Category Archives: Momentum

Against the McCarthyite Witchhunt of Chris Williamson


Labour party activists are coming out in support of Derby North MP Chris Williamson, who was suspended from the party pending investigation into expressions he used at a Sheffield Momentum meeting that rejected the accusations of institutional racism against the party. Sheffield Hallam CLP and Hackney North CLP have already passed resolutions strongly in his support.

The suspension has aggravated the divisions between the rank and file and the parliamentary party. According to the Guardian, 38 Labour MPs from the soft left Tribune group, including several frontbenchers, signed a letter to the party general secretary Jennie Formby calling for his immediate suspension. The Yorkshire Post had published footage of Williamson telling the meeting: “we’ve backed off far too much, we’ve given too much ground, we’ve been too apologetic” over the antisemitism allegations. He later issued a statement that said it “pains me greatly … that anyone should believe that it is my intention to minimise the cancerous and pernicious nature of antisemitism … I deeply regret, and apologise for, my recent choice of words when speaking about how the Labour party has responded to the ongoing fight against antisemitism inside of our party. I was trying to stress how much the party has done to tackle antisemitism.”

Deputy party leader Tom Watson has led the campaign against Williamson. He criticised the apology as “long-winded and heavily caveated,” and told BBC Radio that “disciplinary action should be concluded swiftly. ‘It’s definitely weeks, not months, in my view,’ Watson said. Although he said Williamson should be allowed to present his case in a formal hearing, the deputy leader condemned his comments.” In a clear challenge to Jeremy Corbyn, Watson also claimed he was not acting as his deputy but had an independent mandate from 200,000 members that gave him a responsibility to speak out. Perhaps a new “people’s vote” on Watson’s position would give members a chance to reconsider his mandate.

Momentum seems to be confused on how to respond to the issue. The organization has backed an open letter apologizing further to the Jewish community for the party’s handling of antisemitism, although reiterating support for Corbyn’s leadership and the party’s anti-racist principles. But its Camden branch urged Momentum’s national leaders to argue for Williamson’s immediate reinstatement, condemning the “new McCarthyism” driving the disciplinary action. In a letter to the leadership it points out that “nothing about that speech deserves the suspension of the Labour whip, let alone suspension from the party. Jewish Voice for Labour have rightly pointed out that Williamson’s suspension is unjust and have called for it to be rescinded. Camden Momentum adds its voice to that call.”

However, Williamson’s defenders have mistaken the official reason for his suspension for the real one. It has little to do with antisemitism and a lot to do with him touring the constituencies presenting the case for compulsory reselection of MPs. Sections of the PLP are desperate to take back control of policy, know their constituency parties are critical of them, and are violently hostile to Corbyn’s radical democratic philosophy. Cultural and political theory professor Jeremy Gilbert  points out that the party rightwing would continue its campaign of vilification against Corbyn even if he were to “convert to Judaism, apply for Israeli citizenship and call for a People’s vote tomorrow: their attacks on him would not relent for one second unless he agreed to give up control of the party.”

He argues that the “independent group” of defecting MPs will attempt to build a centrist party that, like in Germany, would potentially hold the balance of power in parliament and become an obstacle to progressive government. However, first these MPs would have to be re-elected, and there is little evidence that their future party would fare any better than the Liberal Democrats, especially since the Labour rank and file will be vigorously campaigning against them. The Labour party, Gilbert says, needs to face questions about its future relations with the SNP, the Greens, even the Lib Dems. It should convene a national conference with all these parties as well as trade unionists and NGOs to build a mass progressive movement as an alternative to neoliberal hegemony.

But what has transformed the party has been the shift in the rank and file and the new members who have joined it since 2015 in order to fight austerity. Gilbert’s characterization of Corbynism as merely a left variant of Labourism – the assumption that socialism can only be achieved through a parliamentary majority – is way off the mark. Corbyn is not at all averse to building alliances with extra-parliamentary movements, and the experience of Tony Benn when a cabinet minister in the 1974 Labour government shows that the party’s parliamentary campaigns and government power can be important components of a transformational movement, giving it political legitimacy with the public.

