Momentum Hackney: Review of the Year, Hopes for the Future

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The start of 2017 seems a good time to reflect on our first year of Momentum Hackney. During 2016, we had ten public meetings on issues including housing, education, the EU, our agenda for Hackney and the Labour leadership campaign; two members meetings to elect a committee and shape objectives; two Labour engagement workshops focused on learning about Labour and becoming a councillor; and two political education events on social movements and the history of the Labour Party. We had five socials with entertainment ranging from Janine Booth’s socialist poetry to speakers like Hackney mayor Phil Glanville and local writer David Osland. During the summer we organised seven phonebanks and five street stalls. We have got involved in local campaigns, for example, standing on the picket line with Hackney Picturehouse workers and collecting money for their strike fund, and organising together with Keep Our NHS Public to save the Homerton Pathology Lab. Momentum Hackney also helped to bring people together for the Hackney North and Hackney South Constituency Labour Party nominations meeting, winning the nomination for Corbyn in Hackney South which had supported Cooper in 2015, and increasing the support for Corbyn in Hackney North. So, it’s fair to say we had a good year. In this post, Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick, who’ve been on the steering committee all year, reflect on the prospects for Momentum locally and nationally in 2017.

Although, we started this post by listing our events, for us, Momentum has never just been about these. These events have been part of wider processes: developing relationships and a supportive and inclusive culture that can be the basis for a transformative movement. The ‘new politics’ is not just a phrase, it means taking the best from the labour movements, the liberation movements of the 1960s, 70s and 80s and from contemporary social movements. This doesn’t mean we’re not interested in gaining power but to gain power in ways that can change entrenched systems, we need to galvanise people and democratise society. To support this, we have embedded participatory education within our meetings to use and grow our own understandings. This culture impressed even hardened anti-Corbynistas such as London Review of Books journalist Tom Crewe.

On a personal level this has been empowering for each of us and we hope it has for others. Heather never imagined she’d write phonebank scripts, organise a meeting for 100 people from scratch in two days, or chair conflicting perspectives into a working consensus. Charlie never imagined he’d contribute to organising something on the scale of The World Transformed, introduce a meeting while being filmed for Channel 4 News or convince John McDonnell to be a football pundit.

It’s been great to meet other people doing the same in their local groups and to begin to build alliances with Momentum organisers in Camden, Greenwich, Waltham Forest and Tower Hamlets. At our xmas social last month, we welcomed two activists from Enfield Momentum. We have tried to share our practice with London Region, for example we developed a statement presenting an alternative to the motion-driven culture of their meetings. After great efforts, we secured just 15 minutes for discussion, which while productive, was closed off by the Chair. The moments when regional structures have been used for sharing and building solidarity, understandings and expertise have been the most fruitful. Sadly these moments have been fleeting and absorbed in antagonistic debates and votes about policies and structures. These debates should be part of Momentum but they should not define it or centre its meetings.

Neither of us were at the December National Committee meeting but it sounds like an extreme case of this problem and there have been accusations of bullying.

We know in-depth discussions about the actions and decisions of the Steering Committee and the National Committee can put off those new to politics. But we feel we can’t ignore them any longer because in order to do what we do in Momentum Hackney we need a wider movement based on democracy and inclusivity. These are not guaranteed. We must fight for our movement’s future and to do that effectively we need to understand recent events. In short, this is our understanding of what has happened:

  • 28 October: The Steering Committee imposed a One Member One Vote (OMOV) Conference at a meeting called with less than 24 hours notice and no consultation with local groups. This would mean that all decisions about Momentum’s permanent structure would be made by OMOV. They also cancelled the National Committee meeting scheduled for the following week.

  • 29- October: Regional meetings and local groups including Hackney raised their voices against the Steering Committee’s actions as undemocratic.

  • 2 November: The Steering Committee met again and agreed a compromise position combining OMOV with a delegate Conference which they recommended to a postponed National Committee meeting.

  • 3 December: The National Committee met and marginally rejected the Steering Committee’s compromise position in favour of a fully delegate National Conference, with delegates largely elected by local groups in face-to-face meetings. They elected a Conference Arrangements Committee to coordinate this.

