Lost Momentum?

Momentum's refounding process, which concludes today, has revealed a huge decline in member engagement, and an organisation unequal to the task of improving things.

12 min read

Today, voting closed on Momentum’s ‘Refounding’ proposals, aimed at rebuilding the organisation “from the ground up”. This lengthy process, unfolding over 10 months and several stages,1 was initiated by the NCG, with the intention of giving grassroots members a greater role in determining the direction of the organisation. As the Refounding Momentum project draws to a close, it is worth reflecting on the process, on the current state of Momentum—and on the organisation’s future prospects.

An opaque process

The ‘Refounding Momentum’ project has been beset by multiple delays, with no explanation from the NCG when deadlines passed. According to Momentum’s own timeline, the final ballot was supposed to be conducted in January, with the outcomes to be implemented during the following six months. The eventual OMOV ballot happened on Thursday 19th May 2022. Despite the 5-month delay, the membership received no explanation from the NCG.

It is hard to gauge whether there was much dissent from the membership, as there is no forum for having these conversations outside of local groups This is largely by design. Momentum mimics the structures of the Labour Party, siloing off local groups so thoroughly that there is no means of communication between them. This disconnection amongst the membership has been a recurring theme of the refounding process. The closed-door assembly model meant that local groups lost all visibility of how their proposals were actually debated. Instead, the whole process became a black box, with only inputs and outputs visible. What actually occurred in the assemblies was opaque to the membership. Over a century ago, Robert Michels critiqued the assembly model, arguing that it gave inordinate power to skilled orators and those with reputation.2 Having taken the decision that they would be part of the deliberative assemblies, the NCG ensured that they—as the most notable and powerful figures in the organisation—would have excessive influence over proceedings, being the most notable members of any assembly.3

Disconnection amongst the membership has been a recurring theme of the refounding process.

It is difficult to quantify the consequences of this, because no data was released outlining the number of proposals initially submitted, or the number of members who actually voted in the eventual ballot. The only metric we have for gauging participation is a rather poor one: engagement on Twitter. Not a single tweet about the refounding process reached 100 likes or retweets—remarkably low figures for such a foundational process in an organisation of 20,000 members.

A further corollary of the delay is that, where the original plans tasked the current NCG with implementing the proposals in the six months following the intended January vote, the results of the ballot will now be published not long before the next NCG elections. The NCG are elected for a two-year term, and the last elections were held in June 2020. This means that a new, incoming NCG will potentially be tasked with implementing a set of proposals that they may have no interest in, with the membership having little power to force their hand. There is a Members’ Council, which ostensibly has oversight of the NCG, though it has no formal power, and it is unclear if it even meets anymore.

What’s more notable is that, at the time of writing, Momentum has made no mention of the upcoming NCG elections. With June only a month away, any new candidate wishing to stand is likely to be left scrambling to put a campaign together at the last minute. Whatever the reasons for this lack of transparency, the result is a serious disruption of what democratic processes the organisation has.

The problems of staff and membership dues

The proposals that did make it onto the ballot amount to a set of technocratic fixes for an organisation whose malaise goes much deeper. There are noteworthy omissions: including no mention of problems such as organisational opacity (e.g. over staff identities, functions, and pay), and no suggestion of changes in how membership dues are allocated within the organisation. The NCG meets infrequently, and its members are unpaid. This means that the bulk of the administrative and bureaucratic burden falls largely on Momentum staff, who are employed, rather than elected. Not only does this give an immense amount of power to individuals who are not accountable to the membership, but in practice, their identities are not even known to members!4 The inevitable consequence of this is skill and knowledge hoarding, with staffers at the very top of the organisation becoming irreplaceable—a situation that endangers the reproduction and growth of the organisation itself. By no means am I suggesting that staffers are participating in foul play; rather, I am highlighting a tendency which is all but inevitable when an organisation is structured in this manner. The question of how to structure an organisation such that staffers become accountable to the membership, and the hoarding of skill and knowledge is minimised is not unique to Momentum; it is something that all large organisations must contend with. Addressing it would require an entire research programme in itself, and yet it is very rarely grappled with, or even acknowledged to be a problem.

More significant still is the question of membership dues. Currently, all dues are managed by the National body, to be allocated as they see fit. If a local group wishes to receive funding, it must apply to the National body. The significance of this cannot be understated. Even the DSA, with all their problems of centralisation and national focus, have a dues split of 80-20 between national and local, which is itself hugely problematic. By contrast, local Momentum groups are not guaranteed a penny from their own members’ dues!