Rather than holding a neo-popular front convention, Labour activists should immediately begin selecting new candidates to replace the “independent” parliamentary squatters, and campaign on local issues in such a way as to connect with social movements that already exist in their constituencies. This would help to clarify the public about Labour’s radical programme and the true politics of the defectors.

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Fighting for Their Lives vs. Parliamentary Fictions: Members Reclaim the Labour Party for the People


Rank and file Labour party members in Britain, whether or not they support Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, are acutely aware of the implications of major Tory cuts in benefits that affect thousands of people. This awareness has spurred sections of the membership into a new democratic activism that sets them against the parliamentary wing of the party.

Much of the Tory legislation was smuggled in by stealth, with some Labour MPs voting in favour, and is only now being put into effect. As a result, many families don’t realize the extent of the assault on their living standards about to take place – not even counting the Brexit effect on food prices due to hit them in the new year.

Liverpool city councillor Jane Corbett writes in the Guardian that 840 households in her city alone could soon face eviction. “They will all be affected by the new, lower benefit cap of £20,000 being introduced from 7 November. This follows a tsunami of regressive changes to the benefits system since 2010, including the bedroom tax, the freezing of benefit rates and cuts to equivalent working tax credits for those on universal credit. … Aside from the devastating social consequences and stress, in financial terms all this policy is doing is shifting the cost from the government over to the council, housing associations and our other local partners. This at the same time as we’re facing huge cuts to our budgets: £90m alone in the case of Liverpool city council over the next three years.”

These issues are literally life and death for many people: after losing their homes or being refused benefits, there has been a rise in incidents of suicide. Even Conservative councils have protested the loss of £600 millions of educational services grants despite being given a new legal requirement to run support services for local schools.

Ex-front bencher Angela Eagle recently showed just how out of touch the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) is from the issues confronting poorer communities. She called on fellow MPs to develop Labour policy by answering “the questions that face people in their everyday lives” such as the abstractions of “growing automation and the loss of jobs,” rather than the immediate attacks on housing benefits or the withdrawal of support for the disabled. Her assumption that only MPs can determine policy is countered by party members’ beginning to assert their right to democracy within the party.

Likewise, at a time when the government plans to rapidly decimate social entitlements, Labour’s  soft left is obsessed with the electoral implications of Brexit and has decided to recover a lost political centre by restoring a native English collectivism. Jonathan Rutherford of “Labour Together” writes that Brexit “was a vote against globalisation and a reassertion of an English and British common national inheritance over the progressive cosmopolitan culture of the elites.” Jeremy Corbyn, he says, represents this elite, but the party needs instead “a new Labour political philosophy and political economy which draws on values that are widely shared amongst voters: family, work, decency, fairness and responsibility.”

Apart from the Tory assault on the social safety net, what Rutherford also omits to mention is the role of the Blairite years in fostering cynicism among working class communities about Labour politicians and the massive increase in inequality the Blair government helped to sustain. His celebration of “patriotic socialism” and traditional English values is essentially an ideological framing of the Brexit vote. Britain’s national inheritance, heavily fashioned by imperial privilege, also includes a mean-spirited and vindictive ruling elite that built its wealth on slavery and colonial exploitation, and is skilled in manipulating voters with propaganda masquerading as news.

It’s hard to disagree with Sam Tarry, Corbyn’s campaign director, when he told the Huffington Post: “there are a huge amount of people in the PLP who … have no skills in terms of community organising. No skills in terms of building a movement. No strategy for winning a general election and are kind of quite intellectually bankrupt.” “I think really this sort of new left that has been born in the Labour Party, that really is the only sort of strategy we’ve got at the moment, we’ve got to make it work,” he added. “That’s actually building a far bigger project than just Corbyn himself. He is a lightning rod, he’s a conductor, he’s that person who symbolises a more just, a more equal and more sustainable society.”

