Photo: Dave Walters. From a ‘What is Momentum for’ workshop at The World Transformed.
This article is taken from the forthcoming issue of Red Pepper – get a subscription now.
Nationally, in Momentum, the debate between decision-making via delegates and one member, one vote (OMOV) has been framed as an oppositional struggle for the movement’s soul. One ‘side’ presents itself as saving Momentum from the ‘hard left’ and irrelevance, and the other ‘side’ from centrally-based authoritarians who will alienate its activist base.
At first glance, the recent decision of the Momentum Steering Committee to introduce a new constitution, justified in terms of OMOV, appears to have put the issue to rest. Yet legitimate opposition to its content—including increased centralisation and the stipulation that members of Momentum must also be members of the Labour Party—and the heavy-handed manner in which it was introduced mean debates on Momentum’s structures should continue for some time. Whilst this is necessary, it is vital that focus is also directed at a wider transformation in the organisation’s political culture and towards an idea of Momentum as a space of difference and negotiation, in which people can grow individually and collectively. In making this case we draw on our experiences in Momentum Hackney.
When we talk to people about these national debates we find that their positions are shaped by experiences of their local Momentum group and their wider political backstory. That’s also true for us. We’ve been Momentum Hackney activists for the past year, almost since its inception in November 2015. We’ve had a lot of autonomy, which – as people with little organising experience – has been challenging, but it’s also been an incredibly exciting and creative process.
There was very little guidance on how to organise a local Momentum group. Nationally, this has meant that each group has developed its own culture – sometimes their meetings are filled with policy motions, sometimes they are filled with rousing speeches. Momentum Hackney, while less than perfect, has been grounded in pedagogy. That is, in the idea that politics – like everything else – is a space of learning.‘For politics to be transformative, it means that through engaging in meetings and actions, you become something else’
This doesn’t mean treating people like empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. Rather, it means creating a political environment where the primary aims are self-transformation and relationship building. We’ve attempted to embed participatory education within all our activities and to use and grow our own understandings through them: from street stalls to socials, from public meetings to phone-banks, from political education sessions to filmmaking.
The ‘new politics’ is not just a slogan. It means taking the best from the labour movements, the liberation movements of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and from contemporary social movements. We’re lucky to have activists from all these backgrounds. There needs to be a way for these different cultures not to clash, not even simply to co-exist, but to cross-fertilise.
For politics to be transformative, it means that through engaging in meetings and actions, you become something else. You do things you didn’t think you could do; you understand things you didn’t previously understand; you feel differently about your capabilities, about your own power.
Power is no longer ‘over there’ but right here. This draws on Jeremy Corbyn’s project of democratising society so we all feel able to speak and act politically. In Hackney we’ve tried – not always successfully – to make our meetings (whether they’re about the concept of class, or housing issues) as participatory as possible. We structure them to ensure that privilege and experience aren’t the main determinants of whose voice is heard.
For example, a good portion of our meetings are given over to ‘break-out’ groups, with the return general discussion aimed at turning their sometimes-rambling conversations into actions. From this, we’ve learnt the importance of good facilitation that works with a meeting, driving but not controlling it. However, we’re aware that there’s a place for specific expertise, and that people want to hear and learn from this. In order to maintain a balance we’ve tended not to advertise speakers (to make the meeting about the group rather than well-known individuals) and to allot them only five minutes, orienting the meeting towards debate and action.
Both face-to-face meetings (with or without delegates) and online discussions (with or without voting) can enable transformation, but equally they can have the opposite effect. Those supporting delegate structures focus on the passivity of ‘clicktivism’ and argue that it makes people less likely to go to physical meetings. They ignore how online participation can create a sense of community for isolated individuals, and provide people who struggle to speak in public meetings a safer and freer space. For parents, carers and the overworked, it increases their capacity to participate, relocating power within their own space.
Alongside this, the experience of being in the same room with others and the shared feelings generated have enormous potential. This potential is wasted in meetings dominated by ‘big’ speakers, people hogging the floor and bureaucratic procedures. People too frequently emerge from political meetings feeling like they don’t belong. We must create meetings where people leave feeling hopeful not frustrated, that offer multiple ways of engaging and that use the full power of bringing people together.
We often see politics as about issues and ignore how central relationships are to any political movement. Perhaps our most engaging Momentum Hackney meeting, definitely our biggest, was an emergency gathering called at 48 hours notice following the failed coup against Corbyn. Its main function turned out to be to provide solidarity, emotional support and a chance to meet and talk to others who shared feelings of anger, disappointment and anxiety.
More generally, the relationships we’ve built through a series of formal and informal events and our social media, have been critical in getting Momentum Hackney members and supporters more involved in the Labour Party. Meetups before canvassing, or being introduced via email to someone in your branch, make engaging with Labour easier and more comfortable.
Again, face-to-face meetings and online engagement can help relationships develop or they can block them and – as we’re painfully seeing now – create enemies. Our main experience of the failure of face-to-face meetings has been the (now defunct) London regional committee, which has been dominated by factional politics and bureaucratic procedures, rather than using consensus to reach decisions and develop shared understandings. Only one of our eight Hackney delegates has attended a second meeting, and then only out of a sense of duty.
OMOV, by itself, will not solve these problems. But it means that there is less at stake in meetings so attending them carries less power. Meetings based on delegate structures set up value hierarchies that can produce feelings of shame and inadequacy in others. Online relationships tend to be more horizontal. Those critical of OMOV suggest that it atomises people. This position presents offline relationships as more authentic, and ignores how nearly all relationships today mix online and offline elements. 21st-century socialism has to acknowledge this and see not only its problems but its potential.
The introduction of a new constitution may offer some resolution to a debate that has arguably directed attention away from much-needed campaigning, though it is already creating new problems. For us, the key questions for Momentum have never been about whether to adopt a delegate structure, OMOV structure, or a mixture of the two. They are: which aspects of delegate structures and/or online democracies are transformative for individuals and support deep relationships, and which aspects destroy these possibilities? And, where do we need to create new structures for our new politics – what beyond OMOV and delegates can support transformation and relationship building?
It is vital to keep the tensions in Momentum, to work with them and not resolve them in a final sense: to continue to be both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ of Labour; to embody both ‘old’ and ‘new’ politics and political actors; to acknowledge our differences together with what we share. Momentum is an unprecedented attempt to organise across these tensions. It is fragile and precious. Nobody can claim with absolute authority to know how best to negotiate these tensions. We’re all learning.
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Yasmin Gunaratnam reflects on John Berger’s gut solidarity with the stranger
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.