From Resolutionary to Revolutionary Democracy? Hackney delegates’ perspective on the London regional Momentum meeting

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We were tasked with going to the London Momentum meeting on 29th October as Hackney’s delegates. This meeting was dominated by the outcomes of a hastily-convened meeting of Momentum’s Steering Committee the previous night at which just nine people had agreed to cancel the National Committee meeting scheduled for the following Saturday and to install One-Member-One-Vote (OMOV) at Momentum’s planned conference. Two and a half hours of the London meeting was given over to discussing this and to agreeing a motion saying that we do not recognise the Steering Committee’s actions and decisions as legitimate. Back in June, Momentum Hackney had raised questions about the role of London Region, arguing it should focus on supporting local groups rather than passing motions,  and asked for a discussion around this. Fifteen minutes of the meeting was given over to this. This meeting encapsulates conflicting views about Momentum and we offer a perspective here grounded in the Momentum we are creating in Hackney.

We agreed with the overwhelming consensus at the meeting to condemn the undemocratic process by which Momentum’s Steering Committee had railroaded through OMOV and cancelled the National Committee meeting. But we feel troubled by the way OMOV was positioned in the debate. This is not the first time that the Steering Committee have taken decisions undemocratically. The removal of Jackie Walker as Vice Chair was done without consultation and under threat that any other outcome would lead to the TSSA union evicting Momentum from its offices. We feel that this democratic deficit was raised now because most of those at the meeting had a strong commitment to a delegate system over OMOV. It was seen as deeply hypocritical to bypass Momentum’s emerging democratic structures (especially in local groups), however immature these structures, but wider democratic participation was rejected.

In this context, we would like to make a case for OMOV. This blog is intended as a provocation. We recognise that we leave out important debates between different versions of  OMOV and ways of hybridising it with other structures which must be part of our discussions going forward.

One Member One Vote

Most people who have been on the left for a long time in either Labour or the Trade Union movement like the idea of a delegate system. They see it as democratic as there are clear lines of accountability, with delegates being elected by local groups and so accountable to them. Delegates ought to represent the views of those who they represent and not themselves. In cases where votes are known in advance, they should be mandated to vote a particular way and sanctioned if they do not. Having been delegates from Momentum Hackney to London Region, we found this a very difficult thing to do authentically, but not impossible. However, the argument that we are better placed to do this than the people we represent, gets dangerously close to having a distrust for our members and to constructing ourselves as an activist elite.

Many people feel that delegate conferences are vital because people need to meet face-to-face to make decisions and the people who make these decisions need to be ‘informed’ and so not simply rank-and-file members. These conditions enable decision making via deliberative democracy. Many on the left argue that using OMOV destroys an organisation’s grassroots as it means that the decisions are largely made by people who are not actively engaged rather than drawing on the experience of those who are and, as a result, the latter become alienated. At the London Momentum meeting, Jon Lansman (whether rightly or wrongly) was presented as the face of this move, and so OMOV was seen as the means by which he could best maintain his power. And yet, a delegate system provides a way for the people at the London meeting to maintain their own power. This is not just because, as the ones doing the work, they are more likely to be elected as delegates, but because this is the system in which they feel most comfortable.

As we’ve said, from their point of view OMOV gives too much say to a ‘passive membership’, content with online rather than ‘face-to-face’ political activity. This creates a culture of ‘clicktivism’ in Momentum and, in elections, would favour ‘big names’ like Sam Tarry and Lansman himself, who are well known by those on the fringes of Momentum. Those who opposed the decision argued that the move replicated the strategies of the right of the Labour Party. But we feel some of those arguing against OMOV also imitate these strategies. Indeed the ‘big names’ argument against OMOV is one we’ve heard some anti-Corbyn MPs use to argue against Labour Party members having a say in the composition of the shadow cabinet. And, in both cases, there’s an implicit distrust of ‘ordinary’ members.

