Building Momentum in Labour’s Northern region

On November 11, socialists in the Labour Party gathered in Newcastle to plot the way forward in the Northern region. It was a joint event by the local Red Labour group and Momentum.

The meeting was held at Tyneside Irish Centre and if anything there were too many people at the meeting – a wonderful problem to have, especially given the organisational weakness of socialists in the party in recent times.

Open debate

Apparently at a previous meeting of Red Labour in Newcastle, some comrades wanted to discuss the merits of candidates against Labour. The chair made it clear that this was not on the agenda of the meeting but that it was open to everyone who wanted to work towards the election of a Labour government.

This struck me as a sensible answer to the question of how Momentum should work with people in other organisations. If the doors are barred to people who are known to have been involved with, for example, TUSC, the Greens or the National Health Action Party, how are we ever to win them over to a debate about the interests and priorities of the workers’ movement at this time?

A speaker from the floor explained the distinction between Momentum and Red Labour: whereas Momentum aimed to community organising outside of party politics, Red Labour would work on organising inside the party to defend the platform on which the new leader had been elected.

Pluralism in the party

Having failed to hold back the flood of new members, trade union affiliates, and registered supporters – who were keen to help Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership contest – the old order is now trying to purge long-standing members.

The economist Andrew Fisher, Corbyn’s policy chief, has been suspended from the party due to a concerted effort by Labour’s “moderates” and the Tory press. A number of other comrades face the same pressure.

I spoke at the beginning of the meeting to condemn the purge and explain that the real crime of these comrades is to be the first line of defence against the attempt to smash the platform on which Corbyn was elected.

Ideas for campaigns

During the first half of the meeting there were breakout groups for a number of themes. For example, I led a group interested in NHS policy. Each group was asked to spend time discussing the issue, then make two proposals for action to report back to the meeting.

In my case, our group decided that Momentum should urge support for the NHS Reinstatement Bill, which was backed by the Labour leader and Shadow Chancellor in the last parliament and which has a second reading scheduled for March 11 next year.

We also decided that in the event of a strike by junior doctors, Momentum should explain why they are taking action against cuts to their pay and conditions, how this will harm patient care, and stress the efforts that will be made to provide emergency treatment to patients during the dispute.

The feedback from the break-out groups displayed a high level of engagement with political ideas and suggestions which built on Corbyn’s platform. For example, the speaker reporting from the taxation group spoke of the need for workplace and industrial democracy. And feedback from the workers’ rights group included the suggestion that Labour councils should be lobbied to oppose the implementation of the Trade Union Bill – most obviously, with regard to industrial relations with council employees.

In terms of the history of the Labour Party, such talk is not particularly radical. But in the past, Bennism was not in control of the leader’s office. Corbyn is not just the leader of the extra-parliamentary Labour Party – the growing numbers of Labour activists on the ground – but also the party in parliament.

The prospect of members of the party being assertive in defending the result of the leadership contest is leading to outlandish claims of “hi-jacking” and “infiltration” as embittered members of “the 4.5%”.

Party democracy

The reaction of Labour’s old order to Corbyn’s victory has been predictable. Adam Boulton, who has close contacts with both sides of the New Labour project from his years as a political correspondent, gave the following account in the Sunday Times on November 8th:

“The first hope of the Blairites and Brownites appalled by Corbyn’s election was that all but a tiny rump of Labour’s 232 MPs would defect to a new party in such numbers that they would become the official opposition. Backers were prepared to put up millions of pounds for the new party, provisionally called the Progressive Democrats, which would have left the Labour Party behind with its debts.”

This would have resulted in the end goal of the capitalist backers of the SDP / “New Labour” project – a “social democratic” party with no traces of postwar social democracy. A party of government with no link to the workers’ movement or socialist ideas.

It now looks as if the date for a coup against Corbyn has been pushed back until after elections which take place next year. In the meantime, the #LabourPurge has not stopped.

The purge comes as the workers’ movement faces a new round of cuts to incomes in the Autumn Statement, an assault on workplace organising with the introduction of the Trade Union Bill, and the prospect of UK participation in another war in the Middle East.

The priority for socialists in the Labour Party now is welcoming newcomers to the party and helping them to become active in campaigns in the places they live, work, or study. Only by this way can momentum be built to kick out the Tories.