‘You can’t stop me’: Militant, Momentum, and the new entryism

Last month, I came out to my friends as a non-supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Since that time, I’ve been public about it in my own small way. It took me a while to admit that my party was led by someone who did not have its voters’ interests at heart, but the key moment came when I was delivering leaflets for the Labour Party’s In for Britain campaign and I ended up talking to a man who had voted both for the Labour Party under Tony Blair and for the Conservative Party under David Cameron. A man – in case this isn’t obvious – from outside my middle class bubble in which people will express solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn even while being unsure that they really agree with him, and in which there are probably more anarchists than conservatives. I picked up that he wanted a Labour Party that he could vote for again. For Jeremy Corbyn, he had two devastating words: ‘Student politics.’ Those words stuck with me.

It wasn’t just that he was a swing voter in a marginal constituency, and therefore exactly the kind of person that Labour needs to be reaching out to if it ever wants to be in government again (if it ever wants to be in government again… a point that I’ll return to).

It was that he was right – and I knew it.

Many people more knowledgeable than I have written about how the Labour Party lost its heart under Tony Blair and then lost its mind as well under Jeremy Corbyn; I could point to Geoffrey Hodgson’s (2016) account as perhaps the most comprehensive I have seen. But here I shall quote not an academic like Hodgson and myself but a Labour Party activist who once ‘looked to the likes of John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn and others in the Socialist Campaign Group as… the true bearers of Labour’s socialist flame’:

I went off to University with my satchel full of radical left-wing literature. Once there I soon made a new friend who was flirting with the Socialist Worker’s Party. He persuaded me to attend their meetings and I went along eager to fit in. This was during the height of the coalition’s increasing of university tuition fees, and hell hath no fury like a middle class student betrayed by the Liberal Democrats. Time and time again I was lectured to by dusty old men who told me that tuition fees would be this Government’s ‘poll-tax’ and that we could bring down this government. I was sceptical. Exasperated, I once pointed out that two years after the poll-tax riots the Tories were voted in for a fourth term. I looked the speaker in the eye, and with this question he realised I was not one of them, and I knew I wasn’t one of them either.

I plead with my friends not to make the mistakes I have done… ‘to mistake a slogan for a strategy, to mistake own individual enthusiasm for mass movement, to mistake barking for biting’. The Labour Party has always been a gradualist and reformist democratic socialist party, grounded in pragmatism, and focused on bringing about real changes to real people’s lives. (Layo, 2016)

The ‘barking for biting’ quote is from Neil Kinnock, by the way. It’s from a speech that he gave at the 1985 Labour Party conference. Kinnock’s target was a Trotskyist group known as the Militant Tendency, formerly the Revolutionary Socialist League. Members of Militant were also members of the Labour Party, but as their original name indicates, they did not share the latter organisation’s goal of achieving progress by getting Labour Party representatives elected to national and local government (a goal enshrined in Clause 1 of the Labour Party Constitution). Their aim was, rather, to infiltrate and seize control of the Labour Party and transform it into a revolutionary socialist organisation. This is a long-established Trotskyist strategy known as ‘entryism’. At the time when Kinnock gave his speech, Militant members of Liverpool City Council had just hired a vast number of taxis to deliver redundancy notices to every single one of the council’s employees – an act whose monstrous egotism I shall leave my reader to ponder. These entryists were eventually expelled from the Labour Party, and formed what is now the Socialist Party, whose leader (a former Labour MP) also heads the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), of which the Socialist Party is a constituent part. Militant’s entryism represented just one of the obstacles that Kinnock had to overcome in order to restore the Labour Party to electability: there was also the matter of a leadership challenge from Tony Benn, supported by Ralph Miliband (a Marxist theoretician who had left the Labour Party in the 1960s and who famously argued that there was no parliamentary route to socialism) and a small group of Labour MPs of which Corbyn (a privately educated university drop-out) was a member. But as leader, he did what was necessary to improve Labour’s electoral prospects – as Clause 1 required. Today, as Labour leader, Corbyn is himself the biggest obstacle to a Labour government: a man who actually doesn’t care what proportion of the public votes for the Labour Party as long as his faction is in control of it. (Yesterday, the Tories appointed a new leader; rather than make a statement about it, Corbyn addressed a meeting of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign. Student politics much?) I respect the Socialist Party and TUSC because they are what they claim to be. I do not respect entryists because their strategy is that of the cuckoo: rather than form their own organisation and seek popular support, they seek to take control of and transform organisations with existing popular support, in the hope that some of that support will survive the process and accrue to themselves.

