“I think we made mistakes in the eighties. With hindsight, I don’t think we helped ourselves. We allowed ourselves to be marginalised; we were too unforgiving of people who some saw as betraying our principles and didn’t give them a way back. My view has always been that if you don’t take the mainstream of the Labour Party with you, you’re going to lose. There is no point in taking hard-left positions which are not going to appeal to the centre ground.” – Jon Lansman, 2016
Momentum was envisaged, much like its predecessor the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), as a way to ensure that the left became the “mainstream” current within the Labour Party. The organisation was formed through numerous impulses, but the linchpin and central figure continues to be Jon Lansman. Lansman’s mentor was Vladimir Derer, who founded CLPD in 1972. Derer did not envisage its audience as primarily being the left. CLPD saw reforming the party’s constitutional structures as the means to bring the majority of membership, irrespective of their views, to an agenda that would supersede the structures of capitalism. Later, under Lansman’s stewardship, Momentum changed the means to achieve Derer’s ends, by focusing on altering the party’s culture, rather than its constitution, to transform the Labour Party. Yet Lansman faces the same dilemma as did Derer: how to appeal to the mainstream of the party whilst looking to cohere a splintered left.
What was significant about CLPD’s guiding philosophy, formed by Derer, was that it was based neither around the notion of vanguards nor social movements. (The majority of the Labout’s New Left formulated around these two poles.) Trotskyism may have been Derer’s organisational inheritance but neither 1917 nor 1968 was the model for his vision of transforming the Labour Party. The notion of representative democracy, which was questioned ultimately by both the vanguardist left and the participatory left, was embraced by Derer – much like Ralph Miliband, who would ultimately see reformism as the inevitable vehicle for socialism. Unlike E.P Thompson and Hilary Wainwright, central protagonists of the participatory left, Derer did not believe that spontaneously emerging social movements could withstand pressure from the state, but more than that, he did not foresee them as being able to produce robust structures to enable social change.
Instead he sought to blend representation and participation. Party members were not to be corralled by a vanguard, neither were they to enact the decision made, instead the representative was to be transfigured into effectively being a delegate of the members. His vision was of a parliamentary democracy run by the members of a political party. Parliament being run by a faction of parliamentarians was not a new phenomenon by any means, but parliament being run by a faction of the membership was.
Derer, unlike the mainstream of the British New Left, thought that reformism could be reconfigured along the lines of participation, and that would offer a road to socialism. Yet when CLPD was founded in 1972, it really was the nadir for Labour’s New Left. Abstentionism from the Labour party was the view held by most left groups outside of the party, such as The International Marxist Group (IMG), and the Socialist Workers party (SWP). Those groups that were left within the party such as Militant or Chartist, were Trotskyite. It was therefore even more extraordinary that Derer would look to the Labour Party as the vehicle for socialism, a party which had been so roundly trounced by Miliband and New Leftists such as Tom Nairn and Perry who saw the party as not being able to transcend the limits of Labourism. Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson positioned Labourism, as a deformed form of socialism that emerged out of trade unions movement which led to the hegemony of Fabianism and piecemeal reformism, as Nairn declared this could only produce a “sentimental socialism”, that could only amount to a “moral crusade” rather than confronting the “objective” forces of capital. This “weakened the left” as they struggled to operate outside what had come to be seen by Nairn and Anderson as the Labour party’s ideological vernacular. As Nairn declared “Labourism is a system which cannot be led by revolutionaries”.
CLPD was prescient. Only a decade later Tariq Ali, Miliband and Eurocommunists who would come to see the left as being able to defy labourism. The notion of Labourism is invoked time and again within debates on the left, normally at times of decline to account for failure. As we are likely to see with accounts of Corbyn, there will be many who say it will be Labourism what done it. However Labourism obscures the agency of the actors who shaped the opportunity for the left to breakthrough in the first place. If Labourism is persistent within the sinews of the Labour party will it ever be able to change. What is quite refreshing about Derer, when reading his papers, is how he is willing to operate beyond the fatalism of Labourism. He is very clear that he sees the left as being as much as part of their downfall as the forces of Labourism.
Constitutional change worked for CLPD because it was part of their broad church approach. Policy was separated from CLPD’s platform, with policy being left to what was the Bennite think tank, the Labour Co-ordinating Committee (founded in 1978). This approach built upon vast support amongst the grassroots and was what enabled the rise of Bennism. It gave Benn the institutional base that would see him win the membership section against Denis Healey in the deputy leadership contest of 1981.
Following the defeat of Benn, the left splintered. One of the central issues of the split was the register established by Michael Foot. Militant, who were completely disconnected from the Bennite left (though they did collaborate with them on historic rule changes of the early 1980’s) became the target of Foot’s leadership. To root out Militant, Foot pushed for there to be a register of all social societies/parties within the party. This was passed by the NEC, and then by conference in 1982. It completely splintered the left. Derer argued that the left must abide by the ruling, as if they didn’t, how could they claim to believe in the sovereignty of conference? Lansman opposed Derer, and saw it as the beginning of a purge of Labour’s New Left. Derer, in response, looked to the newly emerged soft left (LCC) for help, to uphold the broad-church principles of CLPD. Despite Derer’s efforts the LCC, the centre of dissident Bennites, fell further and further out of the orbit of Derer. The LCC became the locus of the possibility of a broad church left in the mid 80’s, with both Cherie Booth and Ken Livingstone on its committee for a period.
