Momentum chair Jon Lansman is stepping aside. And faced with a new right-wing leadership, the Labour left is being forced to reflect. It is vital that we learn the lessons of the last five years. There can be no more compromises.
Yesterday evening, members of Momentum received a heartfelt email from the organisation’s founder, Jon Lansman, announcing his intentions to stand down as chair.
“In this new era, it is time that a new generation of leaders put their ideas into practice,” Lansman stated in his message to members. “That is why I have decided not to contest the forthcoming elections within Momentum and instead will hand over to a new leadership.”
In his departing letter, Lansman notes the many excellent achievements of Momentum. “Thanks to our movement,” the outgoing Momentum chief rightly notes, “the Labour Party is now much closer to being a socialist party than simply a party with socialists in it.”
Lansman is right to emphasise these positives; how far the left has come in recent years. What is not so clearly explained, however, is where – and why – things went wrong; how we ended up where we are today, with Labour in opposition, and the left no longer in the driving seat of the party.
Such meditation is not mere navel-gazing. It is essential if we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. We must genuinely learn and absorb the lessons of the last five years. Only then can we build a movement capable of completing the ‘Corbyn revolution’ and bringing a socialist Labour government to power.
Lansman’s resignation clearly comes at an important juncture for the Labour left. The December general election defeat and Keir Starmer’s victory in the Labour leadership contest have given grassroots activists cause to pause and reflect.
With the new Labour leader shifting the party rightwards on all manner of fronts, it is clear that the membership needs to be getting organised for the battles ahead – a battle over the life and soul of the party.
This has only been underlined by the recently leaked report, which has highlighted the vital task in front of rank-and-file members: to transform the whole labour movement, from top to bottom.
For all these reasons, after a long hiatus, Momentum is due to hold elections for its leading body, the National Coordinating Group (NCG), in the coming weeks. Nominations open on 28 May and close on 11 June, with voting taking place between 16-30 June.
This window of change has given rise to a mushrooming of activist networks looking to offer a way forward. Most notable have been two campaigns directly looking to build on the foundations laid by Momentum, as suggested by their names: Forward Momentum and Momentum Renewal.
Set up by Labour members earlier this year, Forward Momentum promises to push for Momentum to be “socialist; member-led; open and inclusive; action-focussed; and innovative”. Promisingly, the network explicitly mentions important demands such as open selection, alongside positive (but vague) calls for a “socialist vision”.
Prominent figures such as former shadow chancellor John McDonnell and FBU general secretary Matt Wrack are amongst those who have lent their support to the initiative.
We’ve got to turn Momentum into a member-led, activist-led organisation developing ideas that translate into practical campaigns, said @johnmcdonnellMP at our call on Monday.
— Forward Momentum (@ForwardMmtm) April 17, 2020
The group has been holding local online meetings in recent weeks to generate discussion amongst activists, and has recently held open primaries to choose a slate for the upcoming NCG elections. Over 2,000 people took part in this vote, selecting 24 candidates from a total of 64.
More recently, there was also the announcement of the launch of Momentum Renewal. This group is more amorphous than its similarly-named sibling, mainly consisting at the moment of a founding statement and a list of signatories. These names include around a dozen left-wing Labour MPs, as well as various Young Labour officers and the editors of left-wing journals and websites such as Tribune and Novara Media.
Unlike Forward, Renewal’s official aims include little mention of socialism, nor any demands for open selection. The group’s opening letter does correctly state, however, that “we desperately need a single socialist slate for the next set of NEC elections”.
But this is an ironic assertion for Renewal to make, given that they provide no proposal on how such a slate should be selected; nor any explanation of what they offer that Forward Momentum does not.
Question marks are also raised by the fact that a number of Renewal’s most high-profile supporters were central to the previous Momentum leadership. These include Sam Tarry, now Labour MP for Ilford South, who was formerly in charge of Corbyn’s 2016 leadership campaign, and who has been a regular spokesperson for Momentum over the years.
In other words, Momentum Renewal seems to offer very little actual renewal. Rather, it is likely to be the same old Momentum, just without Lansman at the top. Instead of genuine renewal, it is a case of replace and repeat.
No more compromises
Activists cannot be expected to swallow the same medicine from a different packaging. A changing of the guard is not enough. After all, the problems that Momentum encountered were not simply the result of its self-appointed leader. The issue was not one of personalities, but of politics.
Many grassroots activists involved in these recent relaunches have understandably denounced the criminal role that Lansman played at the most important turning points in the Corbyn movement.
From shutting down all of Momentum’s internal democracy early on; to capitulating in the face of the anti-Semitism smear campaign; to compromising on calls for open selection: it is clear that the Momentum leader, more often than not, was a barrier to the radical instincts of rank-and-file members.
These actions ultimately proved to be fatal for the left. Endless attempts to appease the Blairites only emboldened them. Their sabotage – in the PLP and at party HQ – went unchecked. And the unresolved civil war inside the party ended up undermining Labour’s chances in both the 2017 and 2019 elections.
