters Union, without any social base from which to act. Predictably, it fell flat.

The rest of the story is, tragically, well-known. Starmer’s team came into the Conference determined to lock the left out of the Party leadership. And while Momentum did mobilise effectively in support of trade union resistance to the leadership college, the die was cast. A new 20% nomination threshold for leader and deputy was passed on Conference floor by just 53% to 47%. A hugely consequential and damaging reform was narrowly passed – had it fallen, Starmer would have suffered a major reverse, his authority (and quite possibly his leadership) in tatters.

A dedicated plan for organising to elect socialist Conference delegates committed to Party democracy could have won this crucial vote for the left. Instead, what we ended up with was the worst of both worlds – a huge reversal within the Party, alongside a failed, resource-intensive and eventually-abandoned campaign outside of it.

In reaction, Momentum’s leadership avoided hard truths about their failures by insisting, against all available evidence, that “we are building a socialist majority inside and outside of the Labour Party“, while claiming an overall mixed result on the basis of passing policy motions which were publicly disowned by Starmer the very same day.

This kind of myopic boosterism is no longer defensible, if it ever was. The stakes are too high. Instead, Momentum needs to focus its resources on defending the left and gaining power – power in key institutions and locations, power we can wield. After holding public meetings with socialists across the country, Momentum Organisers have been developing a plan to shift power back to the left within Labour, to be published in full this weekend.

The strategy is clear-eyed. We need to unite the grassroots left and pursue a common Labour left strategy across the grassroots, the Socialist Campaign Group and the unions. But what of the strategy for shifting power in the Party? First and foremost, we must prioritise objectives that build local bases of power and/or improve the overall strategic balance of forces.

With so much at stake, every activity Momentum undertakes must meaningfully contribute towards these outcomes. This means properly resourcing local and parliamentary selections, rather than diverting funds to top-down issue-based campaigns. It means creating a bespoke Local Organising Plan for every Momentum group. And it means prioritising rule changes at Conference – as Labour for a Green New Deal co-founder Chris Saltmarsh has said, policy campaigns require a democratic Party and in turn a strong left, if they are to succeed.

It also means not neglecting Labour’s NEC. Winning back a left majority on the NEC in the short term is unlikely, such is the magnitude of our losses. But maximising left representation remains vital – especially if the political balance of the trade union section, or the leadership of the Party, change. That means working with other Labour left groups in a spirit of collaboration not dictation.

Of course, the NEC is an uphill battle which requires us to think creatively. Aside from being an important institutional platform from which to hold the leadership accountable for its many reversals on policy, socialist societies would be a key target due to their NEC seat. One of our campaign’s founders, Mark Ladbrooke, last year became chair of the Socialist Health Association, beating Labour to Win.  Momentum Organisers supporters have been closely involved in organising a similar effort this year for SERA, Labour’s environmental affiliate.

This foundation-building strategy is vital, and must be replicated in key Party structures. Many socialists – including ourselves – won election as Labour councillors in London in this May’s local elections, thanks to hard work from comrades across the capital. But our joy was tinged with the disappointment that the number could have been significantly higher had we held the London Labour regional executive instead of narrowly losing it, allowing the right to then block many excellent comrades.

If elected, we would direct all of Momentum’s resources towards vital organising objectives. We’d focus Momentum’s cutting edge digital team on developing tools for online campaigning, and upgrading groups’ data access to data. Our talented creative staff would be making our case in the Party and holding the leadership to account rather than wasting their energies on clipping Piers Morgan. And we need to review existing projects like the excellent Leo Panitch programme to ensure their outcomes are tied as closely as possible to our overall strategy.

Let’s end the cycle of defeat. While the re-election campaign of a failed NCG talks vaguely of “building power”, we are focused on winning power in key sites. What’s more, we have the organisers and organising prowess to achieve it. Get involved.

Martin Abrams is a candidate for the Momentum National Coordinating Group (London & Eastern Division) and a Councillor in the London Borough of Lambeth.

Image: Momentum banner. Source: Momentum at the Stop Trump Rally. Author: Garry Knight, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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