Momentum: what sort of democracy?

Submitted by Matthew on 2 November, 2016 - 12:57 Author: Sacha Ismail

The row in Momentum is being “spun” as one between those who want a workable broad movement, and those who want a sectarian bearpit. This is false.

Momentum groups are not being torn apart by different socialists tearing strips off each other about political programme. The acrimony and division comes from the people at the top whose fear of political discussion and debate is leading them to suppress democracy in the organisation, and generating predictable outrage.

In the first half of 2016 some argued that it would be too divisive for Momentum to take a position on the EU referendum. In fact, after debate, the advocates of a left “remain” vote (which included us) won and the relatively small but substantial minority accepted it. We don’t want votes on every issue.

But it has to be possible for members to decide what they want to propose and what they will vote on, rather than just being able to click “yes” or “no” online to choices formulated by the office - or by a convoluted system of procedures that will, at the end of the day, come down to control or domination by the office.

Most of Momentum’s campaigning work is being driven by local groups, and not by the office. Those fighting for democracy in Momentum now have also led the way in pushing for national campaigning – on the NHS, in support of strikes and for migrants’ rights, for instance, as well as at Labour Party conference.

The Momentum office helped organise a big and valuable fringe event alongside Labour conference, but did almost nothing to help the left organise within that conference. One reason why: to do that, Momentum would have needed structures capable of deciding democratically which issues to push at the conference, which motions to support, which to oppose. We have no option but to fight to democratise the organisation – which will open up the possibility of more and better campaigning.

Some say “one member one vote” is the most democratic system, or at least that it was the system that elected Jeremy Corbyn. Local general meetings of local groups, in which everyone has a vote, are good. You could call that “OMOV” if you like. But, if that’s OMOV, it’s a different sort of OMOV from the proposal not to have a decision-making conference and instead to have online votes.

Unlike real-world general meetings and delegate conferences, that online voting allows for no real deliberation, challenges, amendments, persuasion or democratic control; it puts power in the hands of a bureaucracy that sets the questions and of the capitalist media. Such systems have been used to undermine both democracy and political radicalism in left-wing parties such as the Brazilian PT and Podemos.

When the right-wing introduced OMOV for Labour leadership contests, they thought it would undermine the left. The history of other left parties and of Labour itself suggested that they were right. On this occasion it didn’t turn out that way.

Usually online OMOV will help the candidates who get the best coverage from the media, and hurt those who depend on argument and discussion within the movement to make their case. It also encourages the already widespread idea that you can change things just by casting a vote online rather than by engaging in meetings and activity.

That idea is a product of a period of defeat and retreat for the labour movement: something we should challenge, not encourage.

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