The New Momentum

In this article, James Gill fills us in on the newly announced constitution for Momentum, which you can read about here. James is a member of Unite, Labour and Momentum. He serves on the Central Council of the Socialist Health Association, and is secretary of Stockport Young Labour.

Being a member of Momentum is rarely boring. The last eighteen months have seen us run a vibrant fringe festival at party conference; help thousands of new members understand the Labour Party and get involved; and contribute to dozens of local single-issue, trade union and charity campaigns up and down the country. There was also the small matter of a Labour leadership contest along the way.

All this was achieved with an ad-hoc, informal and evolving set of structures. Any start-up must simultaneously begin to deliver and to scale upwards and outwards, and imposing structure and strict accountability too early risks locking yourself into the wrong model.

In Momentum’s case, the early phase is over, and the most effective direction has now become clear. More than forty percent of members responded to a survey on our structures and priorities, with four in five saying we must focus on Labour and organise nationally using direct democracy. To this end, the organisation yesterday adopted a new constitution, giving it the tools it needs to succeed.

The headline change is the adoption of a strict “Labour first” policy. You must be a member of the Labour Party before you can be a member of Momentum. Further, the needless policy conference is transmuted into workshops and networking. These measures make it strikingly clear that Momentum is serious about a vibrant, modern and socialist Labour Party, ready to win elections.

Several nascent layers of bureaucracy have been culled, including the ineffective and occasionally embarrassing national committee and regional networks. Decision-making is consolidated in one body, the National Co-ordinating Group (NCG) – thankfully much smaller than the original national committee. Its composition is dull but reliable, consisting of online OMOV-elected members’ reps, as well as representatives from trade unions, other left-Labour groups, and four spaces for Labour councillors or MPs. Its composition is balanced by gender, region, and to ensure representation of BAME members.

Other features are more innovative. Of particular interest is the Members’ Council, a kind of “Momentum Jury Service”. This body of fifty members will be randomised every six months, and work in an advisory capacity with the NCG. This is an excellent example of the usefulness of Momentum as a test-bed for the labour movement. Creating a body like this is risky – Momentum has the scale to experiment effectively and safely.

One upshot of the changes is that local groups shake off the requirement to hold hustings for regional networks and debate policy motions for conference. Local groups now serve no formal function in the national organisation. Most local committees will be breathing a sigh of relief – they can get on with training, networking, campaigning and encouraging their members to take action to make their principles into reality.

Some members may be disappointed by the perceived loss of democracy in the organisation. After all, there are now fewer elected positions, and a much more stringent mechanism for adopting campaign priorities. But what would be the point of arguing over those detailed policies? To change the wording of the odd Momentum press release? A much more worthwhile use of your time is to engage with Labour’s mechanisms instead: the National Policy Forum, your trade union’s Policy Conference, your Constituency Labour Party, and the Labour Party Conference itself. That way you might change something which really matters.

The overall effect of the new constitution is to create a sane, stable organisation with a plausible plan. I don’t blame the many members on the left of Labour who have been put off joining us in our first eighteen months; there have been too many echoes of the bad habits of the past. But we are stronger together, and Momentum is here to stay – there’s never been a better time to make yourself a part of it.

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James Gill (pictured left)

Inventing the Future

In this article, James Gill considers the possibility of conducting labour movement democracy online. James is a member of Unite, Labour and Momentum, and serves on the Central Council of the Socialist Health Association.

How do you combine the views of thousands of people? Momentum is trying to figure out its answer to this question in time for its conference in February – should the process be face-to-face, or online? Should it involve delegates, or all-member voting?

The traditional labour movement answer goes like this: form local groups, have meetings, write motions, and elect delegates. Send the delegates and the motions to a conference. The delegates make speeches and vote on the motions, and that’s your party line. Labour decision-making looks much the same in 2016 as it did in 1966 or 1916 – slow, opaque and boring, and only accessible to those with time and money to devote to the process.

But we aren’t the only people who have ever tried to solve this problem. Over the last twenty years, the cutting edge in consensus-building systems has been online, on websites like Wikipedia, Stack Exchange and Quora. Thousands of hours of engineering, design, and user experience expertise has gone into tailoring these systems for high-quality output. The labour movement has lessons to learn from the most successful examples.