This is what is happening to the Labour Party now. It is being devoured from within by members and supporters of a parasitic organisation called Momentum, a fake grassroots movement run by Jon Lansman, a privately educated left winger who previously worked for Tony Benn. Momentum’s aim is to protect Corbyn’s position as leader of the Labour Party in spite of the fact that a clear majority of Labour voters, MPs, and affiliated trade union members want him to stand down. It will pursue this aim at any cost, even the (increasingly likely) cost of a massive general election defeat, because, like Corbyn himself, it has no interest in winning any other election than the Labour Party’s internal leadership contest. This strategy is dishonest because the Labour Party’s attractiveness for takeover by entryists consists in the fact that many of its representatives have won seats in parliament. Each of those Labour MPs has a mandate from the general public in a specific part of the UK, but Corbyn’s followers insist that democracy means giving greater priority to their hero’s mandate from party members and registered supporters: a self-selected group representing a tiny proportion of the British population. This, for example, is Caroline Hill, the Chair of Young Labour and a vocal supporter of both Corbyn and Momentum:

‘We can continue to let the MPs play their games in Parliament, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere – Jeremy’s definitely not – we know he has the support of thousands of party members, we know that the unions support Jeremy.

‘Screw those people messing around, we’re not going anywhere.’ (Hill, 2016)

The honest choice would be for Corbyn, Lansman, Hill, and the rest to leave the Labour Party and set up on their own: if elected parliamentary representatives do not matter to them, then they can do without them, much like that openly revolutionary organisation, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The reason that Momentum will not do this is that such representatives do matter to it: Corbyn’s apparent power as leader of the Labour Party derives from the fact that he can claim leadership of 209 MPs, in spite of the fact that 172 of them have formally declared themselves to have no confidence in him. Without parliamentary representation, the Labour Party’s membership (currently over half a million) would probably shrink to something approaching that of the SWP (currently in the low four figures).

I’ve spent too much of the last couple of weeks arguing online with members and supporters of Momentum, and I will attempt to stop doing so now because there is literally no point in arguing with people whose justification for their own conduct ultimately boils down to ‘You can’t stop me.’ Here is the last argument that I had, in full. I have allowed my interlocutors the final word.

References

Hill, Caroline (2016). Speech at Corbyn supporters rally at the School of African and Oriental Studies, 29 June. Quoted in http://home.bt.com/news/news-extra/jeremy-corbyn-says-he-has-a-mandate-to-stay-as-party-leader-11364070848497

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. ‘The Terminators: have Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn destroyed the Labour Party?’ 10 July. Available at: http://newpolitics.apps-1and1.net/the-terminators-have-tony-blair-and-jeremy-corbyn-destroyed-the-labour-party

Layo (2016). ‘”Do not mistake barking for biting”: a plea to my friends to help save the Labour Party’. 4 July. Available online at: https://medium.com/@Layo_91/do-mistake-barking-for-biting-a-plea-to-my-friends-to-help-save-the-labour-party-2ef8c4757a09#.5qw2tpwtu

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4 thoughts on “‘You can’t stop me’: Militant, Momentum, and the new entryism”

  1. Hi Daniel I lived thru the militant era and what is happening now is exactly the same. If you speak to ordinary labour supporters the have nothing in common with with corbyn and his ilk, I fear for the future of labour under this man

    1. Thanks for your comment, Andrew! I’d be keen to discuss your experiences of the ‘Militant era’.

      I think that the main thing that’s different this time around is that the entryists are actually winning. One of the main reasons for this is that there are two or three distinct groups of entryists, which I didn’t distinguish above. First, there are actual Trotskyists who see an electable, reformist Labour Party as an obstacle to their aims. There are no more than a few thousand of these in the UK, and it’s unclear how many have joined the party – many are members of organisations that are banned from Labour Party membership (such as the Socialist Party, i.e. Militant itself). Second, there are what Colin Talbot has characterised as a ‘mass of… middle-aged ex-Trots… [who] have turned to Corbyn as the political equivalent of going out and buying a Harley’ (https://colinrtalbot.wordpress.com/2016/07/26/corbynism-not-turning-labour-into-a-socialist-movement-but-turning-a-socialist-movement-into-labour/). It’s impossible to say how large this group is; Talbot has suggested that it may number in the hundreds of thousands. It’s unclear what these people want or whether they all want the same thing as one another, but they back the Trotskyists up. Lastly, there is a probably larger group of people who may not support revolutionary politics as such but feel an affinity with Jeremy Corbyn as a fellow ‘socialist’ (whatever that means; it’s often unclear). These are the people who say things like the following: ‘Never have I felt such a strong desire to support a politician, as I do this man. … I am supporting Jeremy Corbyn, not Labour. I believe in the man, not necessarily the party.’ (I’m quoting the supporting text from a piece of Corbyn fan art posted on Facebook, btw: https://www.facebook.com/byronattwellart/posts/1732879060317785:0)

      Members of the last group often resent being called entryists, but that is what they are: they support Corbyn’s leadership of the party in order to help him transform it into something that it isn’t and has never been, i.e. an organisation pursuing an extra-parliamentary route to socialism. A recent poll showed that Labour Party members from before May 2015 are overwhelmingly opposed to Corbyn; the trouble is that they’re outnumbered by people who have joined specifically in order to keep Corbyn in charge (http://labourlist.org/2016/08/corbyn-could-increase-margin-of-victory-as-new-poll-hands-him-huge-lead-over-smith/).

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