  • The Conference Arrangements Committee scheduled the National Conference for the earliest possible date (18-19 February) and required local groups to hold meetings to elect their delegates by 21st January, which, with xmas holidays, creates a challenging time frame for local groups.

  • 20 December: Momentum HQ have not provided any guidance to local groups on organising for the National Conference. Instead they distributed a survey ‘from Jeremy Corbyn’ asking for all members’ opinions on the structures and purposes of Momentum.

Our reading of the survey is that it is designed by people who want to cancel the National Conference but who need evidence to do this. The covering message from Jeremy supports one position, and the survey uses leading questions, polarising the debate by presenting OMOV as the only alternative to a delegate-based parallel party structure. We feel that we share ideas with the people behind this survey but we believe they need to be won through argument and via transparent processes. We believe National Conference can generate a viable structure for Momentum and that trying to work otherwise and cancel this will undermine Momentum in the long term. The people who set up the survey need to answer these questions (adapted from Tony Benn):

  • Who are you and what power have you got?

  • Where did you get the power to send the email?

  • In whose interests did you do this?

  • To whom are you accountable?

  • How can we get rid of you?

We’ve seen an increasingly polarised culture develop. On one side are those who support OMOV through authoritarian tactics. Their apparent goal is to dissolve Momentum into the Labour party. On the other side are those who support a fully delegate Momentum, who come from a mix of small socialist groupings (like the Alliance for Workers Liberty) and traditional Labour movement organisations. Their apparent goal is a separate ‘revolutionary’ party. This emphasises and increases the differences within Momentum, rather than the things we share. Instead of seeking a compromise both sides seem increasingly determined to destroy the other side whatever happens to Momentum in the process.

Here’s our perspective based on our experiences in Hackney.

  • First, Momentum was founded to keep the momentum going from the 2015 leadership campaign. This was about bringing in people outside Labour and working across that difference. We have people in Momentum Hackney who cannot or do not want to join Labour. So long as they don’t support parties that stand against Labour, why stop them joining Momentum?

  • Second, transparency is not an optional extra but must be built into everything we do. The gap of information on what was going on in the Steering Committee has been filled by partial accounts that have been allowed to shape the debate. Calling meetings at the last minute, and mobilising members views when convenient but ignoring them when inconvenient are unacceptable. As is allowing a Trade Union to threaten to evict Momentum in an attempt to control the outcome of a vote.

  • Third, Momentum needs to do much more to build a national movement, decentralising power and trusting, supporting and facilitating those of us who are working hard to make the goals of Momentum a reality. It needs to share the best practices from local groups, to involve as many of its members as possible as activists and for participatory political education to infuse all it does.

For Momentum to grow and become successful, meetings need to empower people. In Hackney, out of a total of eight delegates only one has ever decided to attend a second London Region meeting. Charlie has returned, never happily but out a sense duty. We haven’t found bureaucratic, factional meetings inspiring. In Momentum Hackney, we have tried to create meetings and events that lead people to want to get more involved.

We’d like as wide participation as possible and this seems to be better done via OMOV, but how this is implemented is crucial. Recently, Heather received an invitation to vote in an OMOV election for a women’s delegate to the National Committee. This felt like a test question as it involved placing 27 candidates in order based on their 200 word statements. She didn’t vote, and the turnout was around 10%. In this case, OMOV depressed participation and alienated people. The idea of negotiating structures online also seems impractical so, while we don’t support most of the National Committee decisions, we think it was good that they put a stop to that. We can see there will be places where the expertise and experience of delegates will be useful and where a deliberative face-to-face process will lead to better decisions. We can’t see a problem with case-by-case use of delegates as long as they are accountable, genuinely represent their groups and that members have had a chance to feed into these decisions. We don’t feel Momentum needs policies on everything but when it does need to make decisions on policy issues, it seems more appropriate to take these to the whole membership. For example, in decisions about whether we oppose Trident and campaign on this rather than another issue, you don’t need to be an activist. We also need to find ways to allow people with caring and other responsibilities to take part. We call on all sides to make a new year’s resolution to become less dogmatic, to reach a compromise and to get back to the real struggles against the establishment and the rise of fascism.