Demanding bigger things

Submitted by AWL on 26 May, 2020 - 12:05
Abbie Clark

Abbie Clark is Secretary of Stevenage CLP and a candidate for the National Coordinating Group of the Labour left group Momentum (nominations open 28 May, election 16-30 June), on the Forward Momentum slate - elected onto the slate as part of Momentum Internationalists. She spoke to Sacha Ismail.

With Josh Lovell, I founded our Stevenage Momentum group at the end of 2015. A lot of us had joined the Labour Party, but found there was little pre-existing organising on the Labour left, and that it was a bit of a hostile atmosphere for new left-wingers. There wasn’t much room for debate or discussion in the CLP. Organising as part of Momentum helped us with all that.

However, since then the organisation has changed and we’ve seen an ever-bigger shift away from member-led democracy, particularly after the coup of January 2017. At the start of this year I put forward a statement in our local group about refounding it – because we need to think about what we’re doing and why in the post-Corbyn era. Momentum nationally needs that refounding too.

I think a big reason for the fall off in membership and engagement is the lack of transparency and democracy in the organisation. There’s been no NCG elections for almost two years and now these ones come at a crucial time. Momentum could go in very different directions. That’s why I’m standing.

I’ve stood as part of Momentum Internationalists because we need a wider vision than just influencing the Labour Party. Momentum has never fulfilled its potential as being a wider campaigning organisation that can bring together and coordinate activists in various struggles. As a result it has no real campaigning perspective inside Labour either. This is linked to lack of democracy – members get no say in what the organisation campaigns on or what its strategic perspective is. We had the farce of voting yes or no to backing RLB and Angela Rayer, which was indicative of something far wider.

Momentum provides little or no space for people from different factional stances or political viewpoints to discuss and debate their ideas. To achieve real unity in campaigning you also need space to discuss ideas. Part of that is about political education, but I think it also has to mean a sovereign conference in order to make the debates meaningful, with real impact. We can’t get pissed off about the Labour Party not carrying out motions passed at conference or putting them in the manifesto when Momentum doesn’t even have one!

Why do you think Momentum was shut down as a living, democratic organisation?

Partly a reaction to the attacks from the right, and a siege mentality, which also came to embrace relationships on the left. There was a fear of what they saw left groups infiltrating and wrecking Momentum, and clearly an analysis that shutting things down was the only way to protect the project. I can grasp why Lansman did it but it was absolutely wrong both as analysis and as a solution.

What’s your assessment of Forward Momentum so far?

It’s very good there’s a project that has highlighted the democratic deficit within Momentum. It’s also very good that there are so many different people involved, and that there have been attempts at meetings and discussions to debate policy, as well as the election for candidates. In that sense I’ve been quite impressed.

The need for these kinds of discussions will not disappear after the NCG election, particularly if a lot of people elected who are committed to defending the status quo, so this needs to be an ongoing project.

However, the banning of Ruth Cashman of Momentum Internationalists was a pretty large hole in the process. The way the decision was made was poor and the decision itself was totally wrong. If Ruth stands in the election, that would be legitimate.

The call that was made for people to declare automatic loyalty to the slate is problematic given this behaviour, and given that it’s still not been determined what Forward Momentum’s policies are.

More broadly, some of the attitudes towards our wing of the left, but particularly the obsessive sectarianism that exists towards the AWL, is really unhealthy. I’ve encountered it in the Eastern region from people who really don’t have any knowledge of what they’re talking about but have picked it up as something they repeat.

What are the issues we should be raising?

One big one that I’ve already mentioned and that I raised in my statement for the selections is having a sovereign annual conference. We’re hearing a lot of woolly formulations which seem to mean people will get input but those making the decisions, at the top, can still ignore it. There needs to be an actual decision-making conference so members can send motions and delegates to decide policies and also Momentum’s overall direction. We need to re-establish regional structures, and the boundaries need to be rational, at least like the Labour Party regions, not these giant super-regions. Underneath it all, of course, we need to get groups going again. So many groups no longer meet, and that must be because of the negative atittude towards them but also the lack of opportunity for shaping anything in the organisation.

