Undemocratic backroom politics in Momentum

Submitted by AWL on 18 May, 2020 - 8:21 Author: Sacha Ismail
New kind of politics

There is a fight about the future of Labour left organisation Momentum.

A new grouping, Forward Momentum, is in conflict with those who run the Momentum office (which means, in Momentum as currently constituted, run the organisation). The office people seem to be supporting a counter-initiative, Momentum Renewal. Both will run candidates in the imminent National Coordinating Group elections.

Neither grouping presents a clear, concrete, politically adequate or honest line about how Momentum should function, what it should argue for and what it should do.

Forward Momentum's output has focused almost exclusively on Momentum's structures and procedures, but the changes it has advocated so far do not constitute real democratisation and membership control, so much as more regular and efficient consultation. Additionally, it has put forward essentially no wider political program, beyond a set of platitudes which almost no one on the left could disagree with.

We think it is necessary to discuss and hammer out common points about what the Labour left and Momentum should stand for, as well as a demands for thoroughgoing democratisation of Momentum. Workers’ Liberty has worked with other class-struggle, internationalist socialists in organising Momentum Internationalists - to put forward clear socialist ideas and proposals to enable the left to orient adequately in the current crises, and with the even more basic aim of repoliticising the debate.

Forward Momentum: a democratic process?

Forward Momentum held “primaries” on 12-16 May to select candidates for the NCG.

It said the left “is stronger when we’re inclusive and democratic; when everyone’s voice is heard”. It said it wants a “truly member-led Momentum”, with an end to “the assumption that only a handful of people in senior positions… can be trusted to lead”. And “an end to stitch-ups or slates decided behind closed doors”.

But in some ways those who run or have decisive influence in Forward Momentum have been less democratic and inclusive than the current Momentum regime. They banned Momentum Internationalists candidate Ruth Cashman from the primaries on a ludicrous and cynical pretext. Meanwhile some have participated in a campaign of slander against her, Momentum Internationalists and Workers’ Liberty.

The campaign

Immediately before the ballot opened Ruth was informed by the FM “elections panel” they would not allow her to stand. They cited a 2015 article from the Weekly Worker (here) scandalising about her refusal to condemn a 2006 article on right-wing politicised religion – Christian, Islamic and other – by Sean Matgamna (see here for the article and the 2013 arguments about it).

The charge against Ruth is: “We expect prospective candidates to be committed to opposing racism… defending a racist article is not compatible with the values of this campaign.”

The charge is nonsense politically. Neither Sean, nor his argument in the 2006 article, nor Ruth is Islamophobic or racist. Much of the left refuses to seriously get to grips with the character of and threat posed by right-wing political-religious movements. More broadly there is a widespread “political” culture on the left which substitutes whispering campaigns and ritual denunciations on social media for meaningful discussion and argument with political opponents.

The elections panel has made no public criticism of Ruth's record on racism and sought no debate. In fact Forward Momentum have not even told their supporters about the decision to bar her – presumably in order to avoid having to explain themselves properly.

Ruth's initial response to the elections panel, which discusses the political issues in more detail, can be read below as a comment on this article.

Panel member Charlie Macnamara told Ruth she had been denied the chance to engage in any further exchange or discussion with the panel because she hadn’t answered the phone quickly enough – though she had told them she is a key worker and was not available until the evening. As it happens, most of the election panel’s members are full-time unelected union officials (including one in Ruth’s union, Unison).

Meanwhile some in Forward Momentum have also started to agitate around a reported sexual assault by one then AWL member against another referring to 2005. They falsely claimed our organisation orchestrated a cover-up. For extensive documentation on this, including the investigation we launched once our committees heard the charge (in 2018) and the measures we took, see here.

Some have claimed the AWL is top-down, secretive and undemocratic. Falsely, and ironically when you contrast our democratic constitution and practices (see here) to the practices we are discussing here.

There were a series of vicious and dishonest denunciation on social media, and it seems behind the scenes.

The official FM twitter account made the false claim, previously not made by anyone, that multiple candidates had been included on the Momentum Internationalists candidates list without their permission. This was duly repeated around social media.

A group of four prominent primary candidates in London put out publicity making hostility to the AWL one of their main campaign planks!

Would a Momentum run in this way be better than the current one?

What has gone on is not necessarily a simple matter of a unified machine orchestrating a top-down campaign. Forward Momentum is a relatively loose and fragmented organisation. Equally, the bulk of those who hold decisive influence over its functioning have either participated in these sectarian attacks or remained silent. FM supporters who are serious about open democracy, pluralism and political honesty need to challenge this culture and behaviour through all channels available.

Forward Momentum and the labour movement

Forward Momentum is not rich in labour movement activists. Leading Fire Brigades Union people are involved – comrades we have worked with closely on issues including the anti-union laws, the Green New Deal and migrants’ rights. They have protested against Ruth’s exclusion and the “fake news” attacks on us.

