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The myth of momentum

There is no doubt that Momentum helped secure Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership in the 2017 general election. It utilised and combined online tools with traditional campaigning to ensure people knocking on doors in marginal constituencies. That, with the aid of a manifesto which actually contained policies, enabled Labour to avoid an electoral disaster.

Long gone are the newspaper reports about this group of infiltrators threatening to deselect any MP who disagrees with Corbyn. Since the group became a much more top down organisation over the course of the last year, so the critical newspaper articles have stopped. The reorganisation of Momentum was seen as solving the issue of the Trotskyists. What’s left is a social democratic leadership and scores of trade unionists ready to act as voting fodder for internal Labour battles.

Anarchists have reacted in various ways to the rise of Corbyn and Momentum. Many had continued to refuse to engage with electoral politics. Some have decided to hold their nose and vote, in the hope of getting rid of the Tories, and some others have got involved with actively supporting Momentum and Labour. This is understandable but utterly wrong. It’s understandable because much of the campaigning they are involved with is about changing the material circumstances of the majority for the better. As anarchists we stand for socialism and it’s perfectly reasonable to want to help campaigns that appear to be socialist.

The myth of Momentum is that on a day to day basis it is a socialist campaigning group, rather than simply a group aiming to get Labour into power. The amount of people flocking to it in hope of those material differences is drawing others in.

The problem with that is the very nature of Momentum as a top-down organisation. What happens when you want to campaign for something against a Labour-run council for example? Well just ask housing campaigners in London. Momentum is nowhere to be seen. They will do nothing to damage the party. This also exposes another myth of Momentum. This is the myth that they are doing something extraordinary in grassroots campaigns. They are not. If anything they are just a well organised group of professional activists. Think of the Socialist Workers Party actually doing stuff other than just selling papers. That’s Momentum. They decide what to campaign on (it has to be in Labour’s interests), then they turn up and campaign (regardless of what is already happening on the ground).

Professional activists can be a menace. Good activists resist taking leadership positions in local campaigns they are not affected by themselves. They keep their distance so that they can offer advice to those that are directly involved. This is not the way Momentum activists behave. A Plan C article written after the Momentum conference, The World Transformed (wonderfully shortened, and without irony, to TWT) sets out how some people see Momentum as a game changer. The article proclaims that “standing ‘outside’ of the movements influenced by Corbyn’s ascension to the top of the LP really doesn’t cut the mustard.” Unfortunately it doesn’t elaborate on what cutting the mustard actually means in this context but it does explain that it is “warm under the wings of a dragon.” The author goes on to claim that “there is no other game that could build a mass movement at present.”

That is absolutely the case. We need to consider what the point of such a mass movement would be though. People seem obsessed with the size of political activity, rather than the efficacy of whatever they’re doing. The Focus E15 Mothers weren’t a massive group but gained some success. The United Voices of the World are a small union but keep winning. Class War led a small campaign against the idea of ‘poor doors’ a few years back and gained a great deal of publicity on the issue. Politics is not about size, it’s about what you do and the ways in which you do it. Small groups matter and they need help. Structure matters. As anarchists we should reject Momentum simply on the basis of how it organises, let alone its dodgy politics.

On the election we need to bear in mind that in every election across the democratic world there are usually around 30% of the population that don’t vote. These non-voters tend to be the poorest people in society. Their apathy is really anything but. They are just getting on with life but perhaps more importantly there isn’t normally much on offer for them to make a rational choice between competing parties. In 2017 the Labour manifesto was nowhere near as radical as the press made out. It didn’t send Alistair Campbell and Tony Blair crying into the polling booths to reluctantly vote Labour. They trotted along quite happily to support it. The talk wasn’t of breakaway parties anymore. This was simply social democratic policies, albeit on the left of social democracy. There was more than enough in there for the liberals in the Labour Party to support it.

The myths of Momentum could end up with people being swallowed into a structure which is only interested ultimately at getting Labour into power. The risk is that activists will be diverted into battles that only ultimately help that party. They could, in the process, result in other grassroots campaigns being trampled on, ignored, subverted and controlled by professional activists. There is no mass movement worth having unless it is free from the shackles of parliamentary politics. Freedom and socialism has to be our aim and we simply can’t have both by going down the parliamentary road.

Jon Bigger

This article first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Freedom Anarchist Journal

Pic: Funk Dooby

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