The term Clicktivism is dismissive. Corbyn’s victory, and thus Momentum’s existence, are only possible because of OMOV in the Labour party. There have always been right and left wing arguments for this. For us, the first principle of popular democracy must be inclusion. It is the key to transforming passivity into activity. On a practical level, we need to be able to involve people in Labour and in Momentum. Going along to a meeting as an observer is likely to put off newcomers. But more than this, the ‘new politics’ is about not delegating your responsibility to take part in and to learn about politics. Coming to meetings, participating in votes and so on, can be part of a transformative process, driving new learning and engagement. Jeremy’s leadership campaigns in 2015 and 2016 embodied this: as people started to engage with the campaigns and the issues raised their confidence increased and they felt more entitled to speak and act politically.

Many criticised the Steering Committee’s decision as bureaucratic. We agreed that it shows signs of a creeping technocracy within Momentum. But those critics fail to acknowledge the deeply-rooted bureaucratic and exclusionary political culture that drives the argument in favour of delegate-based structures. This was typified by the dismissive response of some to Momentum Hackney’s Statement. We intended this as an interruption of the ‘unconscious’ political culture that has formed in these meetings. Although a fragile alternative space was created in the meeting during the statement’s discussion, it had taken many months of persistence to get even these 15 minutes allocated to it (people seem much happier spending two and a half hours debating the nuances of something where there was a clear consensus). We felt that the statement’s eventual inclusion was both begrudging and tokenistic. We publish it below in the hope that it can open up a discussion that we feel urgently needs to happen. As Hilary Wainwright, one of Momentum Hackney’s Community Engagement Officers, wrote as far back as 1987, in her book Labour: A Tale of Two Parties: “the electoral and ‘resolutionary’ imperatives of the inherited structures press hard. It requires immense counter-pressure and will, often from the outside as well as the inside, to sustain a different way of organising” (p.267-8).

Momentum Hackney’s Original Statement

Momentum Hackney takes the position that the focus of the London Regional Committee should not be on the passing of motions but rather on offering support to Momentum’s local groups. It should primarily be a space where groups from across London can share and exchange experience and ideas and offer solidarity and support.

We have concerns that the political structure that is beginning to take shape in the London Regional Committee, based on the passing of motions, favours a certain form of political knowledge and experience. It was seen at the last two London Regional meetings that those able and willing to submit motions could determine those meetings’ direction, form and content.

Groups that don’t have political know-how or experience to create motions are disadvantaged. By accepting motions from politically-experienced members, it allows them to manipulate (either intentionally or unintentionally) the direction and structure of Momentum whilst excluding less politically-educated members. We feel this is counterproductive for a ‘new politics’.

The direction being taken seems to imply that the aim of Momentum is the construction of a new party structure. Momentum Hackney does not see Momentum in this way. We understand our role as: 1) helping and supporting the ‘left’ to organise within our branches and CLPs, 2) helping and supporting local non-Labour Party groups, as well as the community more generally, to organise, and 3) helping to facilitate and support political education events and initiatives.

We feel that the role of regional meetings should be focused on the sharing of expertise and offering of support between groups, helping to build-up membership and providing delegates (and their groups) with chances to engage with the decisions and actions of National Momentum.

Further, the process by which groups are passing motions is unclear and a number of groups are yet to be democratically elected. Therefore we ask that:

1) There is a moratorium on the submission and ratification of motions until each group feels consolidated in its more immediate aims and has a democratically-elected committee with the legitimacy and accountability required to help build Momentum’s more long-term political structures.

2) That at the next available opportunity there is a discussion within the London Regional Committee about what its role should be and whether or not motions should be part of this. We believe that this discussion should be a matter of urgency and should consider the Committee’s structure, purpose, rules, code of conduct and accountability. This discussion should precede any debate on national and regional structures, as well as elections.

Every person within Momentum should be able to answer Tony Benn’s five democratic questions:

1) What power have you got?

2) Where did you get it from?

3) In whose interests do you exercise it?

4) To whom are you accountable?

5) How can we get rid of you?