Corbyn’s supporters are determined to campaign against Tory cuts, and at the recent Labour Assembly Against Austerity in London made clear that they viewed it as their responsibility to decide Labour’s policies for the next election. That brings them into conflict with party’s MPs and right wing, which is mounting a rearguard action by suspending leading members of Momentum from the party.

Momentum’s next step is to fight for positions in the Labour party apparatus, not the issue of deselection of MPs. In London, the party’s regional board elections will take place in November, and Momentum’s candidates will face competition from the soft left as well as the right. The board is important not only because it will play an important role in councillor selections and dealing with the constituency boundary review, but also because it will hear appeals from people unfairly barred from voting in the leadership election.

Outside of London, Momentum activists have already won some victories in changing the leadership of some constituency parties. They have done so because of their readiness to fight on issues of inequality and social justice. Within Momentum itself there are frustrating issues of democratic structure, but it has enabled like-minded activists to find a network for political expression for the first time.

As Hilary Wainwright explains about her local Momentum group in Hackney, “we try to ensure that our meetings always include a discussion with local campaigns – like the occupation of empty council houses by Sisters Uncut, seeking to create and get council support for a centre for women facing domestic violence. We discuss with them how Momentum can support them, build their social base, their alliances and their political impact. We focus on this promotion of grassroots solutions alongside political education aimed at the young people enthused by the new politics and canvassing for the Labour Party and opening up local party structures to the creative initiatives around them. Our own institutions are being built to facilitate this dual strategy of reaching outside the Labour Party as well as working inside it.”

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Parliament vs. the People: Corbyn and a New Kind of Politics in Britain


Jeremy Corbyn has been able to win an increased majority for his leadership of the British Labour party after a bruising second election, which occupied much of the headlines over the past few months. Many Labour MPs had a difficult time disguising their hostility as he reorganized his shadow cabinet, but they have had to acknowledge that the party’s base remains solidly behind him. While new party members are enthused by Corbyn’s socialist stand against the super-rich, discredited ex-Labour premier Tony Blair found himself “baffled” by the turn politics has taken.

He is confused because Corbyn did not so much win re-election as Labour’s membership, assumed by Blair to be a passive group of subscribers, asserted its right to control the direction of the party. Corbyn and his supporters in Momentum represent a new kind of politics, one that combines electoral campaigning and locally-based activism. Critics who call him unelectable or not prime-minister-material miss the fact that he wants to build a different sort of party to the monolithic Labourism of the past, one that does not depend on silver-tongued orators like Keir Hardie or Neil Kinnock.

The legitimacy of parliamentary representation, in any case, has been undermined by the legacy of Blair’s New Labour and the Cameron coalition governments – most Labour MPs embraced the premise that austerity policies were inevitable, taking their lead from Westminster insiders and not from their constituents. Corbyn’s insistence on democracy within the Labour party is an assertion of popular sovereignty, which on principle is antagonistic to the British tradition of rule from above.

Parliament has not been the real seat of power since the Callaghan government capitulated to the IMF in the 1970s, but a parliamentary majority still remains the ultimate goal for the Labour establishment. Leftwing sociologist Hilary Wainwright explains why: “Underlying Labour’s devotion to the parliamentary system as a fixed point of reference and conditioning factor of their political mentality is deference to the moral authority of the British state … associated with the potent symbolism of the monarch as the entity to which MPs swear their allegiance – as distinct from the republican European convention of an oath to the people. … To suggest authority lies anywhere else is in effect a challenge to the authority of the state.”

The Labour party’s membership have long dreamed of making MPs and the party leader accountable to them, and are now raising again the demands for mandatory reselection of MPs and party control over policy that were aired by the Bennite movement of the 1980s. Like Benn, Corbyn seeks to legitimize forms of political democracy outside parliament, relocating sovereignty in the people. “Only with Corbyn’s first leadership campaign did the new politics come into the mainstream,” Asher, a Momentum volunteer, told Wainwright. “I get infuriated when people talk of the new politics as a Jeremy fan club. This isn’t and was never about just one man.” Another volunteer, Adam, adds that “Corbyn is ‘a figurehead of the new politics’ but ‘not in control of it’.”

