Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Frankenstein’s Momentum

The eternal truth that the far-left loves schisms has been proved right again

There is an old joke on the left which runs something like this: if you put five Trots in a room, pretty soon you will have six different factions. It is not a great joke, I will grant you, but it speaks to the eternal truth that the far-left loves its schisms.

Every great leftwing campaign and movement belies the splits, schisms, feuds, fallings-out, and monstrous vanity beneath: the tussle between Militant and the Socialist Workers’ party over the poll tax campaign; the fight between the tankies and the Trots in the struggle against apartheid; or the nest of vipers that is the Stop the War coalition. On occasion, some of the factions unite behind a leftwing figure, such as Tony Benn in 1979-81, or Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. But soon enough, the inevitable splits emerge and the splitters split.

Sometimes it is a matter of clashing personalities, or a row about methodology, or even a dispute over doctrine. With Momentum, it is all three. Momentum is a marketing device, designed to harness the excitement generated on the left, after decades in the doldrums, by Corbyn’s surprise takeover of the Labour party.

Its founder Jon Lansman, a veteran Bennite, has created a party-like structure with a London headquarters, separate membership and database, local branches, full-time staff, and its own banners, leaflets and materials for the voters. It serves as a bridgehead between Labour and other parties and organisations wishing to take it over, or skew its internal democracy: Left Unity, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, the Green party, the Socialist party and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

The reality is that it is a Frankenstein’s monster, created from the bits and pieces of far-left factions and splinters, and crudely stitched together, to borrow Mary Shelley, from the remnants of ‘the dissecting room and the slaughterhouse’. It is not a vehicle for the young idealists who were promised so much in 2015.

Mostly, the vicious factionalism has remained where it belongs: online, in the frothing post-truth septic tank of Twitter, the ‘Labour Party Forum’ group on Facebook, and the Canary. But whenever more than three or four are gathered, the poison drips out into the real world. At the recent Momentum national committee those loyal to Lansman, enthused by Corbyn’s perceived radicalism, suffered a baptism in the fires of far-left factionalism.

Activists who started in Stop the War, the Occupy movement, Climate Camp, or UK Uncut came face-to-face with hardened Trots, and in particular the AWL. Formerly known as Socialist Organiser, the AWL is a Trotskyist party kicked out of Labour in the early 1990s. It is a hardcore revolutionary outfit and its cadres are tough, battle-hardened and no-nonsense. Whatever the opposite of ‘snowflake generation’ is, the AWL is it. At the national executive they heckled, intimidated and bullied non-Trot Momentum members. The AWL cast its opponents in Momentum as the ‘alt-Stalinists’ – most likely for their close association with Stop the War and belief their leader (either Corbyn or Lansman) can do no wrong. As any Labour party veteran will tell you, this is a classic Trot tactic designed to demoralise their enemies and disengage them from political activity.

One delegate described it thus: ‘What I witnessed was horrible. The generational divide was starkly visible for all to see. In the seats in the horseshoe-shape around the room were the pro-OMOV [one member, one vote] delegates –  more likely to be younger, in the Labour party and close to Momentum staff and Lansman. In the seats in the centre of the room were the anti-OMOV delegates  –  more likely to be older, Trotskyist, seasoned in far-left factions, not  in the Labour party. It was like a doughnut of desire for change, with a sticky centre of angry socialist stalwarts.’

The split, roughly 30 votes in each camp, was over whether Momentum should be run as a social movement, with online policy debates and OMOV, or like an old-school trade union, with local branches electing delegates to higher bodies which decide policy and run the organisation. Needless to say, the Trots want the latter, because they know their Bolshevik methods can win control of Momentum, its brand, database of potential recruits, and assets.

Lansman and his mainstream media allies such as Paul Mason and Owen Jones, would like us to believe this is a fight between nice Momentum tots and nasty Momentum Trots. But it is not, it is a fight between one lot of far-leftists and another lot of far-leftists, each equally wrong in their own ways. The people from Stop the War, the Green party, UK Uncut and Occupy movement, now given a red carpet to enter the Labour party by Lansman and Corbyn, might not be Marxist-Leninists, but their ideology is no less pernicious and anti-democratic.

They believe in a range of policies, from restricting population growth to smashing up high street shops, which do not chime with Labour values. Many, probably most, did not vote Labour in the last election. For example, James Schneider, the former Momentum organiser now in the leader’s office, voted Green in 2015, and Liberal Democrat and Boris Johnson before that. They believe they can create a ‘social movement’ which will somehow make our society better by rallies, tweets and waving homemade placards. This is no more credible than the Marxists who tell us the revolution is around the corner.

Momentum will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, amid accusations of betrayal and rancour. Like the monster in Frankenstein, it will drift off into obscurity. It will fall to a new generation of Labour activists to relearn the essential lesson that in a democracy, change comes via the ballot box, and for the left to win, we must appeal to the voters, not to one another.

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See Adrian Teal’s cartoon of Jon Lansman as the ‘sulking monarch’ of Momentum here

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3 comments

  • The problem being that I can spot quite easily the obvious damage done on the streets by a rag-bag of far left activists; the most damaging to the UK and its people, however, is the group of ‘progressives’ that have insinuated themselves into our institutions and are now undermining our democracy.

    The police can deal with the SWP, but how do ‘the people’ deal with the appointees within our public institutions, who have an agenda and are working to a common purpose.

  • “Every great leftwing campaign and movement belies the splits, schisms, feuds, fallings-out, and monstrous vanity beneath: the tussle between Militant and the Socialist Workers’ party over the poll tax campaign; the fight between the tankies and the Trots in the struggle against apartheid; or the nest of vipers that is the Stop the War coalition.”

    Very telling indeed. If the Poll Tax had still been in place when Tony Blair became Labour Leader, then “reluctant” acceptance of it would have been a New Labour article of faith. The same would have been true of apartheid, which Blair missed by a very brief period.

    By this article’s own admission, the right-wing Labour Leadership played little or no role in the opposition to either. One might add that in government, that Leadership had repeatedly wielded a UN Security Council veto in the Pretorian interest.

    There is something almost admirable about the sheer gall of mentioning the war in Iraq. But the organisational work of the Stop the War Coalition did eventually remove Blair from the Premiership over the bombing of Lebanon. A lot of people forget that. It is nice to see that you never will.

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