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Disband Momentum? Alan Johnson is as forgetful as he is hypocritical

The self-described “militant moderate”

Despite now being out of Parliament, Alan Johnson doesn’t seem to want to stay out of politics. This weekend he made a typically unastute intervention into Labour’s post-election debate, saying, “Momentum, by now, should have disbanded. Jeremy Corbyn by now is very safe”, and that, “I don’t see the point of a separate organisation which is just a fan club for the leader.”

Not only has Johnson completely overlooked the tremendous role that Momentum played in the General Election – but he speaks as a supporter of Progress, an internal party organisation that, like Momentum, was founded immediately following a leadership election. Yet in the case of Progress, the organisation has outlasted the leader who founded it – Tony Blair – by ten years. Why then is Johnson calling for Momentum to go? 

First of all, let’s examine Johnson’s main claim: That Momentum no longer has a point. During the General Election Momentum’s twenty-three thousand-strong membership and its 150 local groups knocked doors up and down the country, made phone calls on behalf of candidates, created carpools to get other canvassers out on the doorstep, held big events that energised and motivated our supporters, and spread an incredible amount of material supporting Jeremy Corbyn and a Labour vote across its social media platforms.

The stats are persuasive. More than 100,000 people used ‘My Nearest Marginal’, to find out where they could be most effective in travelling to canvassing. 400,000 people received a WhatsApp message on polling day written by Momentum and forwarded by individuals to their contact books, reminding them to vote. Almost 30% of UK Facebook users saw one of Momentum’s election videos.

Jared O’Mara, who beat former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg to become MP for Sheffield Hallam has said:

“The contribution of Momentum members in South Yorkshire and beyond was exemplary”

Publications including The Week, the Guardian, and even The Times have articulated what Johnson can’t quite understand: That Momentum played a huge role in the General Election result we just achieved. Johnson doesn’t doubt it was at least a partial success. Not for nothing did he say in his Prospect interview:

 “The person who lost is Theresa May. Big time.” 

Anyone would think that Johnson was either not paying attention during the election, or that he was wilfully ignoring the importance Mometnum played. He was in fact touting a predictable and hypocritical Blairite attack line of late – that Momentum is illegitimate, but somehow Progress is not.

Johnson is a supporter of Progress, at least to the extent he has written for their magazine and accepted their donations. He may even be a member, as many MPs on the party right have been. Progress are a Blairite party-within-a-party that has sought to defend Tony Blair’s legacy in Labour – somewhat unsuccessfully in recent times, one might add. He was in fact interviewed by their magazine several years ago in which he called for unions to have their democratic rights in the party reduced, and even attacked Unite’s policy of trying to increase the number of working-class MPs. He also added that trade union officials were “fat, white, finger-jabbing blokes on rostrums shouting and screaming”.

What have Progress done in recent years, that warrants their continuation as a political faction ten years after Tony Blair’s departure as leader, in contrast to Momentum which should ‘disband’?

The faction of the hard right in the party used to be the go-to place for ambitious young Blairites, wishing to make careers as parliamentarians, usually by way of Labour Students, a job carrying bags for an MP, and then a council seat. Nowadays, the group is much more toxic. But it still tries to have an influence on the party. As well as arguing vociferously for the Collins reforms (that ironically gave Jeremy Corbyn his victory in 2015), Progress attacked Ed Miliband, having preferred his brother, and their main funder until now, Lord Sainsbury, gave £6.3m to the party between 2005 and 2010, but no more after Miliband’s election. The job of Progress since then has been to promote rightwing candidates in internal party elections, and support rightwing nominees in parliamentary selections.

Who funds it today? Well, Lord Sainsbury has just announced that it will no longer be him. Solomon Hughes has previously reported that they have taken money from Bellenden Public Affairs, a lobbying firm that represents privatisers like Serco and NHS outsourcer Care UK, Lexington, another lobbying firm whose clients include Goldman Sachs, the City of London corporation even, and some of their meetings have been sponsored by the British Venture Capital Association, who have consistently argued for NHS privatisation. They have also taken money from notorious asset-stripper, Pfizer.