Momentum is a very different organisation from the one Derer envisaged in 1972. It is impelled by the notion of cultural change, rather than constitutional transformation, as the means by which to create a hegemonic left which can appeal to the “mainstream” of the party. It is concerned with policy, it’s concerned with forming a left media and social institutions within and outside of the party. This is a major departure from Derer’s concern with direct policy positions turning off those who could be converted to the cause. At the same time Lansman, like Derer, is impelled by the same notion of normalizing the left. Momentum has also been essential in erecting the notion of ‘centrism’ in the internal discourse of the party. Often, this notion of ‘centrism’ is less about ideological content and more about a way of doing politics: politics for necessity rather than principle, doublespeak and triangulation. In many respects there is a syndicalist spirit to Momentum looking to form a political structure which is halfway between party and civil society, once again striving to find the middle ground between vanguard and participation that Derer strived for.
But ultimately Momentum has been torn between the same tensions that faced Derer: the broach church of the party and the cadres who underpin the ability to reach them. You need both – but how to please both of them? Of course, most members who voted for Corbyn are non-factional, many emigrating from the Greens into the party. However, many of the founding members of Momentum were old cadres – after all, who else could Lansman trust when the left had been so decimated in the Blair years? The first challenge came over the founding of the Momentum constitution: the battles as to whether its national coordinating group should be voted in by a delegate system or one-member-one-vote (OMOV). This may seem like a very obscure distinction, but it was an essential one. Lansman knew that under a delegate system he would likely lose control of Momentum to groupings such as the Labour Representation Committee or the Alliance for Workers Liberty, who he saw as scuppering any opportunity for a broad church approach. OMOV prevented a small number of cadres from controlling Momentum and would ensure that those who were Lansman’s allies would be elected to the committee. Momentum, bar its innovation from the Derer position, is also about data, and data produces a majority on the all-important National Executive Committee. However the move to OMOV meant that a whole segment of Momentum either left or became disillusioned with the organisation, which they felt was suppressing the grassroots. Many local groups continued, however they had little control over the wider organisation bar the odd consultation on how the National Coordinating Group conducted its business. Furthermore, Lansman bravely called out antisemitism on the left, which splintered the coalition that held the group together. The culmination of this splintering was seen in this year’s split in NEC by-election slates between Momentum, CLPD and Jewish Voice for Labour.
As we approach the all-important internal election within Momentum for their National Coordinating Group, we can see conflicting accounts of why and how Momentum needs to be renewed framing this election. Tribune, with their workerist and popular front approach, have stated in an a recently penned article that Momentum failed because:
“It came to represent a London-centric, largely liberal and student-oriented politics which, while successfully harnessing some of the energy of younger Corbyn supporters, failed to develop the project politically and resulted in an operation that often resembled an NGO rather than anything socialist.”
It was not Labourism that corrupted Momentum, it was liberalism. This is an innovation from attacks that Derer often faced in the pages of London Labour Briefing, a major organ of London labour left in the 1980’s, that he was promoting democratic centralism. It seems that the officers of Momentum National coordinating group agree with this analysis too. This is significant, as Tribune has close links with Unite, and often closely follow the views of the union. Could Lansman form a coalition with Unite to maintain control? One of the other sides of the debate is the newly formed Forward Momentum group, which seems to embrace a more libertarian socialist perspective, is backed by John McDonnell, and looks like an explicit challenge to the institutional structures of the Lansman era at the helm of Momentum.
Momentum has recently released a unity statement in an attempt to put together a unified left slate before the NEC elections this summer. It is a pivotal moment. If Lansman loses the majority on the NEC, which for now at least has already happened, then there may be no turning back for a generation. But will CLPD (now at odds with Lansman on antisemitism and Momentum’s structure) and Jewish Voice for Labour be willing to accept Lansman’s suggestion of a slate? The release of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission report on antisemitism and its fallout is likely to compound the tension that will arise, especially concerning whether figures such as Pete Willsman should continue to be on the grassroots left slate (though this may be taken out of their hands by the party.) If Lansman fails to find an arrangement he may well look to attract support from the soft left, perhaps by courting Open Labour, but would this coalition have the institutional ability to win out over CLPD/JVL and Labour First/Progress? Will Momentum become the next Labour Co-ordinating Committee? Can Lansman maintain his control over Momentum?
Laura Parker, the former national coordinator of Momentum, has already made the jump by supporting Starmer. Lansman is too tribal, like Derer, to ever come out as a Starmer supporter. But like Derer he is uncomfortable within his own tribe. Derer, as the 80’s went along, further immersed himself within left infighting, as it devolved into more and more seemingly futile factional battles. But, just like in 1903 when an obscure Russian social democratic party fought their heart out over obscure Marxian terms, meaningless factionalism can come to define the central political fissures of an epoch. Lansman may come to defy Derer’s trajectory and find a means to unify the left. Whatever happens, there is no doubting the impact both Lansman and Derer have had in reshaping the history of the Labour Party, each leaving an inheritance that will last for generations to come.
Sam Pallis is a Labour councillor in Hackney and is a PhD candidate in History. He has previously written for the New Statesman and The Independent.