Extra-Parliamentary Counter Power. Momentum Community and Refounding Momentum

Before the 2019 election a worry from the left was "office without counter-power", now we confront: lack of office, marginalisation in the Party and still without counter-power. What can Momentum do about this?

6 min read

With Momentum going through a “Refounding” process, we are publishing contributions from members or groups with proposals for the future of Momentum. We note that, paralleling our introductory comments to our interviews with Momentum’s NCG candidates that, the level of discussion has generally been quite low (or perhaps, more precisely, and even more troublingly, the discussion has been almost entirely absent) and as with those interviews, we hope providing a platform for discussions about Momentum’s future may help to bring forward arguments and enable member participation. If you or your group would like to contribute ideas, email [email protected]. Momentum Community is led by Momentum activists, and for anyone hoping to build a better world, this is a space for us to meet one another, discuss politics and strategy, and get involved in projects to build socialism. The Slack workspace consists of around 40 public channels.

Without the backing of a vibrant and assertive social movement behind it, any left-led Labour government risks merely occupying office rather than wielding real power.
Tom Blackburn, “Office without counter-power?”

If a major failing of the left (including Momentum) in 2019 was a lack of attention to, or even collective understanding of the importance of extra-Parliamentary counter-power, what must the assessment be now in late 2021 given the right’s renewed control of the Party: out of opposition and without counter-power? Nevertheless, one product of the post-2015 period is a wealth of literature which re-imagines the core components required to implement socialism, including an updated conception of extra-Parliamentary counter-power. Could that literature be part of recomposing the left and, specifically, how might it contribute to Momentum’s Refounding process?

Central to the Labour Transformed Refounding proposals are the claims that Momentum lacks political coherence and sorely needs the intellectual input of its members. Enabling deliberation and the politically healthy emergence of competing conceptions of Momentum’s politics (factionalism) is then seen as key to moving forward. While agreeing with the wider claims, I want to argue for a more focussed intervention that draws on Corbynism-inspired literature and develops an updated understanding of counter-power. Importantly, a renewed conception of socialist work outside of the Party would both enable greater member involvement and help situate Momentum’s purpose within a more complete understanding of how to implement socialism. Firstly, though, the inevitable resistances.

A renewed conception of socialist work outside of the Party would both enable greater member involvement and help situate Momentum’s purpose within a more complete understanding of how to implement socialism.

While much of the following is the product of useful discussions with a few members on the Momentum Community Slack workspace it is clearly the case that many members and much of the left remain, as Blackburn describes “intellectually bounded by the political and organisational imaginaries of traditional Labourism”. This is important for conceptualising counter-power given that the crucial distinction between campaigning and social movement counter-power building tends to be elided by a Labourism mindset. For example, Momentum remains wedded to the notion of a Labour Government being sufficient to implement socialism. In a phrase repeated three times in the recent Socialist Organising in a New Era strategy document, including in bold in a full-page quote, Momentum’s stated aim is to promote socialist ideas and policies and to “advance them in the Labour Party, with the aim of electing a socialist Labour Government to deliver them”. While this Michael Foot style 1980s theory of change precludes a nuanced understanding of counter-power, a Labourist attitude to the membership also prevails which would, equally, preclude greater, meaningful involvement of the majority.

In his counter-power article Blackburn laments “the party’s ingrained paternalism and unwillingness to genuinely unleash the capacities of its own activists”. This attitude is manifest on the Momentum Slack in the passing down to members of guidance or initiative documents from above with no member consultation, despite the easy opportunity to consult that Slack affords. When discussing the idea of cross-geographic organising, Momentum’s Political Coordinator openly asserts that “putting in place the structures and rights for non-local groups shouldn’t pose a problem; the biggest challenge will be incentivising members to actually get active”1. It’s difficult to comprehend what drives this member-deficit model (other than Labourism) given that Momentum has yet to involve in any meaningful way the 90% of members who do not engage with local groups.2 How does Momentum know who is or isn’t ‘incentivised’ and by what? If engagement is truly valued, the potential in adopting an updated conception of counter-power lies in the membership-empowering model it offers.

Drawn from left commentators such as Blackburn, Jeremy Gilbert3 and the late Leo Panitch, an updated theory of change involves three dimensions to implementing socialism: Party activity by the Parliamentary wing of the left, campaigning for specific objectives which support Party activity and the more general questioning of the nature of contemporary society by an extra-parliamentary social movement. More explicitly, Joe Guinan and Christine Berry in People Get Ready! provide a conception of the extra-parliamentary wing of the left involving three elements.4 Firstly, academia has a role to play through fundamental research which can provide frameworks for new understanding of the economy, society and culture. Secondly, left think tanks such as CLASS, NEON, NEF and so on can help with “shifting the balance of forces in institutions and wider society”.5 The third element, and of most relevance to the Momentum membership, concerns changing popular narratives and “contesting the public discourse and symbolic cultural practices” through new forms of political education.6

It might seem a big ask for the left to successfully develop political education, especially given the worrying trend at TWT21 of pedagogical regression to predominantly expert panel presentations. A more coherent conception of how to implement socialism includes, importantly, the locating of such Freirean ‘Banking’ methodologies within Party and campaigning educational initiatives. By contrast, counter-power building provides an obvious site for the long-needed left development of Freirean ‘Problem-Posing’ student-teacher methodologies drawing on a wider range of perspectives. In terms of content, Gilbert has argued that when challenging neoliberal hegemony, movement political education should be “ambitious and wide ranging … seek[ing] to confront in every way the idea that humans are, or should be, inherently competitive, individualistic and asocial”7. As for ‘who’ will be involved, Gilbert argues against class essentialism, that a counter-power movement must involve “most of the working class, precarious graduates, middle-class professionals and the ‘new petite bourgeoisie’”8. As for how realistic such proposals seem, the important point here is situating political education within a wider, coherent understanding of how to implement socialism: the kind of strategic thinking the left so dearly needs.

Counter-power building provides an obvious site for the long-needed left development of Freirean ‘Problem-Posing’ student-teacher methodologies drawing on a wider range of perspectives.

Building newly envisioned extra-Parliamentary counter-power may offer much but will require great effort to surmount the Labourism hump in the road. If Labour Transformed could be bolder and argue for specific interventions they could, I hope I’ve been able to argue, be a more significant part of that effort. Finally and back to Blackburn, it’s useful to recognise how long-term the effort must be. Writing in late 2019 - and the same applies now - Blackburn notes that “despite the emphasis on the need to build a social movement around Corbyn’s leadership, actual social movement activity in the years since 2015 has remained muted to say the least”. Agreed, but the intellectual basis for building counter-power has been largely built in that period: could the right’s renewed control of the Party now be the prompt for adopting a wider conception of socialist work which fully embraces the necessary activity outside-the-Party? Over to you Labour Transformed.

  1. Andrew Dolan on the Momentum Community discussion channel, July 16th 2021. 

  2. Leo Panitch and Colin Leys. 2020. Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn. London: Verso. p. 226. 

  3. Jeremy Gilbert. 2020. Twenty First Century Socialism. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

  4. Christine Berry and Joe Guinan. _People Get Ready! Preparing for a Corbyn Government. London: OR Books. p. 170. 

  5. Berry and Guinan. People Get Ready!. p. 154. 

  6. Berry and Guinan. People Get Ready!. p. 154. 

  7. Gilbert. Twenty First Century Socialism. p. 126. 

  8. Gilbert. Twenty First Century Socialism. p. 118. 


John Walsh

John Walsh, cultural history PhD, University of Nottingham. John is an educationalist who is interested in developing Freirean political education. http://politicaleducationreadinggroup.blogspot.com