The Labour Party has 600,000 members and Momentum has 20,000. That should be good news for the activist left in the party. Certainly, if the left organises on the scale it did for the two leadership elections that delivered majorities for Corbyn, then it should be capable of making real progress in other Labour internal elections, in getting through positive rule changes which would strengthen and democratise the Party.
However it would be foolish to discount the organisational strength of the Labour right and its ability mobilise. That’s particularly a problem because the fall-out and demoralisation arising from the “coup” in Momentum (the abolition of existing committees and imposition of a structure) has knocked the left’s organisational ability — at least for now.
Labour First, a self-styled “moderate group”, continues to work with Progress to organise within local Labour Parties, and they have been well prepared for internal elections and selections. At last year’s Labour Party conference they were much more effectively organised than the left, even if formally their numbers are much smaller than Corbyn supporters.
The right want to demoralise the often more experienced left. They will have no scruple about using Labour’s current poor polling — 16 points behind the Tories — and media speculation about potential leadership challenges that the right. In the Guardian (13 February) Matthew D’Ancona declared, “There is no shortage of talent among the party’s centrists. But where is the coordination, the focus, the rage for victory? At a moment of maximum danger – and opportunity – they are barely ready for a game of rock, paper, scissors, let alone a battle to the ideological death.” D’Ancona’s article is an attempt to galvanise the right into taking action now and preparing for a future leadership contest.
The huge potential of left support that arose out of the leadership elections should be able to stop the right, but the left has to up its game and ensure that activists are prepared to fight locally for both socialist policies and for democratic procedures across the board.
This is not an attack on work already being done. This is about recognising the scale of our difficulties, and suggesting the Labour left urgently needs a discussion on strategies and tactics to strengthen our position. The left also needs to our own democratic organisations. The networking conference organised by activists in Momentum for 11 March will be an opportunity to discuss all of these issues.
The building of functioning wards, constituency Young Labour groups and other Labour forums as well as active Momentum groups are two ways our movement can be organised. One problem (of many) with the Momentum coup is that local groups are not seen as the core part of the organisation.
To have an active, interventionist movement fit to fight the right, you need transparency and accountability. Relying on the functioning of “inner circles” and those in the know, no matter how good their discussions, will not build an open, strong left. In dealing with the right we are not taking on new, inexperienced activists. That is another reason why we need strong structures and open debate. We need a lot of political preparation, to arm ourselves with arguments for the fight ahead.
Almost 40 years ago similar debates were being had around in the Rank and File Mobilising Committee, an organisation that drew together most of the organisations of the Labour left, and some unions to democratise the Labour Party. At the height of its success it and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy helped to push through the electoral college structure that would elect the Labour leader up until the Collins review abolished these structures. In an article from that time, John Bloxam, the RFMC Secretary, took on the arguments about why a democratic movement is essential to win against the Tories. These arguments are relevant now.
Speaking at Mobilising Committee meetings round the country, I have come across one argument again and again. Won’t the disputes over democracy divert from the fight against the Tories? Sometimes it is a cynical argument from opponents or reform, But sometimes it expresses genuine concern. What do we need to fight the Tories effectively? A bigger and more active membership in the Labour Party (and the trade unions). A clear policy to mobilise mass action against the Tories Confidence that we can replace the Tories with a Government that really bases itself on the demands, the needs and the struggles of the labour movement. Without democracy, we will get none of these... How can Labour be an effective united force against the Tories if our supposed leaders are lining up with the other side? All our parliamentary leaders at least make general speeches against the cuts,
But how much credibility can Labour have to fight the cuts when everyone knows the last Labour government cut £8 bn, making itself ‘accountable’ to the IMF rather than working class? We need a Labour Party where policy is seriously debated in the confidence that decisions will actually be carried out.
Activists must be able to join the Party knowing that they will not just be the foot-sloggers for Parliamentary careerists or time-servers who ignore the rank and file. They must be able to join knowing that the resolutions they debate and pass will lead to action, not just to overcrowding in the waster-paper baskets. There can be no effective fight against the Tories without a fight against those who obstruct anti-Tory action, and against the undemocratic practices and structures which slow down struggles or dissolve them in a mess of cynicism and betrayal. We need to be able to fight for policies with the confidence that we have a movement that will carry them out.