While Alan Johnson talked up the threat of ‘deselections’ by Momentum in his Prospect interview, the only Labour MP to have been deselected in recent party history wasn’t done so at the behest of Momentum. Bob Wareing, MP for Liverpool West Derby and a member of the Socialist Campaign Group, was deselected in favour of the Stephen Twigg, who had formerly been Chair of, you guessed it, Progress.

So why the fear of a group like Momentum organising to support Jeremy Corbyn in both leadership elections and General Elections, and pushing an agenda to reclaim the Labour Party and transform its internal democracy? Well, largely because in doing so Momentum will eventually undo all of Progress’s work, and that can only be good news.

One last thing. Progress’s job has just become much harder. As I alluded to earlier, Lord Sainsbury has announced that having put £260,000 a year into Progress, his funds will now dry up, and the organisation will have to find over a quarter of million pounds a year from someone else.

Perhaps, in light of its new financial predicament, it might be Progress who are the ones disbanding instead.

9 Comments

  1. John P Reid says:

    Can we stop all this party within a party twaddle from five years ago about progress

    And can we also say no exceptions if you’re not allowed to be in the Labour Party,leave momentum or progress

  2. JohnP says:

    Yeh, right John, now that Progress’s Big Business cash is drying up, and Momentum has over 22,000 members, and Labour’s neoliberal consensus is on the ropes, The Left should wind up Momentum ? There is still a LOT of work in the Party for a well organised Left to do.

  3. Verity says:

    Much of what Momentum’s activities are not especially ‘Left – Wing, it is so often just doing what the Labour Party would ordinarily do when properly functioning. It spends an enormous amount of energy campaigning for the likes of Woodcock, Peter Lyle and so many others without thanks, recognition and without any benefit or return to the ideas that gave the organisation birth. So many, many of its members are not even especially Left – Wing (on almost any measure). It just seems to be full of energy and activity – often without much a strategic vision except keeping an alert for an ‘old guard’s’ bad practices.

    Of course some of the ‘neutral’ political work is conducted because of an ambition to become a Labour affiliated organisation – or at a preference for most of its membership, i.e not belonging to a limited number of predominantly ‘big city’ groups who still wish to be the Labour Presentation Committee (LRC) for the young – yesterday’s ambition for the organisation.

    The organisation has no strategy other than bits of the occasional consenting actions similar to that of any ‘moderate Leftie’ in Labour. It offers no education programme, little or no training, marginal engagement outside of spontaneous outbursts of enthusiasm, no policy or policy discussion, and in eyes of its (local) big city groups no democracy – being owed by someone without accountable; it offers no reports to its membership of its national committee proceedings, even even knowledge of who its ‘random/lottery national committee members are, or even it elected members. It is very much a loose, active and spontaneous gathering of those on the Left without a home. Its growth has diverged so much from becoming a Party that no one should have either cause for concern or hope as a organised force to lead the Left. Without any real need to cause worry to the Right, thank goodness it has existed at all to make them believe that the Left has a long – lasting means for advance.

    Its future will be tied to its ambition to become that loose affiliated organisation. outside of that, I suggest its energies will be sapped for long term shrinkage – outside of those groups becoming the young version of the LRC. Momentum is a very valuable organisation but much ‘media exaggerated and inadvertently promoted.

    1. Verity says:

      So what was it about the Labour Party that led to the rise of this spontaneous and fairly ‘non partisan’ movement of people (outside of a generalised Leftish appeal that is)?

