A letter to Jon Lansman

Submitted by martin on 14 December, 2016 - 7:53 Author: Martin Thomas

Jon Lansman and Tony Benn in 1981

Dear Jon,

I'm glad to read your statement to the Guardian that you're "not walking away from Momentum". I hope it will help quiet the split talk from some high-profile people around Momentum - Paul Mason, Owen Jones, Laura Murray - since the 3 December national committee meeting.

I hope, even, that it means it may be possible to talk quietly, without media-provided megaphones and howling about sabotage, to discuss what adjustments or compromises can best keep Momentum on the road.

We are for unity. If we find ourselves on the losing side in some future votes about Momentum structure or policy, as we've found ourselves on losing sides in the past, we won't split. We'll only take up the democratic rights that every minority should have, to try to convince the majority.

As you know, I've sought you out for off-the-record conversations about Momentum, to find common ground and to clarify and explore ways of dealing with differences, since before Momentum was launched. I'm glad you agreed to those conversations, and disappointed that more recently you haven't responded to requests for further talk.

This has to be an open letter; but it is also a letter, an attempt to restart dialogue.

You and I were effectively co-organisers of the Labour Party Democracy Task Force in 2010-11, when Ed Miliband made a promise (effectively, in the end, annulled) of an open review of Labour Party structures. We were also effectively co-organisers of the campaign against the Collins Report in 2013-14.

Further back, we worked together in the Rank and File Mobilising Committee for Labour Democracy in 1980. I was only a backroom activist, while you were the secretary of the committee, but the organiser of the committee, your partner in the day-to-day running of that campaign, was my Workers' Liberty comrade John Bloxam.

Thus you know from long experience that Owen Jones's, or Laura Murray's, squalling about us as "saboteurs" and "sectarians" is nonsense.

We have never agreed on grand political philosophies. I am, or try to be, a Trotskyist, a revolutionary Marxist. As you said in an interview with me in 2014, you are "not from [our] political tradition"; if I understand right, you are a reform-socialist, a "Dererite" in the sense of the gradualist strategy advocated by Vladimir Derer (founder of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy), but, unlike Derer, not a Marxist.

We have worked together, however, on the basis of unity in action where we agree, dialogue and debate where we disagree. Since a lively left has never been and will never be monolithic, that has been, and still is, the only basis for left unity. It is the only basis on which Momentum can prosper.

Another thing you know from long experience is that for the labour movement to mobilise and to become able to create socialism, democracy is necessary. At the time you were secretary of the Rank and File Mobilising Committee, the Labour right was beginning what turned out to be a long effort to substitute postal (and later online) "OMOV" for delegate democracy in the Labour Party. An article in a Rank and File Mobilising Committee bulletin entitled "The sham of OMOV" said in 1980:

"Voting is essential to democracy... But mere voting is not itself democracy, nor is it sufficient for democracy. It can be and is used against democracy... 'Plebiscitary democracy' in the Labour Party would actually destroy the very possibility of self-controlling democracy in the party.

"Multi-dimensional participatory democracy means that the participants have some possibility to think things through as a result of interacting and discussing with their comrades. It allows and demands some preliminary closing of ranks by people committed to the party and to what it stands for or could be made to stand for, against the pressures of the enemies of the party - who are entrenched and immensely strong in the society in which the party exists, and which it exists to change". (Full article reproduced here.)

Postal or online balloting is less undemocratic than no voting at all. The apparatus can sometimes be surprised, as Cameron was over Brexit and the Labour right was over the 2015 and 2016 leadership polls.

But you know that real democracy requires continuous control over the executive; a continuous process of the formation and revision and recreation, through discussion, of a collective majority opinion; the possibility for today's minority to persuade enough to become tomorrow's majority.

Yet we find ourselves at odds over just that issue. In the current conflict in Momentum, you stand with those who want to deny Momentum's conference decision-making powers, and insist on "democlicksy" - democratic mandates only by online plebiscites.

We are not inflexible about details of conference or committee arrangements (and no-one else much is either, as far as we know). We do not exclude a role for online plebiscites. We are positively for using the web for making information about proposals to be voted on, arguments for and against, minutes of committees, and so on, easily and quickly accessible to all.

We reject the comprehensive bypassing of all structured and participatory democracy in Momentum by a process reduced to the full-time staff getting mandates from time to time by online plebiscites, something like the 38 Degrees movement. But that is what your side of the dispute, so far, is inflexible on.

Why do you now stand against what you have fought for in the labour movement for decades? I think it must be because you feel obliged to have Momentum run so as to "keep in with" the Corbyn Leader's Office, the top leaders of Unite, and the left MPs.

Those three "powers-that-be" are at odds among themselves and with each other, so "keeping in with" them all must be very difficult. And giving Momentum members democratic control over their own movement would take it from difficult to impossible.

Maybe you have changed your mind about democracy. But I find that hard to believe.

You do not argue that the Labour Party should scrap its decision-making delegate conference and its elected committees, and instead give members a say only through online plebiscites administered from time to time by the Leader's Office. On the contrary, you want a stronger, more democratic conference.

If trade unions were to abolish their decision-making delegate congresses and conferences, and instead have a General Secretary, elected by online ballot, just consulting the members from time to time by yes-or-no online voting, you would not say that mended a "disenfranchisement" of the rank and file.

You would consider it a democratic regression in society if Parliament were abolished, and instead we had a President, elected online, and obliged only to renew her or his mandate by snap polls on chosen questions.