Ruth is co-secretary of a large and pretty militant union branch, and a rank-and-file workplace organiser with a strong record of organising workers’ struggles. That includes a lot of anti-racist campaigning, both as part of a branch with a majority black membership and on her own account. (For more on this see her response to the elections panel below.)

None of that exempts her from normal political criticism. But the attitude of those leading the attack seems to be that they are only interested in labour movement activists as window-dressing for their projects. We suspect Ruth’s record as a working-class militant is essentially of little interest to them.

The old regime

Some of those leading the attack on Momentum Internationalists and the AWL were recently connected to the dominant faction in Momentum.

This includes Socialist Action, who have members on the current NCG. They have been supporters of the old Momentum regime, diverging from it mainly to the right (for instance, they opposed the mild Labour for a Green New Deal motion to Labour conference last year as “ultra-left”). It includes people instrumental in the office’s hostile takeover of the Labour Against Racism and Fascism campaign (see here). It includes Christine Shawcroft, one of Jon Lansman’s key lieutenants in the “coup” which abolished Momentum democracy overnight in early 2017, who says she has not changed her mind about that!

Lansman is stepping down from the NCG and the Momentum leadership. The recently-proclaimed Momentum Renewal looks like the “continuity slate”. But it also seems that, as the old “office faction” has lost confidence and broken up, some from the old regime have joined Forward Momentum instead.

This is a consequence of Forward Momentum’s lack of clear politics on anything, including Momentum democracy.

What should the left fight for?

In these primaries, Momentum Internationalists has been far and away the main force advocating clear, substantial politics and policies. It has published extensively on what the left and labour movement should fight for in this crisis – see the statements and blog at momentuminternationalists.org. Its candidates have stood out for advocating clear, concrete democratic, internationalist and socialist ideas – for the pandemic, working-class struggles, the climate emergency and migrants’ rights.

This includes an orientation to grassroots workplace and working-class struggle, and to reorienting Momentum and Labour in that direction.

It includes proposals for genuinely democratising Momentum – establishing real membership-control, with a sovereign decision-making conference, not just more consultation (see here). And a program for democratising the Labour Party (here).

These are the kind of ideas and struggles we need to take forward in Forward Momentum and Momentum, in the party, the unions and more widely.

• momentuminternationalists.org
• fwdmomentum.org
• momentumrenewal.co.uk

***

Forward Momentum results - some initial analysis

The 24-strong Forward Momentum slate for Momentum’s National Coordinating Group (see here for the full slate and here for the votes breakdown) looks like a very mixed bag politically.

Three candidates who signed up to the democratic and socialist programme put forward by Momentum Internationalists were elected: Abbie Clark (Midlands and Eastern region), Nadia Whittome MP (elected officials section) and Ana Oppenheim (London region). So was Andrew Scattergood (Midlands and Eastern), who we have worked with closely in Free Our Unions and on other issues.

The slate includes two people, Sonali Bhattacharyya and Mick Moore (both London), whose election publicity made witch-hunting Workers’ Liberty one of its central planks. And one, Liz Smith (Northern, Scotland, etc), who has argued vocally that Momentum was not insufficiently but too critical and pushy towards Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership.

We also don’t know yet what political program and policies FM will adopt to campaign on. Its policy committee meets on 20 May. A fair number of MI supporters have been elected to the committee from local meetings.

***

Morning Star Momentum?

The Momentum Renewal faction, supported by many prominent figures and eleven MPs, bills itself as wanting “bottom up” reform of Momentum but looks more like a “continuity Momentum” campaign. To be more precise, it represents the wing of the old Momentum most influenced by Morning Star, Stalinist politics. More soon.

Comments

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 19/05/2020 - 16:47

• Are you opposed to racism and in particular islamophobia?

I am equally opposed to all racism. I organised the founding meeting of LARAF. I lead a trade union branch running a high profile campaign against institutional racism. Please see the article I wrote for Labour List about this and specifically the rise of islamophobia labourlist.org/2018/10/labour-must-stop-outsourcing-the-fight-against-racism-and-take-the-lead

You can learn about Lambeth Unison branch’s campaign on institutional racism here: theclarionmag.org/2018/12/18/confronting-racism-at-lambeth-council

• If you are opposed to racism and in particular islamophobia, do you think your refusal to distance yourself from the article is compatible with opposition to racism and islamophobia?

The "Weekly Worker” article was written on the basis of some writer of theirs – trying to stir – coming up to me and asking me if I thought my comrades are racist. I said no, in the strongest terms. It is laughable to imagine I could have answered in any other way – you don’t throw comrades under the bus whenever someone with an axe to grind asks you to. I would be much less suitable as a candidate if I was in the habit of denouncing all my comrades as racists for political convenience.