      One aspect I would suggest is what some have called a lack of democracy, but what is probably better characterised as inertia as to an old and possibly tired way of conducting business and decision – making – which more direct democracy could freshen up. In particular there is the aspect of distance of the member from where decisions seem to be made and resulting outcomes appear. The selection of candidates is not usually the product of CLPs actions but results from interventions of ‘wise sages’ at some distance and invisible, who possibly do have some claims to legitimacy but is not seen or appreciated by most members and appears to be an absolutes mystery to the newly engaged recruits. And then there is what appears to members as a freeze on any discussions or any local actions whatever by CLPs outside of instructed campaigns (including the means of raising money) at the time of elections. So having had little debate before elections we have a freeze on any discussions or challenge now. Then there is the mystery of why a campaign becomes the sole property of the Candidate, Agent, and the Party Chairman acting together. To new – comers this looks far too cosy and appears to be in secret and lacking transparency. Then there is the mystery of why members are asked to ‘give up’ on campaigning in lost causes and ‘safe’ and ‘owned plots’ (giving rise to ex MP D, Milliband’s latterly revealed 3% Contactcreator’ completions once he moved on). The fact that many decisions were hopelessly wrong makes it look as though the ‘magic hand’ of Party sages were politically manipulating activity for sectional advantage.

      We are all only young once, why would the young wished to be burdened with this inertia to ‘a’ past rather than get on with spontaneous and apparently real engagement and feel of ‘democracy’ now. The Party sages have been hopelessly wrong, just dumping them would have had little costs – maybe a more democratic change, close to the membership would have the desired lasting outcome. But Momentum probably does not have the will or patience to get caught in that endless stream of argument.

  4. Bazza says:

    The highly recommended Skwawkbox blogger recently highlighted the 6 attacks to come from the Neo-Liberal Right Wing/Progress Labour Twits:
    1. Attack JC’s outriders – so we await the dipsticks entering the stage on here etc.
    2. Engineer a foreign policy division – to come.
    3. Attack Momentum -is happening.
    4. Generic smear – ‘anti-semetism’ chapter 3?
    5. Smear performance of JCs Shadow Cabinet.
    6. Brexit – dreadful letter by 51 Right Wing MPs on knees to Neo-Liberalism.
    Left wing democratic socialists should organise around ideas.
    We are the many, they are the few!
    Solidarity!

  5. I think Momentum election campaigning has embarrassed the party officials quite a bit. Momentum have been more professional than the paid officials at doing the job. The real issue the right has is that it might not stop with just the leadership and general elections.

    We have to remember that although by a long way the majority of the membership support Corbyn and the left of the party, the party machine is still controlled by the minority from the right and this includes the paid officials and the PLP. That must be the next fight, and it won’t be easy winkling them out. Just look at how they created NEC positions for Kezia Dugdale and Carwyn Jones when their control of the NEC looked to be in danger.

    1. Stewart says:

      Very well said, Danny. The next fight for the left is for control of party machinery. And it shouldn’t be a fight for control just for the sake of control. It should be control to further democratize the party. Probably it is time to consider primary elections for candidates – both parliamentary and council seats. With membership of almost a million – to exaggerate, but not wildly – let us give those members a say in whom they want as Labour Party representatives. One might argue that the party could have performed even better if the majority of the candidates were on the same wavelength as the leader, clearly advocating left policies rather than triangulating with the right (e.g. Trident
      ). Under the current arrangement, it is going to be difficult to deselect those right-wing MPs who are continually plotting to frustrate the wishes of the members and the leader for as long as their faction is in control of party machinery.

  6. Susan O'Neill says:

    Would suit Alan Johnson well if the Labour Right wanted to trigger another Party Leadership ballot and rig the Party system, if Momentum was wound down.
    No I think Momentum will just continue as it has for some time to come, Ta so much AJ, hope you don’t mind if we don’t take your advice.
    Trust is a two way street and once lost, is hard to regain.

  7. John P Reid says:

    Just noticed this article that defends momentum then starts attacking progress, if yo don’t like progress wing of the party, why don’t you just say so

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