This results in a state of affairs that might appear contradictory at first glance. On the one hand, local Momentum groups can largely do as they please. There is little oversight from National (the disconnect between the local and national levels is well known). On the other hand, local groups cannot actually do much without having to petition the NCG for funds. The result is the autonomy to do whatever they want, but no autonomy over the resources that might make that happen. This leads to the dual phenomena of local groups becoming talking shops, or member disengagement due to burnout, often caused by periods of self-sacrifice necessitated by this lack of material support. The latter inevitably results in the former. At this point, local groups become ripe for takeovers by those with the most organisational nous or free time. This often takes the form of ‘sect parasitism’, wherein a small number of organised individuals, typically from an established left sect, are able to take over parts of organisations where members have disengaged due to alienation and burnout.

What power members do have to alter Momentum’s course is stymied by their inability to mobilise across geographical barriers, because there are no means by which to do so.

These are not uncommon trends in democratic centralist organisations—and it is important that we understand Momentum as such an organisation, despite its lack of claim to any organisational form.5 An elected central committee makes all key decisions, whilst unaccountable staffers ensure the day to day running of the organisation. What power members do have to alter Momentum’s course is stymied by their inability to mobilise across geographical barriers, because there are no means by which to do so. The direct democracy platform has been a promise since before this NCG was elected. It still has not surfaced, and there is little reason to believe it will do so should it be voted for in the refounding ballot.

Resurrecting Momentum?

The picture painted above is rather bleak. The issues I have highlighted are by no means the only ones. The set of principles and aims on offer are vague, and largely focussed on the Labour Party. For instance, working for a Socialist Labour government is central to all the aims on the ballot, despite no evidence in the party’s history that this is possible.  In a piece I wrote on the refounding process last year, I argued that the question of

[w]here Momentum—the largest left wing membership organisation in Britain—fits into the recomposing of the British left will largely be answered by how politically and structurally coherent it can become via the ongoing refounding process.

Looking at the proposals on the ballot, I would suggest that the current state of organisational malaise is unlikely to end. Although proposals such as ‘right to recall’ and financial transparency are to be welcomed, increased democratic oversight can only work with an engaged membership. If Momentum break their own rules and fail to publish their financial statements, will anyone even notice? The lack of uproar over the delays to the refounding process, and the opacity around several of the organisation’s structures described above suggests not. The disconnect between local and national looms large. Information about the internal workings of the organisation, including how decisions are actually made and how staff are chosen, is completely opaque to the membership. Instead, a trickle of rumour and gossip disperses via interpersonal networks, locking out the vast majority of grassroots members.

Increased democratic oversight can only work with an engaged membership.

Several questions are raised at this point. How can an organisation that has already gone down a specific bottleneck (constrained by its existing structures and constitution) radically shift course? And is this a critique of Momentum’s specific form of democratic centralism as insufficient, or the general organisational form itself?

It is both. There are undeniably bureaucratic tendencies that exist in all large organisations, some of which (such as the aforementioned hoarding of skills and knowledge) can be exacerbated by the structures of democratic centralism; but Momentum’s specific form of centralism—with its high level of opacity, lack of horizontal communication across local groups, and failure to adhere to its own processes—exacerbates these tendencies still further. This generates a feedback loop wherein a disengaged membership results in even less grassroots oversight of the leadership.

Here we hit a roadblock. How do you radically change an organisation’s structures when the membership is already so disengaged? Although I have previously argued that the refounding might have made this possible, the process itself, and the lack of interest in it, have made me realise that at this point transformation is not possible. If the refounding had been an open deliberative process, with a reciprocal flow of information between local groups and the NCG, perhaps the membership would have been reenergised. Instead, the process was, for long periods, either buried or opaque, making a radical bottom-up restructuring impossible at this point.

‘Strategy’ without strategy

This was a unique opportunity to radically transform the very form of the organisation, but one that has been passed up. Put simply the technocratic fixes on offer do not go far enough to revitalise an organisation that is losing members and is unable to facilitate the organisational interests of those that still remain. It is worth pointing out that Momentum released their strategy pamphlet, Socialist Organising in a New Era, during the refounding process. Running entirely against the democratic rhetoric that accompanied the refounding, this strategy document, produced without consultation with members, effectively pre-empted any hopes that the grassroots may have had of being able to influence the direction of the organisation.

The pamphlet itself essentially amounts to a series of demands of the Labour Party, with no way of actually enacting them (ie. no strategy!), and a set of aims to increase the size of Momentum. What passed for strategy was a vague outline of the direction that a small number of the organisation’s leadership wanted to go in. There were nods towards unionising members and extra-parliamentary organising, but even these tactics were subordinated to a specifically Labourist orientation. For many comrades, the big question that keeps coming up is: what should we as individuals and as a collective be doing right now? Momentum’s answer always appears to amount to little more than campaigning in—and ultimately for—the Labour Party.

