The fight for democracy is not a split
Lansman’s coup should be resisted by founding a democratic Momentum, urges Tony Greenstein
The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party took virtually everyone by surprise. The 200-1 outsider quickly became the firm favourite in the summer of 2015. The election of a serial rebel as leader of the Labour Party left both socialists and the pundits searching for explanations. In many cases they still have not found them.
It did not, however, take long for the bourgeois media to get its act together. Besides being unpatriotic and a threat to our security, Corbyn was an associate of holocaust deniers, terrorists and other unreliable elements. Why, he even failed to sing the national anthem! Large numbers of the existing shadow cabinet resigned and those who stayed, like Hilary Benn, were equally treacherous.
It was in this context that Momentum was set up at the instigation of John McDonnell, with Jon Lansman being the founder and national organiser. Despite attacks by the Labour right and people like Tom Watson on what was termed a “Trotskyist rabble”, Momentum began to cohere as an organisation and rapidly gained 20,000 members, in addition to a much larger database of hundreds of thousands.
Very soon the organisation began to organise locally on an ad hoc democratic basis, almost despite the national office. Over 150 local groups sprang up, some more active than others. Regional structures took shape and a national committee, which was the sovereign body of the organisation pending a founding conference, was also established.
The NC met, I believe, in February 2015 and elected a steering committee consisting of nine members plus an additional two members for the two affiliated trade unions, the TSSA and FBU. The SC elected from amongst itself Jon Lansman as chair, Jackie Walker as vice-chair and other officers. From the start Lansman was determined that the national committee would not meet again and the steering committee would effectively displace the body that elected it.
The formation of Momentum did not take place in a vacuum. There was, as might be expected, a determined fightback by the Labour right - aided, as always, by the mainstream media. Barely a day went by without a rightwing MP attacking Corbyn in the Tory press. Not only the Tory gutter press - the Mail, Sun and Express - but The Guardian too led on the false anti-Semitism allegations.1 No journalist was more assiduous in perpetuating the lie that Jeremy Corbyn was associated with holocaust deniers or that anti-Semitism had increased since Corbyn became leader than the ‘subliminally nasty’ Jonathan Freedland. Scratch a ‘liberal’ and a reactionary pops out.2
Throughout 2016 there was the continual drip-drip of the false anti-Semitism campaign. Beginning with the allegations against Oxford University Labour Club - its chair, Alex Chalmers, resigned when the club voted to support Israel Anti-Apartheid Week, claiming this proved anti-Semitism was rife within it. A subsequent inquiry led by Jan Royall, a Zionist sympathiser, found that there was no “institutional anti-Semitism” in the club. Corbyn appointed Shami Chakrabarti to head a broader enquiry as a means of kicking the issue into the long grass. Asa Winstanley wrote an excellent article based on research into the false allegations of anti-Semitism.3 Subsequently the active involvement in destabilisation of the Labour Party by the Israeli embassy and its operatives was confirmed by the series of Al Jazeera programmes.4
Throughout this period, which culminated in May 2016 with the staged confrontation with Ken Livingstone by the boorish John Mann MP, Momentum was silent. Mann, now the chair of the Parliamentary Committee Against Anti-Semitism (after its previous chair, Dennis MacShane, had resigned after being convicted and jailed for fiddling his parliamentary expenses), went on to accuse a Momentum supporter, Graham Martin, of forging a letter critical of him in the name of 90-year-old Jewish Labour Party member Dr Sam Glatt. When I contacted Dr Glatt to confirm that his letter was genuine and obtained a handwritten letter from him confirming this, Mann deleted his Facebook post without issuing any apology for his false allegations.5
In May Jackie Walker, the vice-chair of Momentum, was suspended for anti-Semitism. This was a hit job by the Zionist lobby. She was quoted as saying in a private Facebook conversation, which was infiltrated by an Israeli propaganda organisation, the Israel Advocacy Movement:
My ancestors were involved in both - on all sides … millions more Africans were killed in the African holocaust and their oppression continues to this day on a global scale in a way it doesn’t for Jews and many Jews, my ancestors too, were among the chief financiers of the sugar and slave trade … so who are the victims and what does it mean? We are victims and perpetrators, to some extent by choice. And having been a victim does not give you a right to be a perpetrator.
One word, which I have highlighted above, was missing. Given this was an informal conversation between friends, this is entirely understandable. Yet this was twisted and distorted by the Zionist press, with the Jewish Chronicle headlining that “Labour suspends Momentum supporter who claimed Jews caused ‘an African holocaust’”.6
At first, Momentum and Jon Lansman supported Jackie and Labour’s witch-hunters backed down quickly. After a hurried investigation meeting, Jackie was reinstated. However, the Zionists did not accept this and after a Jewish Labour Movement ‘training session’ at Labour Party conference, which was secretly recorded, Jackie was suspended again, for a series of remarks and questions. Nearly two weeks before this I had written an article predicting exactly this scenario. The JLM wanted blood and Jackie Walker - a black-Jewish anti-racist - was the ideal quarry.7 This time Lansman was quite willing to oblige, alongside the fools of the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.
