Momentum: trials, tribulations, and hopes for the future

It’s been a hell of a ride if you’ve been one of the 40,000 signed up to the grassroots initiative that is Momentum. Don Flynn says this is no time to give up your seat.

The shortcomings of Momentum are repeated so often in leftist circles the whole discussion feels like a string of clichés: machine politics, bunker mentality, marginalised membership, disempowered local groups, initiatives left to wither on the vine – and much more in a similar vein.

It would be sensible to cut some slack for the comrades who have thrown themselves into the work of this network over the course of the last five years. Despite the recriminations, Momentum continues to function as a network which links together some 40,000 paying members, covers the country with local activist groups, and has an important relationship with leftist initiatives like The World Transformed (TWT) and Another Europe is Possible (AEIP). The setback inflicted by the December general election was bad enough; if Momentum goes down the pan then the socialist dual strategy of fighting in the Parliamentary system and against its limitations will be dead for another generation.

How much of Momentum’s difficulties is the result of poor leadership on the part of a clique that had insulated itself against accountability to members, and how much was a product of an intrinsically challenging time for the left?

These issues were discussed during a lengthy Zoom webinar which took place on Saturday evening and featured contributions from Leo Panitch, Andrew Murray, John McDonnell MP, Zarah Sultana MP, Lotte Boumelha, James Schneider and Grace Blakeley. Titled ‘Searching for Socialism’, it marked the launch of the book of the same name by Panitch and Colin Leys.

In introducing the theme Panitch pointed to the fundamental strangeness of the left’s position in the Labour Party after Corbyn’s surprising victory in the leadership election in 2015. At that time there was no organisational project to advance the influence of socialist ideas of any significant size in a party which had just elected the most left wing politician to head its work in generations. This got completely back-to-front a strategy which should have first won the ranks of the party to socialism, and then gone on to elect a socialist to lead it.

It meant that everything that followed on from this point was a struggle to catch up with the reality that the boldness of rank-and-file party members had created. Momentum was formed explicitly as a movement that would support Corbyn when the relentless attacks came in from the Labour right wing and their allies in the mass media.  Political education was neglected because in the tumult of the battles that followed the ideas that counted were the simple ones that yelled “Stand by Corbyn!”

Momentum began to give credence to critics who dismissed it as a Corbyn fan club, or even worse, a cult. Nevertheless, the cluster of social forces that had rallied to support his first campaign stuck with him a year later when the majority of the Parliamentary Party launched its ridiculous and deservedly doomed coup. But the schisms ran deep, and it was always clear that Corbyn and the people closest to him were at the helm of a hopelessly divided party.

Then came issues which even split the left in several different camps. The response to Brexit was the biggest challenge, which brought out a series of ill-advised attempts to triangulate around the viewpoints of old working class Leavers and young metropolitan Remainers. And the furore over the charge of antisemitism didn’t help either.

Despite the fact that all these issues were to the forefront of the political scene, leading figures in the Momentum camp continued to act as though they believed that a message about austerity would finally get through to the voting public, and the vagaries of the British electoral system would give Labour a chance at forming a government.  The close result in 2017 gave credence to that idea. The people’s choice in 2019 saw it crash into oblivion.

So much of the way things have turned out, when analysed from this standpoint, follow on from the peculiar fact that Labour’s membership had elected a socialist leader before putting in place a socialist support network equipped with a grasp of how the challenges that were bound to follow could be tackled. From the start, Momentum was a desperate effort to catch up with events. Its top-down commandist way of giving leadership was a product of the conjuncture rather than the malevolence of its leaders.

That said, the business of picking up and moving on means that a lot of things that might come to be bad habits have to be addressed and overcome. Momentum needs a thorough-going democratisation of its structure. It has to break with the idea that socialism could be achieved in Britain through a fortunate accident in which its archaic constitution gifts the right to form a government to a left wing Labour Party. It has to undertake a programme of political education across its members to help make the transition from leftism as an emotional spasm to a principled critique of capitalism and the measures that need to be taken to replace it with socialism.

The Momentum webinar stressed the positive reasons why we should be hopeful that this could be achieved. James Schneider argued for a movement with a network structure, encouraging multiple initiatives from the grassroots that might be successful or failures, but which had the capacity to report back to the wider movement on what had been learnt so that we could all move forward together.

There is no need to despair. The left might still be successful in working up a pathway to socialism which takes into account the peculiar features of British society and culture and the way this all fits into the wider world. So, maintain your membership. Join in the debates. Follow up on the actions. And Zoom, Zoom, Zoom.

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