In the aftermath of the general election defeat and the outcome of the Labour leadership election, there is much soul-searching and reflection on the Labour left. Regrettably, there is also much defeatism, with too many suggesting that all is lost. Nonsense. Socialist politics is a struggle and the struggle continues. But we must discuss and assess the lessons of the past five years – including the errors that were made.
I was proud that my union, the Fire Brigades Union, was the first to affiliate to Momentum, seeing it as an opportunity to build a broad and democratic socialist organisation drawing on the enthusiasm of the Corbyn movement. The reality turned out somewhat differently. As Momentum internal elections now take place, I would ask all involved to reflect on the experiences of the past few years.
For me, two events are particularly instructive: the introduction of the new constitution to Momentum in 2017; and the decision of the Momentum leadership to support steps to avoid a debate on open selection at the 2018 Labour conference. In each case, I ask, was the decision taken right or wrong? To be clear about my own position, I think they were both significant setbacks for building a new socialist left in the Labour Party.
At the time of the constitutional changes, I sat on the then national committee and the steering committee (both subsequently replaced). It’s interesting today to see Momentum Renewal talk about the need to engage with unions when we consider how Jon Lansman and his closest supporters actually treated a Momentum-affiliated union.
The divisions that opened up on the steering committee were about the role of local groups and whether there should be a decision-making Momentum conference (we supported one, Jon did not). These matters came to a head as it became clear that Jon Lansman and those around him were desperate to avoid a decision-making conference taking place at all. I’ve been around a while in the labour movement and I’ve seen a few stitch-ups in my time but the one that took place in Momentum in 2017 really takes some beating.
With no notice, the steering committee was informed by email that new constitutional structures needed to be agreed – that same evening and without a meeting. I immediately stated that this was ridiculous, and I refused to participate in such a farce. The coup went ahead regardless. The new constitution was implemented and power was further centralised in the hands of the office and the owner of the company.
The coup demoralised a layer of activists and some dropped out of activity within Momentum. Indeed, that was one of the intentions. But despite this setback, Momentum ran a good campaign in the 2017 general election and was able to successfully harness the enthusiasm of activists to help remove Theresa May’s majority. It also developed very effective means to mobilise supporters for votes in Labour internal elections. All Momentum members should be proud of those developments.
Unfortunately, the bureaucratic and undemocratic approach taken in relation to the constitutional changes had created a pattern, and this was repeated when Momentum’s leadership completely failed the test in relation to the demand for open selection at the 2018 Labour conference. If open selection had been voted on, it would have been carried. Various manoeuvres therefore followed to ensure that the issue would not be put to a vote.
Rather than challenging this and mobilising local party and union delegates to argue for the most democratic option, Momentum eventually fell behind the supposed compromise of improved trigger ballots. Indeed, one of the NCG members currently re-standing was gushing in his praise for what a fantastic step forward this would be, describing it as “prime steak”. In reality, we got the stale and warmed-up leftovers of a shoddy compromise. The mishandling of this issue by the Momentum leadership was at best strategically and tactically inept; at worst, it was sabotage of a long-standing democratic demand of Labour’s rank and file at precisely the moment when it could have been won.
Those standing today for the Momentum NCG – either as part of a slate or as independents – should state where they stand on the issue of open selection. But they also need to explain what they actually did when put to the test in 2018.
For these reasons among others, the FBU is supporting the Forward Momentum slate for the NCG, although there are other candidates I know and respect. Among the Forward Momentum candidates is Andrew Scattergood, who is also the FBU West Midlands regional secretary, someone who has organised and led important political and workplace struggles.
Significantly, one reason the FBU was so clear on the issue of open selection at the 2018 Labour conference was because we were supporting and implementing the unanimous democratic decision of our own union conference. It was moved at FBU conference by the very same Andrew Scattergood. I was then proud to speak in support of our policy at Labour conference – that’s how labour movement democracy should work; open discussion and debate, not secret backroom deals.
Forward Momentum candidates are from all parts of the movement, including firefighters, healthcare workers, nurses, carers and teachers. They are all on the frontline fighting the Covid crisis we are all facing – genuine grassroots activists. On the other slate, Labour councillors are being pushed for many of these grassroots seats.
This is not at all wanting to diminish the contribution of these Labour councillors. But when there are four spaces reserved for public office holders on the NCG, it is strange to have such domination of one slate by sitting councillors and public office holders. It has long been a mantra of the Labour right that MPs and councillors understand politics far better than the rank and file; it’s disappointing to see that approach repeated in elections for Momentum.
The criticism that Forward Momentum is a student-led London clique is nonsense and those disseminating this myth know it. The anti-London narrative is silly and divisive; London is a strategically vitally important working-class and Labour city. Another claim is that FM has a ‘focus on process’ as though it’s a form of navel-gazing, but the appeal of democracy isn’t because it’s just a nice add-on. We do democracy because it must be intrinsic within our structures to deliver a socialist of society.
All candidates are now claiming that trade unions are vital for the future of the left. It was interesting to see the continuity slate, Momentum Renewal, not even attempt to discuss with Momentum’s first union affiliate before launching its plan to ‘save’ Momentum. Perhaps, with our clear commitment to policies such as open selection and our call to ensure public ownership was at the heart of the debate on a green new deal, we’re considered the ‘wrong sort’ of union. But unless there is a genuine assessment of mistakes of the past few years, many will conclude that the change suggested actually means more of the same.
To build a new left, we must be open, we must be transparent and we must be democratic. If we are to democratise the Labour Party, we have to democratise Momentum. That’s why Forward Momentum’s democratic selection of candidates not only speaks to but also practices those values.
Lastly, I agree with John McDonnell, who is supporting all of the Forward Momentum candidates: “We’ve got to turn Momentum into a member-led, activist-led organisation developing ideas that translate into practical campaigns.” We have all said that we wanted this from Momentum’s inception – now is the time to deliver. Momentum should not just be a source of money or a stage army called into action as directed by those at the top. We are a movement and we deserve to be treated like one.
If you want a new start with a genuine member-led Momentum that will actually fight for and vote for open selection and other policies of the left when the time comes, vote for the Forward Momentum candidates – I certainly will be.