Momentum needs political education, not just training on how to use certain tools. One reason the left is so fractured is there’s no political education and discussion. I know in DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] they have political education committees in which members develop an education program. There’s practical training, but on a wider range of things including organising at work – and also reading groups, film screenings, political discussions…

Members are already organising in various campaigns – campaigning for migrants’ rights, or climate strikes, or the Green New Deal – so Momentum needs to support that work and those campaigns. Migrants’ rights is particularly crucial. At Labour conference last year Momentum didn’t even support the LCFM [Labour Campaign for Free Movement] motion.

If Forward Momentum raises this seriously, it could be an important line of division with Momentum Renewal. You know the claims that are going to be made, that Labour lost the election because it was too remain, which is of course bollocks. Talk about working-class communities which doesn’t also take on board working-class communities in big cities, and particularly people of colour and migrants, is a problem. We need to try to relate to the whole working class.

More generally, the point isn’t just to work in Labour or be involved in campaigns – it’s to do both and link them together.

How do you think the labour movement’s response to Covid-19 has been? What should we be pushing for?

The response across the labour movement has been disjoined and piecemeal. Clearly people in the Labour Party have been quite nervous about calling out the government and how shit its response has been. I don’t know if that was a fear of looking opportunistic, of playing politics with the crisis. The result is that Labour has misjudged the public mood, as well as failing to shape it. I think there’s a lot of anger out there about what is happening.

The TUC and some unions have been weak too, jumping on everything and presenting it as a huge victory even when it’s clearly inadequate, like with the furlough scheme. We should be saying yes but we demand this now, not praising the government.

Now is the perfect opportunity to raise public ownership of all health and social care. And lots of other things: scrapping no recourse to public funds. Full sick pay for all workers from day one, full pay to self-isolate, 100pc pay on furlough. Angela Rayner has been burnishing her trade union credentials, so why aren’t they talking about scrapping the anti-union laws? In this crisis when you don’t know if you’re going to turn up to work and not have the PPE, you need to be able to walk out without worrying if you’re going to lose your job.

Labour’s going to be out of government for a while and we’re about to have the worst recession for a decades, maybe ever. Why aren’t we shaping the debate? A lot of these things I’m raising are not radical, and they’ve been passed at conference. They should be givens, and socialists should be demanding bigger things too. In the current situation it’s easy to explain radical policies to the public, there is potentially a real appetite for them.

How do you think the left should relate to Starmer?

I’m not sure the left has had much to say. You’ve got people who would never criticise Corbyn at all but are very angry about just denouncing the new leadership. But there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of organised pressure. For instance on the NHS surcharge – there’s little call out of the leadership for not pushing further.

In Momentum most people have a focus on getting Momentum sorted, whatever that means, and looking at other things later. But you can do multiple things at the same time.

Momentum Renewal criticises Forward Momentum for being inward-looking and process-focused, but it’s obviously an opportunistic argument. The point is we need democracy in our organisations, all our organisations, but that has to be part of a project of pushing the party and the leadership and holding them to account.

You’ve supported the call to delay Brexit. Why?

With the fall-out from Covid, we’re already going to to face a recession, and it will be brutal. If we don’t block it we’ll have further, even deeper austerity, and it will be workers and the most vulnerable in society who will pick up the bill. There’s no good time for a hard Brexit to be rushed through, but this is the worst time imaginable. It’s obvious what the Tories want – they can launch attack after attack, and use the pandemic and Brexit as intertwined excuses. It will be a double cloak for their hard-right agenda. We shouldn’t allow that to happen.

There’s reticence about this very obvious demand, I think, because we’re still stuck with the false idea that being too anti-Brexit is why we lost the election. This is urgent, and “tactics” of keeping quiet and allowing the Tories to slip up are not going work. The movement needs to speak out. There’s also some very basic questions of democracy – how can we get proper democratic scrutiny in the current situation, particularly in the next month?

The current crisis makes the whole Brexit project look pretty ridiculous. It shows the absurdity of nationalism. Normally in a crisis people revert to nationalism, but I have a feeling there’s a big opportunity, with the impact of Covid-19 across the world, to make the internationalist argument, to highlight the commonalities of what people face. If we can get a delay, it’s not impossible people could change their minds on Brexit, and they should be given that chance.

The Labour left needs to take a strong stance on this.

• Originally published on The Clarion

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