I wouldn’t have phrased the article the way it was phrased. Not because the argument or intention of the piece is racist, but because it obviously has been offensive to some, and the political argument of the article gets lost as a result. Many Islamic fundamentalist groupings see the 7th century companions of Mohammed who embodied original (or “primitive”) Muslim virtue and made the first great Muslim conquests as a political model. ISIS, Al-Qaeda and other extreme-right groups are very explicit about this. This is an issue defending close to my heart as in 2007 I was the only representative of the UK trade union movement to attend a trade union congress in Iraqi Kurdistan at which workers were discussing their armed struggle against these far-right organisations and American mercenaries.

Sean’s issue is not racism, its favouring style over clarity and ripping off the out-of-date language of Frederick Engels without referencing him. He is paraphrasing the passage from Engels: "The townspeople grow rich, luxurious and lax in the observation of the 'law'. The Bedouins, poor and hence of strict morals, contemplate with envy and covetousness these riches and pleasures. Then they unite under a prophet, a Mahdi, to chastise the apostates and restore the observation of the ritual and the true faith and to appropriate in recompense the treasures of the renegades..." (On the History of Early Christianity).

That’s Engels who in turn was ripping off the 14th century Muslim writer Ibn Khaldun (summarised, for example, in the Prologue to Albert Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples).

I was in politics at the time the article was written and remember the context the piece was written in. The largest left group at the time, the SWP, lashed up with George Galloway and rightwing religious figures, relegating explicit socialist and working-class politics to vague “aspirations” in order to create an electoral base out of the alliance built around the anti-war movement.

To make it work they softened their line on many things, in particular religion. Lindsay German explained she was “in favour of gay rights… [but] not prepared to have it as a shibboleth” They sought alliances with right-wing organisations such as the MAB and the backing of right-wing religious figures at the expense of the independent class interests of Muslim workers. The MAB was as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Its anti-imperialism is a variety of that practised by various radical bourgeois and petty bourgeois formations in the Middle East, Pakistan and elsewhere throughout the world - a more equitable relationship with the imperialist bourgeoisie that allows them a share of valuable natural resources and in the exploitation of the working class. Many socialists in the period reverse-engineered their politics in order to accommodate to this. Islamism is a threat to the working class, in the first instance the Muslim working class. Independent class organisation and struggle by Muslim workers, in alliance and solidarity with other workers, is the key to defeating the Islamists, just as workers' unity is the answer to all bourgeois reaction. Our task is solidarity with workers’ movements and socialists in the Muslim world, and any political concession to Islamism is a barrier to that. To stand against this concession is not Islamophobic, it is an act of solidarity with our Muslim comrades.

Much of this politics of accommodation and communalism still exists on the left – see Starmer and Modi. Or Gardner and Modi. Or courting Catholic Priests in the North West.

I don’t expect you to agree with my analysis of imperialism, many in my own platform don’t but my record very clearly shows my commitment to anti-racism.

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 19/05/2020 - 16:48

At the 14 May Forward Momentum hustings for Momentum NCG candidates, Councillor Josh Lovell said:

“In 2017, after the regional structures and national committees were abolished from above, Momentum changed for the worse. E-democracy failed, membership numbers have fallen over time, groups have become inactive.

“The organisation needs radically rebuilding — on democratic grounds, but also on the lines of class struggle and internationalism. We need radical socialists leading Momentum. Momentum needs annual elections. It needs rank-and-file networks to build class struggle.

“We’ve got an insurgent far right; a Tory Immigration Bill which is about to ravage communities; and a global crash looming following the fall-out from Covid-19. In this pandemic, we need to demand every worker has the right to self-isolate on full pay. We need to immediately release all immigration detainees. We need to urgently recruit people into the unions and abolish the anti-union laws."

Nadia Whittome MP said:

“I don’t think MPs should have reserved places on the NCG, but while we do I am putting myself forward. Momentum was vitally important not just in building a Labour left, but in building outside too. That hasn’t gone far enough, and a lot of that is down to the fact Momentum isn’t democratic. The number one thing has to be democratising Momentum: rebuilding local groups, ensuring the leadership is accountable, which can be done through having a sovereign conference. We need a pluralist left and Labour Party.

"I want to provide a bridge between what’s happening outside Parliament and what’s happening inside. In terms of holding representatives accountable, I’ve submitted myself to open selections in my CLP. I’ve stood as a workers’ representatives on a worker’s wage.

“In the pandemic: firstly, repeal all anti-union laws. Indefinite leave to remain for key workers. There are strong arguments for a universal basic income. Increase statutory sick pay so it’s high enough for everyone to live on. A very big one is scrapping rents, so debts are not just deferred."

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