If the function of a thing is what it does, it has long become clear that Momentum’s function is to maintain its own existence. During the COVID-19 pandemic, members were offered little in the way of support. At the same time, as the left have been subject to an ongoing purge from the Labour Party, Momentum’s response has consisted of contentless “stay and fight” sloganeering.

The strategy pamphlet merely reinforces this mantra—doubtless due to fear of proscription. Avoiding proscription would have some merit if it was tethered to a wider strategy to genuinely challenge power, but the resistance to the Labour Party’s rightward lurch has consisted in little more than rhetoric. A strategy of qualified retreat to regather strength (stay, accepting the limits that imposes on fighting, for the sake of future effective action) is one thing—but there is precious little sign of the organisation even laying the ground for that future effective action.

The refounding project offered a unique opportunity to radically transform the very form of the organisation—and it has been passed up. Put simply, the technocratic fixes on offer to members do not go anywhere near far enough to revitalise an organisation that is both losing members and unable to facilitate the organisational interests of those that still, doggedly, remain. A potentially transformative process has been reduced to a set of tweaks that cannot radically alter Momentum because of its limited scope. This, sadly, is entirely in keeping with the organisation’s unwillingness to be bold and radical, and to force its way out of being an end in itself.

The refounding project offered a unique opportunity to radically transform the very form of the organisation—and it has been passed up.

Where next?

This article isn’t a plea for members to leave Momentum, or indeed to join (or set up) some other organisation. Individual members may happen to find themselves in thriving local groups that provide a fulfilling outlet for their organising. This article is an argument for why Momentum can never become a mass organisation. Currently, Momentum has 20,000 members. Whilst this makes it the largest left organisation in the country, it is still less than 0.3% of the British  population. In no sense is that a mass membership. The membership trend has been downwards, and the refounding is unlikely to change that. Moreover, even if it did change, increased numbers alone are not enough to justify an organisation’s existence.

There has been much talk of the need to form a new party. However, with a lack of political or organisational coherence any party that appears is likely to collapse into a small sect (my own experiences in labour transformed are a testament to this), or demonstrate the sort of base opportunism exemplified by the Northern Independence Party. Crucially, the absence of a workers’ movement like that of the 20th century (and the inability for a new movement to form along the same lines, considering the shifts in the nature of work) suggests that the tasks ahead are considerable.

Instead, we must facilitate experimentation, and empower comrades to develop the theoretical and practical skills necessary for them to determine where they can be most effective. This is antithetical to the skills- and knowledge-hoarding that are inherent to democratic centralism. I am not suggesting that we should not have a wider strategy, or that we should collapse into individualism, but instead that we must concretely understand the difficulties of the current moment. We need to facilitate and support the sort of independent research that is fundamental to building power and generating knowledge.

Repeating the failures of Labourism is not a viable way forward: it is an admission of defeat

  1. The first stage involved seeking submissions from local groups, affiliates, and individuals on how the organisation’s systems and structures could be improved. Next, the submissions were put forward for deliberation by assemblies consisting of NCG and grassroots members, as well as trade union affiliates. This deliberative process produced a set of initial proposals, which were offered to the membership for further deliberation. Another round of members’ assemblies were convened to produce the final set of proposals. After a final NCG meeting to confirm these choices, the proposals were put to the vote in a ‘one member one vote’ (OMOV) ballot, which closed today at noon. 

  2. Robert Michels. 2001. Political parties: A sociological study of the oligarchical tendencies of modern democracy. Ontario: Batoche Books, p.21 

  3. Implicit in the functioning of Momentum’s structures is the notion that the NCG is elected to function broadly as an executive, whereas the deliberative assemblies to offer a form of direct democracy alongside (and presumably external to) this. The presence of NCG members within the assemblies, whilst absolutely legitimate, as they are members of Momentum, confuses these two strands, which almost necessarily leads to the subordination of the assembly to the executive (though there may also be a question as to whether that could be avoided even without an NCG presence in the assemblies). 

  4. No information about staff identities is available on Momentum’s website. Occasionally, appointments are announced; and the names of any staff (but not their roles) who attend monthly NCG meetings appear in the minutes. The reasoning, presumably, is that these staff members have a non-political, ‘civil service’-type role in the organisation—but this obscures the practical, day-to-day influence that they have. 

  5. Momentum’s website focuses strongly on its general outward aims, rather than making any claim about what kind of organisation it is, or its internal structures.