History Must Not Be Repeated

The article by Roy Hattersley in the Observer (3rd December) viewed the rise of Momentum through the spectacles of the 1980s. It is likely that the three Momentum candidates for  the NEC extra places will gain the seats as I argued on December 5th. However the lack of balance on the NEC if this confirmed is not just the result of 3 extra people in decision making, and cannot be tackled by returning to the politics of the past. 

Firstly, Momentum is not the Militant tendency, and while it is currently  the voice of the grassroots, this is partly due to the weakness of other tendencies. When I was on the Rank and File Mobilising Committee in 1981 during my Bennite phase, I was a delegate from the Independent Labour Party (or publications as we called it, confusing the issue) which also contained the Labour Co-ordinating Committee which later became the key soft left organisation, plus CLPD, Briefing, Militant and other groups. The Right also was well organised, but nowadays the Right only has the Labour First organisation, on which Hattersley puts much emphasis. A battle between Momentum and Labour First would be left v right when the right is weak. Where is the soft left?

Secondly, if Momentum is  ‘a party within a party’  as Hattersley claims,  there is an issue of how much control Corbyn’s office has on the group. Momentum claims on its web site to have 31,000 members, 200,000 supporters and 170 local groups. This is impressive and far beyond what any other Labour tendency has, boosting their candidates for the NEC,  but  it’s not automatic that this means a shift in the balance of power to Momentum or that they act for the Leader.

While Momentum certainly supports Corbyn, it is not at all clear that the leader’s office has any firm links with them. It is true as Hattersley claims that there is support from Unite, which appears to share offices with the group,  but even here it would be foolish to equate Momentum with any union despite much sharing of activity. If critics see Momentum as a way of controlling Labour,  stronger evidence is needed.

The Grassroots Must Be The Focus

Hattersley’s article made  some valid points and it is true that Labour’s opinion poll ratings are disappointing.  But there is more going on here that Hattersley’s claim that “Fears about a victory for the far left helps hold down Labour’s opinion poll lead to 4-5%”. Most voters have never heard of Momentum, while attacks on Corbyn for being far left by the Tories failed totally in 2017. Fear is not the real reason for Labour’s poor performance. We need better analyses of why Labour is not streaking ahead, although the media focus on Momentum may produce dire results.

Two key points about the growth of Momentum need to be remembered. The first is that Momentum appeals to young people, notably for having campaigned for Corbyn in 2015.  Any viable future for a grassroots initiative to challenge Momentum has to have a similar appeal. The rejection of the politics of Austerity and genuflecting to neo-liberalism of  the Blair-Brown- Miliband years must go. There is an international dimension here in the failure of the Clintonised Democratic Party which allowed Trump to win in the USA.

Secondly, the shadow cabinet ministers who resigned have no credibility. If Hattersley thinks they can simply declare that they were wrong and express pleasure in ‘acknowledging their mistake’ and then become grassroots warriors this is an illusion. Are they going back into the Shadow Cabinet?  How do they explain their actions in denying that Corbyn had won fair and square in 2015 triggering a second leadership ballot in 2016? Parliamentarians have  no political credibility. Like Johnson and Gove in the Tory party any attempt at independent action would be seen as an attempt to unseat the leadership.  Labour has no future with a civil war.

Shifting The Focus

Hattersley harks back to the decade of conflict which followed the Bennism of the late seventies, notably  in his call for MPs to “spend their evenings in cold halls, speaking to small audiences about Real Labour’s true values”. This is a reference to Labour Listens under Neil Kinnock, a project which largely failed.  Meetings will take place. But they are no longer where the action is.

This is very largely nowadays on the internet, and Momentum have shown how effectively that can be done. Not that the internet is a panacea, but to reach the young in particular will mean working in  cyberspace. 

Hattersley is right to look back to the Bennite movement of the 80s which gave the Tories three election victories, and that piece of history most certainly must not be repeated. Nevertheless the balance of forces in the Party has switched to the hard left for good reasons. New Labour  produced a narrow centralised neo-liberal politics which has no appeal to the young or the voters Labour has to win.

The Soft Left

Focussing on Momentum ignores the weakness of the Soft Left, notably Open Labour. Floating twoyears ago, this offered the chance to rebuild a current between the Right and the Hard Left. However it has failed to put down significant markers or attempt to organise at grassroots level. Its failure to publically support Angela Rayner MP when she refused to sign Momentum’s tick list was unacceptable. It has no visible grassroots presence which may explain its failure to sponsor candidates for the NEC elections but this is to evade the issue. With decisive elections in Summer 2018, Open Labour has to join in. The organisation is weak and run by volunteers, but what is chicken and what is egg? A visible media presence wins the support needed to develop. 

In key areas where Momentum is troublesome such as Inner City London boroughs, Sheffield and Liverpool there is no visible attempt to build a broad front for democratic socialism. Open Labour was never a strong player. It has declined into a social media operation.

Labour only wins elections when it has broad appeal and a balanced approach to voter appeal. The Blair era promised this but failed to deliver, and the Corbyn achievement in reaching voters New Labour did not after 2001 is threatened by the return of sectarianism leftism. The challenge for 2018 is to revive that mythical sleeping beauty, Labour’s Soft Left.

Trevor Fisher

December 2017

 

 

Comments

  1. John Hurley says:

    Roy Hattersley said very similar things about the Blair project, the purge of of some figures on the left and the sidelining of many others who were socialists, in an interview with Trevor for Labour Reform. I am not sure that momentum is a faction in the sense that Militant was. Currently it is more a broad movement which embraces several different strands including many young people who are identifiably soft / centre left. I do hear of intolerant outbreaks in some constituencies and in a neighbouring constituency they have rested control from a strongly right wing clique whilst leaving those known to be soft left in place. In my own constituency there has been an influx of very useful and keen young people – with whom I can agree for about 90 per cent of the time or more so do not seem to me to pose any sort of threat here. The exec is now about 50 / 50 soft left and younger momentum and we are getting on with our work just fine. I am sure there are some hardliners but it is pleasant that Labour here has rediscovered idealism and realistic socialism.

    Of course apart from John Landsman I am unaquainted with where the Momentum candidates stand, their election addresses seem as anodyne as everyone else and they offer some geographical spread. My votes were delivered entirely to increase regional and other diversity as a reaction to the metro-centric nature of the party, left or right!

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