It’s impossible to talk about online collaboration without mentioning Wikipedia – hero of many last-minute essay crises. Anyone with an internet connection can sign up to Wikipedia and start to edit a page. The vast majority of edits to Wikipedia are entirely uncontroversial, you can view the most recent changes here (click “diff” to see what changed). However, arguments do arise, especially on pages like Scientology, homeopathy, and cold fusion. So over the fifteen years the site has operated, the community has developed a sophisticated set of norms to resolve disagreements.

These rules are laid out in a network of guidelines and essays (a good place to start is Wikipedia:Five Pillars). These determine which subjects are worth an article; lay out standards for sourcing of facts; and determine procedures for resolving disputes. They also lay out expected behaviours, often in the form of a slogan: “Assume Good Faith”, and “Be Bold” – both good pieces of advice for everyone in the labour movement.

Adherence is policed by users with additional powers, called administrators, elected by the community (see WP:RFA for details). But what makes it all work is that the “anyone can edit” rule applies the the policies, just as much as to the rest of the site. This self-determination by the community is a very modern example of democracy.

So what are the lessons? There was no guarantee Wikipedia would work – similar sites like Everything2 and Citizendium were less successful. But the careful design of the software, the hard work given to the development of co-produced community norms, the trust placed in anonymous users, and the breathtaking ambition of the project make it a success.

As successful as Wikipedia is, successful wikis edited only by the members of organisations seem to be rare. Fortunately, there is a closely-related format that does seem to work in smaller-scale, more focussed applications: the format used by Stack Exchange.

Stack Exchange began as a question and answer site for computer programmers, but the format has rapidly evolved and is now used for dozens of topics. It is a particularly good fit for organisations because it typically produces very high-quality, focussed, accurate and complete results. Several companies now sell similar tools to companies for internal crowdsourcing, e.g. Clever Together.

It is easy to imagine how a labour organisation could use a platform like this to form policy and make decisions. Voting, on a one-member-one-vote basis is integral to the system, and it also includes opportunities to comment, network, and edit collaboratively, wiki-style.

Running a process like this is risky and expensive. It’s unreasonable to expect Momentum to take this approach in its first year, but the direction of travel, with an online vote of the whole membership, is promising. Online scales better than a physical conference; makes the most of members’ expertise; is very difficult for any small group to control; and removes participation barriers such as travel costs.

It would be a powerful statement about the way we listen, our attitude to technology and our optimism for the future. Momentum should show the way, not get bogged down in processes invented before the television, microwave, or fridge, so that Labour can follow safely in the years to come.

James Gill
James Gill

 

TEFinitely not!

In this article, Ellie Clarke fills us in on the fightback against the government’s Higher Education reforms. Ellie is a member of Young Labour originally from Charfield in Gloucestershire. She graduated from the University of Manchester in 2016 and now lives in Stockport, and works as a trainee teacher. She was very proud to contribute to the successful #KeepTheCaterers campaign run by Free Education MCR in conjunction with Unison. She is a member of the NUT,  the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, Unite Community, the Socialist Educational Association and Momentum.

Every sector of education, from early years to university, is currently under attack. Severe underfunding, ridiculous levels of testing and increasing segregation are all problems our students and educational establishments face on a daily basis.

In the higher education sector, the main threat is currently coming from the TEF or the “Teaching Excellence Framework”. It sounds innocuous enough, who wouldn’t want excellent teaching? However its aim is clear: the marketisation of higher education.

The way the TEF works is that each university is given a numerical score, based on metrics such as the National Student Survey (NSS) and research output. Not only do these tell you little about the experience a student has at the university, the NSS has been proven to be biased against female and BAME lecturers.  The TEF score then determines how much that university is able to charge in fees, with the maximum being set to rise to £12,000. Alongside this increase in fees, maintenance grants and NHS bursaries are being scrapped, meaning it will be more expensive than ever to attend university.

This government want the education sector to function like a market. The “better” universities will be able to charge more because of increased demand. Under-performing universities will be allowed to fail, won’t get any support from the government, and will close down. To hell with the students who go there. That’s just the way the market works.  They seem hellbent on pushing this marketisation without consideration that basic economics will tell us that, because no university wants to be seen as not being a ‘better’ university, prices are likely to stabilise at the same rate anyway. This rate will undoubtedly be much higher than the current rate of £9,000.

But regardless of the economics behind the government’s argument, it is worth saying again that Education should not be run like a business. The purpose of education should not be to make money. Our young people should not only have opportunities if they have the ability to pay.

So what should young Labour activists be doing about all this?

Firstly, we need to organise within our labour clubs and students’ unions. We can pass motions on things like boycotting the NSS. If you get enough people to not fill it out, a lack of useful data means the whole system falls apart. But we need to do this on a large scale if it is going to have any impact.