Lansman and his supporters, including the pro-imperialist Zionists of the AWL, proposed the removal of Jackie as vice-chair at a meeting of the SC on October 2 2016 (The idiocy of the AWL in supporting a witch-hunt which would also devour its own members beggars belief). Lansman, however, made it clear that, given the choice, he preferred to support the Zionist witch-hunters rather than Jackie Walker.
Lansman explained in The Independent how “I spoke to Jeremy Newmark of the Jewish Labour Movement this morning. He’s very upset and I can understand that - I work closely with Jeremy ...” The Independent went on to predict that “It is now, however, widely expected Momentum will remove Ms Walker from her post on Monday following a meeting of the steering committee.”8 It is a fair bet that Lansman briefed the Indie and The Guardian that it was proposed to appease the witch-hunters by moving against Jackie Walker.
The idea that Jeremy Newmark - a cynical, political Zionist operator, who works, by his own admission, closely with the Israeli embassy and who was called a liar by the employment tribunal in Fraser v University College Union when he gave evidence asserting that the boycott of Israeli universities by the University and College Union was anti-Semitic - was upset defies logic.9 If Lansman seriously believed that, then he is more stupid than I have given him credit for. I imagine that Newmark could barely contain his delight at having engineered a situation whereby the chair of Momentum was supporting the suspension of his vice-chair.
When I spoke last year to Lansman, he made it clear to me that he believed that the anti-Semitism allegations had a factual basis. He believed that he could win the Jewish Labour Movement to support for Corbyn’s Labour Party - a completely surreal belief, given that in the contest with Owen Smith the JLM voted by 92%-4% to support Smith. In the process he wrote an article on his Left Futures website justifying the naqba - the expulsion of Palestinian refugees in 1948 - and the resulting Jewish state,10 and another article calling for the left not to use the term ‘Zionism’ for fear of upsetting Zionists.11 He followed up this treachery by getting the ex-socialist and Socialist Alliance activist, Andy Newman, who runs the Socialist Unity blog,12 to pen an article on his Left Futures site.13
The only time that Momentum has mobilised since its formation was when the right attempted, and failed, to bring off a parliamentary coup against Corbyn. Firstly, last summer at the height of the coup, Momentum called a crucial demonstration outside parliament, so that the right could see and hear the support that Corbyn had, and then in its mobilisation of phone banks and canvassing. This was entirely to Momentum’s credit, but it was and is not enough.
Having successfully won a ‘no confidence’ vote against Corbyn by 172-40 votes, the right had nowhere to go when he refused to resign.14 After a highly comical few weeks, as ‘chicken’ candidate Angela Eagle and Owen Smith fought it out, it was the latter who became the right’s standard-bearer. It should be noted that the political attack on Eagle was mounted by her own Wallasey Labour Party, which was then subjected to entirely bogus charges of ‘homophobia’. This also involved the case of the most famous broken window in history. Reported as belonging to the constituency office of Eagle, it was actually situated in the stairwell of a building containing a number of organisations. However, the allegation served its purpose.
Despite the fact that Labour’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, who had originally sought to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper altogether, attempted to fix the vote by removing as many Corbyn supporters as possible, the Labour leader won by an increased majority - some 62%. Solicitors for Jim Kennedy, a Unite member of Labour’s national executive committee, accused McNicol of bad faith and plotting against Corbyn, to the extent of not divulging legal advice or even the date of the NEC meeting.15
This was the time when Corbyn should have openly called for the dismissal of McNicol for having tried to change the result of the election. It was then that Corbyn was at the height of his powers. This was also the time when he could have stated, openly and clearly, his opposition to Tom Watson’s proposals to alter the balance on the NEC against Corbyn. However Corbyn’s “straight-talking, honest politics” meant that he once again played the pacifist, turning the other cheek when attacked by the right. Comrades should remember that even Jesus, when confronted by the moneychangers, drove them with whips from the temple.
Throughout all of this Momentum remained silent. It has no alternative strategy or advice to offer. Momentum was a stage army, to be called into action if Corbyn was under threat from the right, but otherwise doing nothing to combat Labour’s rightwing Progress group and the likes of Luke Akehurst. The result was that, despite the overwhelming Corbyn majority within the party, it was the right who had the most conference delegates in 2016. Time and again the right has out-organised the left in the party.
