Momentum is the name of an organisation formed by Labour MP Jon Lansman MP in order to ‘continue the energy and enthusiasm of Jeremy [Corbyn]’s campaign’. It describes itself as a ‘network of people and organisations’. However, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat skeptical about the democratic credentials of a top-down attempt to build a grassroots democratic mass movement by a small clique within a centralised party bureaucracy. Now, after two interactions with Momentum, I feel, unfortunately, that my instincts were right.
My first interaction came two months back after a friend told me that Momentum were planning to develop a ‘People’s PPE’ course. This refers, of course, to Oxford University’s ‘Philosophy, Politics, and Economics’ degree that is the conveyor belt for producing the British and global political class. I contacted Momentum by email to tell them about a community education project I had co-founded a few years back called ‘PPE’ (People’s Political Economy). I wrote that there were many people and groups all around the UK with huge knowledge and experience in this field and that I was ‘sure many of us would be glad to speak with you and share our experiences, skills, and ideas’. After two weeks, I received a reply from someone on the ‘Momentum Team’ telling me that he had forwarded my email to ‘the man organising People’s PPE’. That was over two months ago. I have had no further reply.
My second experience was at the inaugural Momentum Oxford meeting two weeks ago – my first political meeting for years. I came quite late to find around forty people split into small groups and brainstorming answers to various questions. I was pleasantly surprised. It turned out, however, that Momentum Oxford had already received a mission statement from HQ and spent the rest of the evening debating matters of substance and protocol raised by this statement. The nature of the debate was respectful, but tense, occasionally frantic, and ultimately only marginally productive. I recall one participant insisting that this kind of ‘hard work’ was the unavoidable ‘nature of politics’.
The central focus of the most fractious debate was whether to allow non-Labour Party members into Momentum Oxford meetings – a largely ‘academic’ debate since all conceded that the ultimate decision was to be made by the central clique in Westminster anyway. Some participants insisted that Momentum meetings should be open to all. Others equally passionately demanded that they be for Labour Party members only. At this point, not being a LP member, I offered to leave. Two neighbours gently asked me to stay. Most seemed to agree that meetings should be open to non-LP members, but not to members of other, rival parties. One participant argued that if Green Party members were allowed in they could discover Labour activists’ strategy for the forthcoming council elections. To this another replied that he had more in common with all Greens than he did for many on the right of his own Party. It was a bit of a mess, frankly. There was certainly no feeling of momentum and there was simply no way that this form of political organisation was going to attract disaffected and dispossessed people into political action.
I made one intervention later in the evening. I took the marker pen and drew the following triangle on the flipchart paper.
I pointed out that usually when people come together to try to achieve a goal, they focus on the ‘task’ ahead and on the ‘process’ – how they plan to achieve it – but what they tend to neglect is the relationships – the cultivation of strong relationships grounded in mutual trust, respect, and solidarity needed to achieve any task. This tends to lead to failure and breakdown. I said I felt like this neglect of relationships was what was happening in this room right now. I recommended that they focus more on relationships.
I actually wished I had emphasised my point even more by arguing that relationships were the key to everything they sought to achieve. If they had begun by suspending any notion of establishing the tasks they wanted to achieve and the process by which they would achieve them and had started instead by simply speaking with each other, cultivating listening and empathy, they would soon realise that the tasks and processes appropriate to their group would organically emerge. This would be much easier for a group like Momentum Oxford who share many political (i.e. life) values already. But then they might find that they would have to sever the strings that tied them to the puppeteers at HQ. This is probably an overstatement, since there are to be elections through which local groups will be able to be represented and purportedly take place in central decision-making, but we shall see.
The principle of building relationships should also serve as the Labour Party’s guide in their desire to capitalise on and grow the momentum of Corbyn’s victory. Rather than constructing something according to a preordained master plan, if the Labour Party leadership were to actually engage with and listen to grassroots community groups and campaigns then they could be a central part of growing and representing something very powerful indeed. This is very unlikely to happen. The century-old centralised party machine is most unlikely to cede central control.
Political power comes only from legitimacy given by people. Without legitimacy power becomes violence. This is why we see such violent and frantic outbursts from those on the right of the Labour Party. They see the tide of history, their grasp on power, turning decisively against them. Violence of language, and acts of fratricide, are their sole remaining weapon as they stare the abyss of political obsolescence in the face. The Conservative Party is also dying. Its current control of state power makes its violence physical and social. The violence of both parties expresses the slow, painful death of the capitalist system and the class they represent.
If Labour and Momentum want power, they should focus not on their political enemies, but on co-creating a new democratic politics in partnership with the society they seek to represent and transform. What is more likely to happen, as in Spain, Greece, and elsewhere, is that movements from below will force the Party to change or die. Corbyn’s victory was an expression of political momentum, but this momentum rises from below.