Momentum democracy - a reply to Paul Mason

Submitted by AWL on 18 November, 2016 - 6:32 Author: Michael Johnson

“As a journalist I am…privileged in that I don’t need an organization to make my voice heard”, writes Paul Mason in his recent article on the development of Momentum’s structures.

Even though Mason has only just joined Momentum he is, of course, entitled to his view about its future development. While many of interventions into the debate over Labour so far - in support of Trident, immigration controls and Scottish nationalism - have in my view been wrong, he is nevertheless a thoughtful voice, taken seriously by many.

Yet, whether specifically commissioned or not, the publication of his article in the midst of the current furore in Momentum provides one of the major arguments against the sort of structures Mason himself is arguing for.

One major argument that the left has traditionally made against One Member One Vote (OMOV) decision-making systems is that, in the absence of debate and discussion at a local level within the labour movement, an atomised electorate of individual voters will be heavily influenced by those with the backing of or access to the mass media, disproportionate to the latter’s numbers within the rank-and-file membership or activist base.

It is for this reason that the Thatcherite anti-union laws of the 1980s forced trade unions to conduct individualised postal ballots rather than take decisions collectively in workplace meetings. Union membership, it was hoped, would succumb to the pressure of a press barrage or the recommendations of the union bureaucracy against industrial action, free from the counter-pressure of the militants amongst their workmates.

Call me cynical but one can well imagine, if the OMOV online-voting only system is enacted in Momentum, more radical proposals (if they are circulated by Momentum centrally at all) will be blatantly misrepresented by the capitalist press, complemented by eerily well-timed ‘Comment is Free’ articles and some anonymous briefings to the New Statesman. In response, activists will struggle to even reach the wider Momentum electorate to make the counter-arguments.

Mason argues in his piece that “we need to turn half a million-plus members into activists” and
non one could possibly disagree. Yet, it is argued, in order to embrace the popular participation of the “new way of doing politics” we must “convince a minority of comrades, steeped in the 20th century hard left and trade union bureaucratic traditions, that a layer cake of ‘delegate’ structures and hierarchies is the wrong thing.”

In Momentum currently, it is precisely these ‘delegate’ structures which have enabled local activists in Momentum groups to have any grip over the central Momentum’s output. When they have been allowed to function, the current representative structures have provided the transmissions belt through which the creativity and activism in a local Momentum group can be translated upwards, via the regional committees, to the National Committee, where decisions are made about Momentum’s key political priorities.

Deprived of any way to set the political agenda or having meaningful effectivity over Momentum’s national political decisions, local groups may well wither, leaving only a data company with an office in Euston, occasionally directing a stage army of passive members.

No one will pretend that there have not been problems with the delegate structures but their abolition would not “empower masses of people to take their own decisions through direct democracy” as Mason would have it. In all likelihood, it would concentrate creative initiative in the central office, with the membership asked to rubber-stamp a number of already pre-filtered proposals.

Mason almost admits as much when he writes that “we should circulate a small number of Momentum-approved motions to national and regional conferences, youth and women’s conference etc— these to be chosen by an electronic ballot of all members …”

Before the electronic ballot can be run, the proposals for voting on must first be selected. But by whom? Better by far a formal and therefore accountable hierarchy constituted by democratic votes on proposals from local groups than an informal hierarchy based around pre-existing cliques or the Momentum machine.

Democracy, it must be asserted, is not simply the right of members to vote. While there cannot be democracy without the right to vote, it is not sufficient in itself. Democracy is also the ability of members to discuss and deliberate together collectively and, crucially, to have the power to initiate proposals - not simply chose from a pre-agreed set of alternatives.

If we have learnt anything from the fall-out from Brexit, and the government’s current incapacity to define its course of action, it is that polarised votes on “yes-no” alternatives cannot meaningfully express the democratic will on complex issues. Devising a constitution for Momentum and agreeing its political programme are examples of such issues.

Where Mason does mention structures he calls for “a steering committee elected by all the members in an electronic secret ballot”. All the same argues against OMOV apply - this will simply privilege those with the highest profile, or with the largest social media following, or the greatest access to internal membership lists, to the exclusion of the deserving yet comparatively unknown local activist who has been quietly building Momentum’s capacity in her or his area.

Ultimately, Mason calls for a “network, not a hierarchy” but as Jo Freeman put it in her classic ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’, “the idea of ‘structurelessness' does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones. Thus, “structurelessness becomes a way of masking power, and…is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not).”

In some cases, those advocating OMOV online voting are doing so out of good faith. Others, it must admitted, are not. Either way, the result is the same and we should resist it.

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