Making the most of the momentum

A new kind of politics needs a new kind of Labour Party, writes Andrew Dolan

December 14, 2015 · 15 min read

momentum-syriaMomentum activists on the march against bombing Syria. Photo: Momentum

When change comes it comes quickly, and this is certainly true of the Labour Party these past few months. Since May, membership has almost doubled to 371,000, injecting new life into a party shattered by the May election defeat. The average age of members has also dropped from 53 to 42 in a matter of months.

What remains to be seen, however, is the extent to which the energy unleashed by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign victory can fundamentally transform Labour beyond these size and age statistics.

Undoubtedly, there is now within the party a much stronger anti-austerity voice, an unlikely achievement considering the extent to which Labour had capitulated to Conservative economic and social policy. The same views are shared with the new leadership from the left of the party, which, should they endure, reduces the possibility of an intransigent Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) negating radical demands from the grassroots.

Yet if Labour is to build a counter-hegemony strong enough to disrupt ‘Conservative realism’ and to secure electoral success, a greater political and cultural transformation is needed, both inside the party and across society.

Between them, OpenDemocracy’s Anthony Barnett and Corbyn leadership campaign volunteer James Darling have used ‘Open Labour’ to describe a transparent Labour Party open to democratic impulses and committed to moving beyond tribalism toward ‘an open, citizen politics’. (Note that these discussions pre-date the unrelated centre-left grouping that has launched under the name Open Labour.) At the heart of this vision is a politics that values collaboration beyond the confines of party membership and uses digital technology to help achieve this end.

Such an approach to institutional politics has made considerable headway in Spain. Despite undergoing a process of centralisation and suffering declining popularity in recent months, Podemos’s initial development was characterised by an experimental approach to participation and democracy. Both members and non-members could set up branches and contribute to Podemos’s Citizens’ Assembly, where candidates were selected and policy decided. This year Spain also witnessed the emergence of citizen platforms, which scored stunning victories in this summer’s municipal elections. The manifesto on which Barcelona’s radical new mayor Ada Colau was elected was in effect ‘crowdsourced’, with thousands of people from varying political backgrounds contributing to a document that proposed the construction of social housing, an end to evictions and the democratisation of public institutions.

Both these electoral projects embrace digital technology – from the use of apps to debate policy and organisation, to online involvement in conferences – aimed at facilitating citizen participation and bridging the gap between the direct democracy of the neighbourhood assembly or housing group and the representative democracy of official institutions.

Although different in many ways, these examples illustrate a rejection of the traditional party form, an embrace of political pluralism and genuine popular democracy. Underpinning this is a conviction that the people best placed to decide on policy are those affected by the issues it seeks to address.

Of course, the situation in Spain is very different to that here: there the 15M movement created a vast reservoir of social power, which these electoral formations could draw from to varying degrees. Nonetheless, they show us that electoral politics can be done differently – even if in the case of Podemos the popular democratic dimension is now severely diminished – and their influence is being felt in the UK.

Inspired in part by events in Spain, the Take Back the City campaign is working with Londoners in ‘schools, workplaces, homeless shelters, universities, community centres, union branches and more’ to put together a ‘People’s Manifesto’, which will eventually be put forward in the London mayoral election by a ‘people’s candidate’. The Green Party candidate for this election, Siân Berry, is advocating something similar.

While inspiring, such campaigns are at the moment operating in the political margins. Yet they are arguably an expression of a sentiment that also characterised the Corbyn campaign, namely a desire for a more representative and democratic politics and a rejection of the way in which largely unaccountable, professional politicians prioritise the interests of capital, their party and a career at the expense of the people they claim to represent.

The key question now is whether this desire can move beyond the margins and reshape Labour along more democratic and more radical lines.

Building Momentum

In October the former Jeremy Corbyn leadership campaign launched Momentum, ‘a network of people and organisations that will continue the energy and enthusiasm of Jeremy’s campaign’. Described in the press at various points as a ‘pressure group’, a ‘faction’ and a ‘grassroots network’, what is clear is that, for some, Momentum is an attempt to open up Labour to the ‘new politics’ and to move beyond tribalism.

While Momentum has stated its intent to ‘encourage those inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to get involved with the Labour Party’, it has also pledged to ‘build new and support existing organisations that can make concrete improvements to people’s lives’.

In other words, and at least in theory, Momentum is an attempt to not only turn grassroots groups towards the Labour Party, but to turn the Labour Party to supporting these grassroots groups and helping new ones to emerge.