But it would be wrong to lay all the blame on Lansman. The trade union leaders also consistently contributed to this pernicious course of action – particularly in blocking attempts to bring in open selection. And even Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell unfortunately went along with this strategy of trying, in vain, to placate their merciless critics.
At the end of the day, it was always a political question. Lansman and co., at worst, naively believed that there could be unity with their right-wing opponents. At best, they thought that they could, over time, gradually nullify and neutralise them.
But, instead, these efforts only served to confuse and demoralise members – thus strengthening both the Blairites and the Tories.
Following the December election defeat, this same process quickly led to the unravelling of the whole Corbyn project, with ‘continuity candidate’ Rebecca Long-Bailey – whose erratic leadership campaign was also run by Lansman – unable to explain why members should vote for more of the same.
The initial step taken, therefore, sent the movement down a dangerous path, leading us to where we are today. By attempting to reconcile the mutually antagonistic interests – ultimately, class interests – of the Blairite gangsters and of ordinary party members, we have ended up here, with the right wing back in control.
No doubt none of this was intended. But as the old saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The lesson is clear: there can be no more compromises.
Need for leadership
Activists should not be pessimistic, however. All is not lost. After all, whilst there have been setbacks along the way, the past five years have transformed the political landscape in Britain.
The Corbyn movement has given a concrete expression to the radical mood that exists in society. Hundreds of thousands of workers and youth have flooded into the party, with the left taking control of CLPs across the country. These gains will not be easily reversed. The genie cannot be put back in his bottle.
The Blairites are licking their lips at the present time, pushing for their new poster boy – ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer – to go further and clear the left out of the party. But the leaked report has scuppered their plans, enraging members and destroying any illusions in the idea of ‘unity’ between ordinary activists and these right-wing saboteurs.
What is needed is bold socialist leadership. The Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs – now led by Richard Burgon – has shown the way, coming out in clear opposition to Starmer and the right wing on a number of important issues, as they attempt to return the party to the so-called ‘centre ground’.
But Burgon and co. need to be backed up on the ground by a grassroots movement of members. We need an army – not just of generals, but of trained, organised soldiers, equipped with clear socialist ideas and a militant battle plan. And this is where Momentum should come in.
Democracy: a political question
First up, the Labour left needs to be rooted locally, but thinking nationally. This means organising in every constituency and ward, but with local groups that have control over the national Momentum leadership.
Much of this local organisation already exists thanks to the tireless efforts of left Labour stalwarts. But it currently lacks any ability to push for national changes – for example, agreeing on an NEC slate. This was seen in the recent NEC elections, where the right wing managed to secure three extra positions because of a divided left.
The old Momentum structures were completely top-down; more of a national database and an email list, than a genuine organisation. Where Momentum groups still exist, they have largely become autonomous groups, isolated from each other, without any regional or national coordination.
This leads to the second point: democracy. This is a term that is much bandied around on the left. Aforementioned networks like Forward Momentum, and others like the Labour Left Alliance, place much emphasis on organisational issues; on the need for a Labour left that is democratic and member-led.
But what is not stressed enough is that democracy is also a political question. It is not an end in itself, but a means to organise and fight for real material goals. And if the end goals are incorrect, then the democratic means will be corrupted along the way.
This is the reason, ultimately, for the lack of democracy in Momentum under Lansman; and also in the trade unions. It is why the Blairites hate party democracy also – because they know that members will use it to oppose them and their establishment politics.
It is not a matter of abstract principles, then, but concrete aims. Lansman didn’t shut down Momentum’s democratic structures simply because he didn’t like them, but because Labour activists were becoming radicalised by events, and were looking to push the party further than he and other influential figures wanted.
In other words, the lack of democracy flowed from the desire to compromise with the right wing. And this, in turn, came from the lack of faith that Lansman and others had in ordinary members – ultimately a lack of faith in the belief that Labour could be completely transformed and united around socialist policies, and that a socialist Labour government could be brought to power.
Fight for socialism
The key lesson from the past five years, therefore, must be to firmly abandon the strategy of compromise.
The Blairites have shown what lengths they will go to in order to regain control of the party, and to make it a ‘safe pair of hands’ once again for big business. The left must show the same level of resolve and determination. We must be prepared for a no-holds barred fight, and put demands for open selection, party democracy, and socialist policies front-and-centre.
Flowing from this, thirdly, we need political education. Official party structures may be shut down due to the pandemic, but we should use this hiatus to organise and educate ourselves, so that we are prepared for the fight ahead.
Momentum should be taking the lead in this, giving activists confidence, and arming the movement with bold socialist arguments. Capitalism is in its deepest ever crisis. The old order is crumbling around us. Now is the time to be putting forward clear socialist demands – not to patch up capitalism, but to overthrow it.
Above all, then, what the movement needs is a programme: a bold socialist programme that explains the root cause of society’s problems, and offers a clear vision on the way forward. This – the socialist content, and not simply organisational forms – is what will provide the solid foundations that a mass radical left-wing movement needs.
Such a perspective is encapsulated in the ideas of Marxism. Socialist Appeal is the Marxist tendency in Britain, fighting for these ideas in the movements of workers and youth that are erupting to the surface everywhere. We urge you to join us in this fight. There has never been a better time.