You have never argued that left groupings in the Labour Party which you've been active in, like CLPD or LRC, should scrap their conferences and committees and work through their executive organisers polling members online from time to time.

The disagreement goes back to our conversations even before Momentum was launched. I spelled them out in an article in Solidarity soon after the launch.

"Momentum... has been launched with no promise of a democratic structure. In fact, inquirers have been told in so many words that a Momentum conference (the organisers 'expect' it will have one) will have no power to take decisions. There may be some 'plebiscitary' decision-making by electronic referendums of Momentum supporters...

"Momentum is proposed as a composite structure, with an inside-the-Labour-Party element, and a 'social movement' element. At present there is no way to join Momentum, rather than just to sign up to keep in touch with it, but the plan is that non-Labour people will be able to join equally with Labour people..."

I argued (as I had done with you off-the-record) that Momentum must be Labour-focused rather than composite. And "to have structures which are, as some... have said, 'an amorphous mess' — that makes for rancour and squabbles, not democratic cooperation.

"Both the lack of democratic mechanisms, and the Rube Goldberg structure, are defended as necessary to give equal weight to sympathisers who participate only online with those who come to meetings.

"The idea here is just wrong. Even if Facebook introduces an 'angry' emoji as an option alongside the 'Like' button (as apparently it will...), capitalism will not be overthrown by millions of 'angry' clicks, but only in the streets and in the workplaces, where people organise face-to-face.

"Participation, involvement, getting together, discussing, debating, forming cohesion — those should be our mottos, rather than surfing on a wave of slacktivism".

I think we were able to convince you on some things. Momentum decided to be a Labour organisation, rather than a composite "social movement". We got an elected national committee, rather than one nominated from above (as first proposed). You have agreed that Momentum should do some campaigning on the streets, which means it has to decide policies to campaign on.

But I was all too right about the rancour and squabbles. In argument with me, you have continued to defend "democlicksy", not really as a democratic method of deciding policies, but on the grounds that debates or votes on policy are positively undesirable in Momentum. Start debating policies, you've said, and Momentum is bound to split.

In fact the few debates on policy which have been squeezed into Momentum - yes, mostly by our efforts - have caused no rancour, even though you were reluctant to have them. On the Brexit referendum; on the Labour Party purge; on freedom of movement; on restoration of the NHS, debate has produced large majorities, and no feeling by the minority that it has been trampled on. Even on antisemitism, the actual political debates, organised on our initiative, have been calm and useful; rancour has centred on the organisational aspects (in that case, in our opinion as in yours, unavoidable: the deselection of Jackie Walker as vice-chair).

The debate which produced a vote for Momentum to define itself as socialist has not been sufficiently reflected in Momentum's public profile, we think; but it didn't generate bile or venom.

Rancour has come not from debates on policy, but from the attempts to quash or bypass them: the attempts to gazump Momentum's discussions about its decision-making structures by faits accomplis and by cancelling meetings; the screeching response from some (not yourself, I'm happy to note) to the votes on 3 December, a response all too similar to the right-wing MPs' reaction to Jeremy Corbyn's election as leader.

Online technologies make it much easier to keep members informed and give access to debate. They do not change the basic arguments about democracy.

Laura Murray's recent rant inadvertently makes the point. She boasts of being elected as one of the supplementary women delegates to the 3 December meeting - by 242 online votes from an electorate (if Momentum's membership is 50% female) of 10,000, or 2%. In the first few days of the MxV platform, 125 proposals were posted, with support ranging from 176 clicks (1%) to 9 (0.05%). This is not a workable or inclusive democracy.

You've cited 38 Degrees as a model of workable organisation. Run by 35 unelected full-time staff under an unelected "Board" of worthies, 38 Degrees does not, despite its claims, give its notional three million members democratic control. From time to time the office staff poll "members" online about campaign priorities; but they don’t publish the poll results, and what they do publish suggests very few "members" vote in these polls. The details of campaigning are decided entirely by the office staff.

38 Degrees is stable on that undemocratic basis because its members expect from it only a flow of online petitions which they can sign or not sign. With Momentum the stakes are and have to be higher.

Jeremy Corbyn's election as Labour leader will figure in labour history only as a freak episode unless we are able to help the influx of new members to win democratic control over the Party's mechanisms and offices; to turn the Party outwards into an organisation campaigning and convincing in the workplaces and on the streets; and, critically, to equip the Party with well-debated new socialist policies breaking radically from the sludge handed down from the Blair-Brown-Miliband years.

The 2016 Labour Party conference, which Momentum neglected so badly that the conference shifted right compared with previous years, despite coming after Corbyn's re-election and a great influx of mostly left-wing new members, shows we're lagging.

Momentum must be equipped to help. It cannot do that without deciding on policies through democratic discussions which inspire and educate its members, or the bulk of its members, to work collectively and actively for those policies. What motions will it push for conferences? As events develop, how will the left be quick in collectively formulating proposals for how Labour should respond, or will the initiative rest with the right? When will the left push for Labour to go on to the streets? With what slogans?

You cannot have politics without politics. And to have socialist politics you have to have continuous, structured democracy and decision-making. If that means Momentum does not quite "keep in with" the staff in the Leader's Office, the left MPs, or the Unite union leaders, then so be it: unity in action where we agree, open debate and dialogue where we disagree, will remain our motto.

In solidarity,
Martin Thomas

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