This is the context in which Jon Lansman’s coup should be seen. Lansman is determined that Momentum will not take the fight to the right. Momentum will not organise deselection; it will not fight the witch-hunt. On the contrary, Lansman has pioneered the strategy of appeasement. One of the memes of the coup-makers is that Momentum should not resemble the Labour Party structures. What this means in practice is that Momentum should not organise ward by ward, constituency by constituency.
This is the gospel of surrender, the manifesto of retreat. Effectively it means either that Corbyn is the prisoner of the right or, more likely, that Lansman and company have given up on Corbyn remaining leader till 2020 and accept that he will, at some point, be forced to resign. The Labour right will not easily challenge Corbyn head on, as they did disastrously with the hopelessly inadequate Owen Smith. Instead they will seek to outmanoeuvre and engage in a war of attrition.
This was the meaning of Lansman’s determination that the national committee should not meet in November 2016 and - when it did meet in December and he lost, despite packing it - he first conducted a bogus Christmas poll and then imposed a constitution that had no democratic legitimacy whatsoever. Indeed the irony of making a stand on ‘one member, one vote’ and then imposing a constitution without any consultation whatsoever was not lost on people. This, however, was a sign of weakness, not strength.
The reaction of Momentum groups around the country was overwhelmingly hostile to Lansman’s coup. My own, Brighton and Hove, which has won all the elected positions in the Brighton constituencies, after the party was suspended in the summer, was indicative. By a vote of 33-4 a meeting of Momentum, after a vigorous debate, supported the unanimous recommendation of the steering committee.
The job of socialist and Marxist organisations in situations such as these, where there is a deep political division between the new right, as represented by Lansman, and an activist, socialist left, is to organise the left. As Carla Roberts of Labour Party Marxists has written, “the sheer cynicism of Jon Lansman’s coup is staggering” and she correctly deduced that Momentum could be reduced to a corpse.16
In this situation to say that we will not “split” Momentum, when Jon Lansman and his cohorts have already done that, is an act of sheer political stupidity. How else can you interpret the constitutional provision that those who are expelled from Labour will also be expelled from Momentum? There is no chance that Lansman’s new structures will be susceptible to democratic control. The elections to the new national coordinating group have been won by the coup-makers on a 34% turnout. It was wrong for opponents of Lansman to have even stood for the elections and thereby given them legitimacy. It would be even more stupid to now persist with a futile game of challenging Lansman inside the undemocratic structures he has set up.
The grassroots of Momentum, the local groups, are not represented on the NCG. There is no other representative body. What Lansman has decided is that the left will in future be incapable of organising around a defence of the Corbyn leadership. It is irrelevant whether or not Corbyn, who is obsessed with preserving his relationship with the right, is aware of this, or supports it or not. Lansman’s corpse of Momentum, like all corpses, will have no life in it. It will be a stage army at best, an extra arm for Labour canvassing.
It is for the far left in the Labour Party to organise the left and to give it direction. That is, of course, a responsibility which it would seem that the organised groups are not up to. But to abdicate this task at this, quite unique, time will be a political mistake of immense proportions. It reduces politics to nothing more than political theatre. Lansman’s Momentum is incapable of defending the left leadership under Corbyn, because it refuses to take the fight to the right. It also refuses to challenge Corbyn’s political incoherence. The position of accepting Lansman’s coup - because that is the position of LPM and the AWL at this point in time - is also to accept Corbyn’s defeat.
There is no doubt that the actions of both the AWL and Labour Party Marxists to date have played into the hands of and strengthened the coup-makers politically. However, the majority of active Momentum supporters do not support the coup. Lansman relies on the passivity of those who read the emails sent out by Team Momentum, not the activists. It is essential that a Democratic Grassroots Momentum results from the March 11 conference called by the NC majority. That also means that LPM needs to quickly rethink its position.
The left in Momentum is best represented by independents such as Jackie Walker and the black comrades who do want to see an independent, campaigning Momentum. Thanet Momentum has decided that it wants nothing to do with Lansman’s national Momentum, which offers nothing to local groups. It does not pass on any of the finance it receives and does not give them any help. It is crucial that the left uses its strength in the local groups to resist Lansman’s coup rather than surrendering, having gone through the motions of paying lip service to a fight.
I do not expect that the Zionists of the AWL, who have managed to place themselves on both sides of the witch-hunt, will understand this. But I would expect better of Labour Party Marxists l
1. See, for example, Jonathan Freedland’s ‘Labour and the left have an anti-Semitism problem’: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/mar/18/labour-antisemitism-jews-jeremy-corbyn.
4. The lobby: www.aljazeera.com/investigations/thelobby.
16. ‘Reduced to a corpse?’ Weekly Worker January 12 2017.