From social movement to socialist movement, a reply to Paul Mason

From social movement to socialist movement, a reply to Paul Mason

I am currently working in Sheffield. It’s not a city that I’ve spent much time in, so one morning this week I went for an early walk around the city centre. The first thing I came across, immediately outside my hotel, was a plaque to Samuel Holberry, a radical Chartist who died of consumption in prison in 1842. He was imprisoned for advocating and trying to implement the People’s Charter, which called for universal male suffrage. The Chartists saw that as a way of fundamentally changing society in favour of the working class, who did not have the vote. When Samuel died, 50,000 attended his funeral.

50,000! In days without social media, TV or radio, without public transport. 50,000 walked from all the surrounding towns and villages to commemorate Samuel’s life and his struggle on their behalf. I reminded myself that what motivated these mourners was the revolutionary idea of change. This was a real social movement. The Chartists relied mainly on their newspapers and word of mouth. How much easier it should be today, I thought, with all the extra media we have at our disposal.

The point, of course, is that whatever media we have, it is the message not the medium that is paramount. In my opinion, the most important thing is to concentrate on the basic message of socialism, of abolishing capitalism and establishing a truly democratic society based on the common ownership of society’s resources. How we get that across is always open to improvement and innovation.

We haven’t seen anything quite like the Chartist movement, which was the first real mass working-class party and was revolutionary in content. But we have seen a mass social movement in support of Jeremy Corbyn with two peaks of activity this year and last ensuring that he was elected twice as Labour Party leader. Momentum emerged and grew out of this movement.

How does it harness that energy and ensure it continues and is channelled effectively into campaigning inside and outside the Labour Party?

Concentrate on the politics and on the campaigning. But, there are always practical issues that have to be resolved, some of which are more controversial than others. In the last few days one such issue has erupted in Momentum.

A mosquito bite

The well-known left-wing journalist and writer Paul Mason has written a series of articles on Mosquito Ridge setting out his own ideas and advice on how Corbyn and the movement around him should progress. Paul has recently written an article, Why I Joined Momentum. It’s very good that Paul has joined. He has a long involvement in the socialist left. His books and articles are thought-provoking and interesting to read. He writes with a breathless excitability that captures much of the mood around the election and re-election of Jeremy Corbyn.

I’ll state my position clearly here. I am a Marxist and therefore probably fall into Paul’s category of ‘hard left’, an unfortunate echo of Thatcher’s criticism of her socialist opponents in the 1980s. Only he can explain whether that puts me in the “die-hard Bolshevik re-enactment groups” or whether I adhere to a “zombie ideology”. Like so much of what Paul writes, he coins good phrases but passes over in silence what he means by them, rarely substantiating his sweeping statements. I enjoy reading Paul’s material but I also disagree with much, if not most, of what he says.

I believe that it is always better to engage with what your opponents actually say and do, rather than attribute to them arguments that they don’t share. There is little point in knocking down straw men.

His most recent article is an obvious engagement with the recent upheaval over Momentum democracy and how it should organise. The problem is, though, that it doesn’t address the origin of the argument.

It’s about process not OMOV

The recent debate has erupted not over the substantive merits or otherwise of OMOV (one member, one vote) or of delegated democracy but over the undemocratic trampling of any democratic process by seven members of the Momentum Steering Committee. That is the starting point. You either agree with the way Jon Lansman and the other six behaved at the Steering Committee meeting on 28 October or you don’t.

Paul doesn’t even begin to engage with what happened; what led to the recent motions of censure of the Steering Committee by at least four regions of Momentum. To my knowledge he hasn’t contacted the main opponent of the SC decisions, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack.

Now Paul can disagree with Matt Wrack’s proposals in favour of a delegate conference. He can champion OMOV. But surely any competent journalist would seek, in fact is obliged to ask for, a comment on what happened, so that he can properly engage with the other side. I don’t expect Paul not to have his own opinion, but I would have more respect for it if it were an informed one.

The complaints have not been primarily about OMOV but about the process by which OMOV has been imposed on the Momentum conference without any decision being taken by the Momentum National Conference. On Friday 28 October, the Steering Committee voted at an ‘emergency’ meeting to cancel a meeting of the NC scheduled for 5 November, which would have been discussing this very issue.

Papers with different proposals about how Momentum should organise its national and local structures, including national conference, had only just begun to circulate, with two papers – one from Jon Lansman and one from Matt Wrack – going out from the Momentum office only hours before the SC met. The SC also voted to discuss the conference, even though it wasn’t mentioned on the order paper in the notification for the meeting, and imposed a streamed conference with online voting of the 20,000 members, cutting across the process of consultation that the SC had itself initiated. Matt Wrack’s paper was consigned to the dustbin in his absence.

Of course, behind any organisational difference, such as we see now, there are political differences. But Paul is wrong to see this as a binary argument between the ‘hard left’ “negative, factionalist tendencies” who want delegated democracy and those who argue for “a horizontal, consensus-based organization, directly accountable to its mass of members” who want OMOV. There were supporters of OMOV who voted for the motion of censure at the London Regional Committee.

Semblance of worth, not substance

Like much of Paul’s writing, the article is a broad brush, a pell-mell sweep, without any substantive argument being elaborated. There are no quotes setting out the arguments he purports to engage with, no examples to back up his dystopian predictions. Just superficial assertions. They’re nicely written but they remain unsubstantiated assertions. (I’ll have to deal with some other political issues raised by Paul’s article in a future article, for reasons of space.)

Now, I will openly admit that I do not yet have a complete answer to the constitutional difficulties posed by Momentum’s rapid growth to 20,000 members. No sensible socialist wants to do anything to exclude or limit the involvement of any one of those members. We have new technology in terms of social media and use of the internet that open up possibilities that were not available in the 1980s or 1990s. So all proposals are up for discussion and should not be dismissed (by either side) in a cavalier fashion.