In the context of a Labour Party committed to neoliberal orthodoxy, it has been these grassroots groups – campaigning on issues such as cuts, housing, workers’ rights, higher education, liberation, racism – along with radical civil society organisations and NGOs, that have formed the backbone of opposition to austerity. So too were they vital in the movement to elect Corbyn.

Momentum, then, is in part a response to the fact that there is at present more political vitality outside the party than there is inside it, especially when one considers the long decline of Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) as campaigning organisations, with a strong culture of political education and member participation.

There are, of course, exceptions to this trend and even at the height of Labour’s unpopularity with the non-party left under Blair and Brown the separation between the Labour left and the left outside the party was hardly clear. It is now becoming increasingly less so. Nonetheless, if Labour under Corbyn is to win power in 2020 it will require popular mobilisation and an intellectual reinvigoration stretching beyond the confines of the party.

Momentum may well be the solution to this problem and could form the basis of a collaborative, open politics, both radical and democratic – where one’s voice in debates is not silenced for want of a membership card.

Momentum’s lack of clear governance structures has been criticised, yet this arguably misses the point. While such structures need to be introduced if Momentum is to function on a national scale, its current fluidity and lack of codification could be its greatest strength. The remarkable growth in the number of Podemos ‘circles’ – 300 in the first two months – was in part down to what some in Podemos termed the logic of proliferation. ‘When you are doing politics as a hacker,’ elaborated Podemos Congress of Deputies candidate, Eduardo Maura, ‘you proliferate, you have to be everywhere.’

To be everywhere, you need a low cost of entry in relation to tools and knowledge, and a limitation of formal requirements such as membership. The fact that there are at this point almost no barriers to starting a Momentum group must be understood within this logic and should, I would argue, be embraced. By removing barriers to entry you invite a level of participation that might otherwise have been prevented by the often excessive demands that characterise involvement in a political party.

Labour and the grassroots

If Momentum can support grassroots groups across the country and help to increase their influence within and on the Labour Party – as opposed to vice versa – something like the hybrid forms of party politics discussed earlier may emerge, albeit shaped by the unique traditions of Labourism.

Such a project will require considerable political will and is perhaps unrealistic given the intransigence of the majority of the PLP and of Labour councillors. Nonetheless, the desire to do politics differently is more widespread than it has been for some time and this vision should be the lodestar guiding any attempt to rebuild Labour as a genuinely progressive force.

Yet amidst the euphoria of Corbyn’s victory and the seductive appeal of a left-leaning Labour party in forward motion, further critical reflection is needed. While much of the necessary reinvigoration – ideas, ways of doing politics, new strategic alliances – should indeed come from outside the party, there is a danger of Labour and even Momentum ending up attempting to subsume rather than support and learn from grassroots groups.

The likelihood of this increases as the sense of urgency surrounding Cameron and Osborne’s destructive second term intensifies. The desire for a Labour victory in 2020 may become so overriding as to subject more immediate social movement needs to this longer-term strategic aim.

This is in part dependent on what understanding of electoral politics becomes dominant within Labour over the next few years. If it is centred on helping to transform often-abstract values such as ‘solidarity’ into material practice – while avoiding a politics of gratitude – as opposed to simply more leaflets and more canvassing, then Labour’s longer-term electoral strategy may well work in tandem with everyday struggle and grassroots campaigning.

As GMB organiser Nadine Houghton told Red Pepper, part of securing a Labour victory is about ‘creating a movement that engages local communities, activists, students, workers, through campaigning on local issues such as library closures, supporting local strikes, housing and the NHS.’

Aware of a changed political landscape, shadow chancellor John McDonnell has stressed the need for the groups and social movements campaigning on these issues to retain their autonomy from government and political parties.

Yet it will take more than a declaration of intent – however welcome – from the Labour politician with the best understanding of the ‘new politics’ to truly transform Labour from ‘resisting social movements to supporting them’ and to move beyond the political imaginary and ways of organising that have historically characterised the Labour left.

Beyond the parliamentary road

In Parliamentary Socialism (1961), Ralph Miliband observed how, for all their differences, the Labour left and right were united by a shared commitment to parliamentarianism. The ‘parliamentary road to socialism’ was the only one; the Labour Party the only organisation capable of navigating it. Even among the explicitly revolutionary left, the Labour Party has often held a privileged position as a terrain of political struggle.

