This is in some ways the biggest crisis of parliamentary politics ever in British history. Brexit dominates politics in a way no issue has done since, perhaps, the miners’ strike of 1984- 5. Yet the biggest Labour left grouping, Momentum, has remained silent on Brexit.
In October-November 2018, after some pressure from activists, Momentum ran a consultation of its members on Brexit. The consultation was not a conference with debate, motions, amendments, votes. That’s not Momentum’s way. It was an e-polling exercise. It showed 82% of Momentum members thinking Brexit a bad thing, and 81% saying Labour should go for a new public vote on Brexit, at least unless Labour could force a new general election. But Momentum has not promoted those 80%-plus majority views.
As is often the case with Momentum’s silences (for instance also on the related issue of free movement, which, as far as we know, Momentum still supports, on paper), the silence conceals a rather definite and unhealthy political leaning. There are different views among Momentum’s senior office staff — those who actually make decisions in the organisation. But on this, pro-Brexit people are driving what Momentum does. Their influence shapes its refusal to take a position which would be popular among its members. Does Momentum say nothing about politics at all then, other than to support Jeremy Corbyn in general and to mobilise votes in internal Labour Party elections? Not quite.
Momentum has done some good work on left antisemitism recently, tweeting a recommendation to read Steve Cohen’s valuable book That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Antisemitic. And, in a less welcome move, Momentum has promoted the new Tribune magazine, a publication run by pro-Brexiteers and publishing mostly pro-Brexit articles. A 6 February Momentum circular told members: “Momentum Westminster have started a reading group for the dazzling recently-relaunched socialist magazine Tribune... Want to set up your own Tribune reading group? Email email@example.com and they’ll tell you how”.
Momentum is not promoting debate and reading in general, but promoting one particular publication of the Labour left as against all the others (Solidarity, The Clarion, Socialist Appeal, the two Labour Briefings, etc.). Arguably this is an advance on Momentum’s earlier publication preferences. The first The World Transformed event in 2016, sponsored by Momentum, promoted the Morning Star (the paper linked to the Communist Party of Britain), putting it “officially” on sale inside the event while sales of Labour left publications were “officially” (though ineffectively) banned there.
We need a Labour left which has internal democracy, which debates out political ideas (including Brexit), and which encourages a pluralistic and open-minded culture of reading and discussion.