Wainwright commented that Corbyn has demonstrated “he would open up spaces in politics for the disenfranchised and ensure they had a voice. … Gemma Jamieson Malik, for example, a London PhD student driven by housing costs to live out of London, explains: ‘It’s not that I’m a Jeremy Corbyn fan. It’s that he’s opened a space for a new politics I and my friends can feel part of. He’s generated a new energy around Labour’.” Emily, a Momentum volunteer, said: “It’s not good enough for a leader to speak for people, it’s about empowering those people to speak for themselves. In essence, it’s about creating a vehicle for the untapped potential of communities to collectively organise and lead the fightback.”

Corbyn, Wainwright argues, “supports an impressive range of struggles but he weaves a web of networks so they connect with each other, rather than going through him. At present, he can see that something new is going on, transcending traditional political allegiances.”

Paul Mason thinks that Corbyn doesn’t go far enough in that direction. “He is a symptom of the wider recapture of Labour by networked individuals and grassroots campaigners, but he doesn’t come from that tradition,” he maintains. “I think he could have been stronger in building Labour as a network and a movement, learning from the benefits this milieu can bring.”

Mason points out that in the first nine months of Corbyn’s leadership much effort was expended on changing Labour’s economic policy so that the party could present a realistic plan for improving people’s lives. “They brought forward a new fiscal charter and a proposal for state investment, there was a successful opposition to the government’s welfare reforms, they forced the resignation of Iain Duncan-Smith over disability benefit cuts. None of this would have happened if there had been a different kind of leader,” he said, even though Corbyn was hampered by lack of support (if not outright betrayal) from the parliamentary party and party headquarters staff.

However, parliament is not the place where real, rather than rhetorical, opposition to the Tory establishment is most effectively expressed. That’s why Momentum’s plan to turn outwards and campaign directly with the electorate is better than one of infighting in party meetings. Devolution of powers to English cities and regions offers opportunities to challenge government-led austerity, and a chance to change the terms of electability, “overcoming negative media onslaughts through sheer volume and quality of peer-to-peer political interaction,” the organization says. It plans to campaign in local elections over the next two years, building a base of activists who can mobilize party members and win power for left candidates locally, which it hopes will prepare Labour to fight the 2020 general election.

Momentum has a dual strategy, explains national organizer James Schneider: “We want to make the Labour Party more open, participatory, and democratic. We want it to be an activist party, organizing to win in every community, standing for Corbyn’s platform. … But we also want to provide a point of connection between the movements and the party, to use this moment to build popular power and increase capacity at the grassroots level.”

Momentum itself developed spontaneously at the grassroots level after Corbyn’s initial election victory in 2015. Groups emerged over the country, setting up Facebook pages and organizing meetings, before there was any kind of national organization. It was a form of horizontal democracy, like the Occupy movement, and only later was a form of governance structure created to coordinate the local groups’ activities. This distinguishes it from “Our Revolution” in the US, which seems to have failed to connect Sanders’ organizational apparatus with local activists’ energy.

But what is problematic about Momentum is that its leadership appears to have capitulated to the rightwing witchhunt alleging anti-semitism in the Labour party, removing the organization’s vice-chair, Jackie Walker. What distinguishes this ideological assault is the re-definition of anti-semitism as any criticism of Israel or of Zionism, coded as the “distinct nature of post-second-world-war antisemitism” by hostile MPs. In the US a well-funded assault of the same kind is taking place on college campuses against the campaign for divestment from corporations profiting from the occupation of the West Bank (BDS), where university chancellors have been pressured to define any defense of Palestinian rights as hate speech.

While British society accepts many of the premises of social democracy, its class history has produced an aversion to owning the consequences of democratic participation. The radicals in Momentum will have to find ways to overcome the strong social tendency to bureaucracy and sectarianism if they are to build a truly democratic movement; however, they can draw on the enthusiasm and determination of newly politicized millennial youth as well as the experience of older members who have recently rejoined the Labour party.

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