The arguments for this are by now well established, specifically the importance of Labour’s ‘organic links to the unions’, the organised expression of the working class. Yet this prioritisation of the Labour Party and parliamentary socialism above other forms of organisation and strategy has over the years resulted in a Labour left prone to a fiercely dogmatic commitment to the party. As such, it has historically been the party’s left that has been the most responsive to calls for ‘unity’.

In her 1987 book, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, co-editor of Red Pepper Hilary Wainwright recounts how this loyalty and a distrust of people outside the party was one of the key dynamics of the engagement between social movements and the Labour Party in the 1970s and 1980s. This is especially relevant considering the experimental politics that this encounter was also producing.

Influenced by social movements, policy processes at the Greater London Council in the early 1980s took on an increasingly popular democratic character. Most notable was the women’s committee, where eight out of 19 places were set aside for people from a range of political backgrounds. Six of these were elected under different categories (black, lesbian, disabled) at annual open meetings. Also significant were the planning and industry and employment committees for work and community participation and workers’ democracy.

Similar experiments, shaped by varying local experiences and traditions, took place in other major cities such as Sheffield and Manchester. Where this approach flourished, the Labour Party in effect functioned as a resource, supporting initiatives for change and empowering those with the knowledge and experience necessary to make it happen, regardless of party membership.

What they show us is that there is a recent tradition of democratic and experimental politics in the Labour Party – a useful historical reference point for those seeking to build an ‘open, citizen politics’. But of equal importance is the fact that these projects came up against not only a Labour Party leadership intent on centralisation, but also a widespread aversion among Labour Party members, including many on the left, to the involvement of those outside the party in internal party matters.

Labour has of course changed dramatically since the 1980s and the contemporary weakness of the traditional Labour left combined with the influx of new members and a widespread preference for a new politics may prevent the emergence of comparable tensions. Indeed, the emergence of an organisation such as Momentum is evidence of a shift. Nonetheless, it is vital to recognise that the political imaginary and organisational preferences that shaped this attitude still exist within the party, even on the left.

The debate concerning membership of Momentum is partly reflective of this. Assertions of the need to reserve policy‑making procedures for those ‘committed to Labour’ and a questioning of whether ‘just anyone can contribute’, alongside statements of how one should be a member of Labour and not have previously stood against it to participate in Momentum, have been commonplace.

Considering the media frenzy surrounding ‘infiltrators’ and the possibility of ‘hard-left’ organisations capturing the Labour Party, one can perhaps understand the reluctance of even progressives to actively support opening up Momentum – to say nothing of Labour itself – to participation irrespective of membership. Yet independent of this, one can also trace the same streak of dogmatic loyalty and mistrust of ‘outsiders’ described earlier.

Such an attitude – if it can be reduced to that – could well now be marginal among the Labour left, especially in the aftermath of a Corbyn campaign that preached political tolerance and exhibited a willingness to work with others, even those outside Labour. Yet given the propensity of the Labour right and centre to weaponise notions of ‘loyalty to the party’ in the pursuit of factional goals, its presence, however small, helps to create a climate in which incidents such as the pursuit of Corbyn policy adviser Andrew Fisher gain credence across the political spectrum.

How Labour relates

To make these points is not to take a position of purism nor undue cynicism, but rather to reflect on the possible obstacles that those committed both to a new politics and to working with or within Labour will likely face. These two aims may in time reveal themselves to be counterposed, but for now the Corbyn victory and the emergence of Momentum presents an opportunity that can’t be ignored. After all, social movements in the UK are less developed than we would like, and the prospects of a Labour Party (via Momentum) as a resource and amplifier for these movements, enabling them to build capacity, is tantalising.

Yet even if Labour succeeds in developing an open relationship with grassroots groups – as some CLPs already have – this is only a fraction of what is necessary. How Labour relates to social movements is just one step towards the task of engaging the wider public and the unpoliticised.

As one of the few campaigns attempting to do this, Take Back the City is well placed to comment. While enthusiastic, Jacob Mukherjee of the campaign stressed the need for caution: ‘The danger is that the movement behind Corbyn orients itself towards those who are already political and already see themselves as left-wing. The fact is there are an awful lot of people who are suffering the effects of inequality and injustice but who aren’t particularly attracted to progressive politics at the moment, and in many cases don’t think of themselves as political. The question we should all be thinking about is how do we engage, empower and mobilise these people. Take Back the City tries to do this by talking directly to communities on the front line of injustice, to ask them how they see things and what they’d like to change. Listening doesn’t mean compromise – it means making ourselves relevant.’

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