But, likewise, reservations and hesitations about online voting should also not be dismissed as old-fashioned, hard left, hierarchical etc. Let’s consider all the proposals on their merits. This immediately raises a difficulty. To consider all the proposals carefully requires time, patience and effort in setting out the competing proposals, and having the time to read them and to consider them carefully. Such deliberation is usually assisted by having face to face discussions with others involved, in meetings or online, or both.

And that is precisely what the SC did not allow. It did not allow the local groups to discuss the various papers and to make their own proposals. It did not even allow the NC, which is surely a higher authority than the SC, the opportunity to discuss the issues. It did not send out the documents to the 20,000 members. The papers have still not been posted on the Momentum website for all to see and comment. I have heard the justification for OMOV from some of its advocates, “trust the members”. Well, why haven’t the papers been sent out to all the members, or posted online for them to see, so that they can think for themselves? And why haven’t the proponents of the different methods been given direct access to the members to explain why they support a particular proposal rather than another?


Here are some basic questions that any serious participant in Momentum should be asking. If you want to avoid a hierarchical structure, is it a good idea to have all the Momentum supporters’ data – phone numbers, emails, addresses etc – owned by a company with little if any transparency about who controls it? No amount of OMOV will improve things if Momentum can essentially be controlled by one person threatening to pack up and take the data away.

Do we need elected officers who are accountable to the members? Is it right that one person can make decisions about Momentum’s finances without reference to other officers? If the answer is yes, we do need officers but they must be accountable, then isn’t that a form of hierarchy. The issue, surely, is not about having a hierarchy, it is whether it is a necessary layer of bureaucracy or not; whether it is exercised transparently or not; whether it is accountable or not; whether the officers can be recalled or not.

My concern is that we are able to hold leaders to account. To do that we need effective and efficient ways of communicating as members, of meeting together to discuss and make decisions. Quite often, a concern will be answered or recede in importance following discussion.

The purpose of rules

The labour and trade union movement has spent two hundred years developing forms of working class democracy with the purpose of strengthening and building this movement. On many occasions this democracy has been abused, by both the right and the Stalinists. Rank and file union members and Labour Party members have often had to fight against the bureaucratic misapplication of the rules and procedure of the movement. We saw an example of this undemocratic manipulation at this year’s Labour Party conference.

The socialist left should always be prepared to be self-critical and question the way it works. We know that many union and Labour Party meetings are as dry as dust, uninteresting and devoid of politics. New members have to be very determined indeed if they are ever to return. We don’t want to replicate that in Momentum. So anything that can improve on this is to be welcomed. Are the new methods better than the old?

At the same time, many of the ‘old’ methods have survived precisely because they work. Constitutions, rules and ‘standing orders’ can protect members’ rights and can be used to hold leaders to account. Delegated democracy has developed because there is a practical difficulty in getting large numbers of people together to make decisions on complicated issues. These can be difficulties of time, size of venue, cost and so on. Perhaps these can be overcome by OMOV but it will be difficult.

If 20,000 can watch the conference online and vote online, what is the purpose of anyone attending? If only the self-selecting few attend, who decides on the agenda, the speakers? If someone sitting at home objects to a perceived abuse of procedure how do they intervene to raise a point of order, to challenge the chair etc?


Paul Mason unintentionally raises another problem with OMOV. He accepts that he, as a journalist, is in a privileged position. He does not have to engage in any Momentum local group. He can post an article online and thousands will read it. It is unlikely that they will read the replies from lesser-known Momentum members. This leads to an obvious inequality that does not exist to anything like the same degree when decisions are taken in face to face meetings when everyone is on an equal (horizontal?) level. I believe that face to face discussion is by far the most effective way to conduct debate and to arrive at decisions.

More fundamental, I suspect, are my concerns that OMOV may lead to a ‘scissors’ effect within Momentum, that is, to a widening gap between the ‘active’ and the ‘passive’ members. Our aim should be to involve as many members as possible in discussion and decision making. Members should feel that they own the organisation and have a democratic say in what it does and how it is done. In any political organisation some will be more active than others, whether because of commitment or difficulties of engaging – disability, child care, shift work and so on. We have to find ways of making sure that those who want to participate but can’t, are enabled to do so. This may involve online participation.

But if we have online voting it is possible that we will end up with decisions that reflect the choices of passive members – those who, out of choice, do not attend meetings and who don’t follow the debates and discussions; who are happy to click a 38 degrees-type motion but not to go out campaigning or canvassing – and ignore or override the views of the active members who do the campaigning work and run the local groups. If these views are in conflict, we could end up with the passive layer deciding on campaigns and policies that carry no support from the active members who will be the ones expected to implement them.

This will lead to demobilisation, demoralisation of the activists and the eventual shrivelling of local groups. Without the local groups Momentum will not survive. Perhaps, though, that is what some would prefer – no unruly local groups; just a passive bloc of members who will vote for left-wing slates for the Labour Party NEC drawn up by unaccountable cliques.

The problem with this, however, is that it will not bring about the vital change in local constituency Labour Parties. Change in the Labour Party requires that Momentum supporters turn up at ward and CLP meetings, argue their politics and vote for candidates who will represent them. Building a mass online membership will not be enough. We cannot change the Labour Party, let alone society, by clicking on a touchpad or mouse at home.

Our starting point when considering structures should be to consider the main purpose of the organisation. The constitution and rules must be geared to its objectives. Momentum should, in my opinion, be aiming to build mass active local groups that will turn out to the local working-class communities and turn in towards the Labour Party to bring about the change we need to win support for socialist policies.

My preference at the moment is for a delegate-based conference as I have serious reservations that an OMOV conference will assist in that process.

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