Forward Momentum: democracy isn’t a distraction

Democracy isn’t a distraction, says Deborah Hermanns - it’s the only way to transform Momentum and the Labour Party and effectively build power in our communities.

May 22, 2020 · 7 min read
Momentum Labour supporters at a rally in Middlesbrough during the 2019 general election campaign (Credit: Jeremy Corbyn)

Since Forward Momentum launched, thousands of Momentum members have got involved in a much-needed debate about the organisation’s future. It’s been clear for a long time that carrying on as usual wasn’t working, and isn’t going to deliver the united left we need. While at times effective, our organisation has clearly lost its way.

Serious debate must be accompanied by a serious election, and that’s why we welcome the launch of ‘Momentum Renewal’ – a rival campaign for the Momentum NCG elections organised by those close to the current Momentum leadership.

At first glance, some people might miss the differences between the two campaigns. After all, Momentum Renewal’s actual policy agenda, though short on concrete changes, draws on a number of our own proposals, including changes to Momentum’s regional structures and offering members a chance to feed into strategy development. They also argue, as we do, that Momentum needs to break from the London political bubble, root its politics in the concerns of working class people, and link up with trade union campaigns and struggles for social justice.

Hopefully, those supporting either campaign share enough common ground to work together, whoever wins the NCG election. But the above characterisation is necessarily broad, and disagreements over how such objectives are best achieved will undoubtedly emerge in the coming weeks. While it’s early days, some criticisms of our campaign from supporters of Momentum Renewal focus on our apparent preference for ‘process’ at the expense of turning outwards towards working class communities. Process can mean many things, but criticism of process is often used as cover for criticism of democracy. Indeed, some have also argued that Momentum should focus only on democratising the Labour Party, and not itself be democratically run.

Forward Momentum rejects the trade-off between democracy and effective organising. In fact, we think democracy is essential to Momentum becoming an effective organisation.

Building a socialist organisation that transforms the Labour Party and is relevant to working class lives and the struggle for social and economic justice requires a politically active, energised and creative membership. For this to happen, members need to be trusted to make key decisions, contribute to strategy and policy and take a leading role within the organisation.

From an annual strategy convention to democratic control over resources, or from a functioning digital platform to member-led policymaking – all of our proposed democratic reforms have this overarching strategic consideration at heart. They are designed to empower members to organise more effectively and more responsively to local conditions. It’s about more than just voting.

As we made clear when we launched our proposals, the democratic commitments placed on Momentum members shouldn’t be onerous, but building organisational capacity is fundamentally dependent on providing meaningful opportunities for member involvement and control.

Outside of general elections, Momentum has consistently failed to do this. For the most part, access to influence has been restricted to a small clique based in London and in some regions. Momentum Renewal and its supporters might agree with some of these arguments, but those who mistake our commitment to democracy for an obsession with process miss the whole point. This has considerable implications for any claim to want to build strong relationships with working class communities.

After all, where Momentum is concerned, who is actually going to build these relationships? It is grassroots members. We are Momentum’s biggest asset –  as trade unionists, community organisers and workers we are part of the communities Momentum and the Labour Party needs to prove its relevance to. But unless we tackle the command and control politics that has taken hold in Momentum and other parts of the left, very few members are going to commit to the type of organising that is so crucial to transforming the Labour Party and strengthening working class communities. If this election results in just a bit of chair shifting at the top, many members will simply leave.

We know this because it’s already happened, and it’s at the heart of why so many Momentum members feel so despondent about their organisation.

Just look at the Labour leader and deputy endorsement process, where members were asked to vote for a single pre-approved candidate in each category – a move that I and others attempted to prevent through a petition of members. Had the Momentum leadership given the membership a proper say, the endorsement process could have kickstarted a productive discussion about the future of the Labour Party, energising and involving the grassroots in what should have been a dynamic campaign.

So while it’s exciting that many leading figures of the left have got involved and expressed support for Forward Momentum or Momentum Renewal, building consensus among the membership has to be our first priority if we’re serious about transforming a failing organisation and realising our broader strategic objectives. We have to look inwards before we build outwards.

This is the reasoning behind our open primaries and our participatory policy meetings. They were about involving as many members as possible and encouraging participants to invest in the idea that Momentum can succeed, and that they can play a role in its success – especially important considering the demoralisation caused by the 2019 General Election defeat and the Labour leadership election.

After over 4000 signups, nearly 2000 votes, and the election of a fantastic slate of candidates, we think we’ve been proven right. There is a sense of energy and unity building around the base of Momentum that hasn’t been there since before the General Election. Across the country, networks are already building that will be crucial in the years ahead.

But changing how Momentum works must be accompanied by changing what Momentum does. That’s why we’ve put forward a range of proposals about how Momentum can advance socialist politics within the Labour Party and work with trade unions and social movements to build power in communities and workplaces – we encourage you to engage with and contribute to them.

But we must not forget that strategic ambitions are only relevant if we can build the organisational consensus, capacity and commitment necessary to actually achieve them. This will require the creation of a vibrant participatory culture in Momentum, and democracy – at every level – is central to that. An analysis that doesn’t begin from this perspective, whatever its rhetoric, will remain unlikely to yield substantive change.

Deborah Hermanns is a founding member of Forward Momentum and NCG candidate. She’s previously organised with National Campaign against Fees and Cuts and has been involved in organising The World Transformed since 2016. Follow her on Twitter here.


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