Secondly, we should get involved in the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts. They are a fantastic group of activists who fight for free education, offer excellent training and support, and facilitate practical actions against the TEF (such as trying to co-ordinate a national NSS boycott).

And finally, as many people as possible need to turn out for the “United for Education” demo in London on November the 19th. This has been organised in conjunction with the NUS, who are putting on coaches up and down the country. Together, we will show the government that we will not stand for this. They can’t ignore us forever.

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Ellie Clarke

 

 

Perspectives on the Leadership Contest

In this article, two young members from Stockport explain how they will be voting in the leadership contest.

James Gill and Daniel Oliver are young members in Stockport CLP. James has been a member of the Labour Party since May 2015. He’s also part of Momentum, Unite and the Socialist Health Association. Daniel has been a member of the Labour Party since November 2014. He is a trade union member, an active Party member and the current Youth Officer for Stockport CLP.

James: “Corbyn, still”

I didn’t join the Labour Party to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. But I watched Ed Miliband’s slow-mo car crash from a distance, and the general election result shook me out of my skin. I joined Labour the weekend after the result. I don’t think I had ever heard of Jeremy Corbyn.

I went to see Corbyn when he spoke at Bradford last year. He spoke directly about rent controls, the private right-to-buy, and free education, among other things. He made a real offer to my generation – I’d never heard a politician do that before.

He also talked about reforming the Labour Party, making it a mass membership organisation, bringing politics back into people’s homes and communities. It was clear then, and is clearer now, that small, tightly-run, centralised social democratic parties are failing all over Europe. The idea of a “million-member party” is the legacy of Miliband, but Corbyn’s ability to galvanise tens of thousands of new activists suddenly made it sound plausible.

One year on, no part of the party establishment seems to have a coherent plan to halt the decline. There doesn’t seem to be any equivalent to the intellectual groundwork that underpinned Blair’s success in the nineties.

Turning their knives inward after the referendum, at a time when facing outward could not have been more crucial, is just the latest manifestation of that lack of leadership and planning.

Corbyn’s leadership has been far from optimal over the course of the last year, despite notable mayoral and by-election victories. He needs to invest less time in rallies and more time in policy. He needs to build better bridges where that’s possible, and be more ruthless when it’s not. He needs to be explicit about the transformation the Labour Party must undergo for us to win again. He, and his team, must do better.

But having said all that, I will be voting Corbyn again this year. The alternative is fatal calcification of the party machinery, and the electoral strategy of Ed Miliband. We won’t win a general election like that.

Daniel: “Owen Smith, Delivering Labour Values”

As a proud socialist I want a left wing government that can represent our communities, to provide that representation we must have a strong social movement and an effective Parliamentary opposition.

I believe that Owen Smith can provide both of these as our Leader.

Here are just some of the reasons why I’m supporting Owen:

  1.    Throughout his Parliamentary career Owen has proven himself as a team player and as a leader. Most notably he led our Party’s fight against controversial welfare reforms, including strong performances at the despatch box.
  2.    From the outset of the leadership contest Owen’s focus was on presenting financially credible policies. His intention is to invest in our society and infrastructure, with that investment being backed up by sound reasoning and effective taxation policies.
  3.    Owen has the intention and the capability to deliver significant social change for our country. From re-writing Clause IV to focus on social inequality to the re-introduction of wage councils for some business sectors, Owen has displayed a commitment to helping those in most need.
  4.    It is more important than ever that we unify both as a Party and as a country, I believe that Owen can build that unity. Jeremy and his team have displayed a continuing inability to unify and to lead, from his recent comments on NATO to his lack of commitment during the Labour In For Britain campaign. In contrast Owen has looked to engage with all members of our Party, including his offer to attend and speak at Momentum-organised events.

Our Party’s rule book states that we should seek the trust of the people that we govern. From speaking to friends, colleagues and the wider public I am confident that Owen Smith can deliver that trust where recent Labour leaders have failed. I know that Owen can become our Leader and our next Prime Minister.

A note about unity

We’ve made our decisions for the upcoming leadership contest and given our reasons. Regardless of the outcome we all need to work effectively within our party, both as a social movement and in Parliament. Whether Jeremy or Owen is our leader after the contest, we will work towards electoral success and social change as a Labour movement. Stockport people, like so many other British people, need a Labour government.

James Gill
James Gill
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Daniel Oliver