While the world was grappling with the news that Donald Trump had been elected 45th president of the United States, around 150 members of Labour’s grassroots organisation, Momentum, gathered in Brighton and Hove to discuss the intricate details of local party structures.
Under the banner, “Stop the Labour Purge”, the discussion focused on how the membership should respond to the creation of a new steering committee in Brighton and Hove. Labour HQ had suspended the constituency party in July, and annulled the election of new officers, after accusations of abusive behaviour and ballot fiddling.
Mark Sandell, the newly-elected chair of what is Labour’s biggest district party, was subsequently expelled after it emerged he was a supporter of the proscribed organisation Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL). Meanwhile, Greg Hadfield, elected as secretary, was suspended pending an investigation into allegations that he intimidated Labour members.
The local feud made national news at a time when Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, was defending his position with the help of Momentum against the majority of his MPs.
Four months on, and Corbyn’s re-election later, the new committee is tasked with overseeing the break up of Labour’s largest district party into three smaller groups centred on Brighton, Hove and the suburbs east of the city centre.
At the Momentum event, both Sandell and Hadfield were present. Sandell compared the local Labour leadership’s wrangling over procedure to police turning on a water cannon – it was designed to lower morale and discourage further involvement. The debate over the options for responding to the new structure of the Labour Party was certainly fraught. Occasionally, it seemed that the activists present regarded the Labour MP for Hove, Peter Kyle, a Corbyn critic, as more of a concern than the Republican President-Elect.
But while the meeting was called to address tensions between Momentum and the larger Labour party, the grassroots organisation has fractures of its own.
Much of the debate in Momentum at the moment revolves on how decisions are made. Jon Lansman, a left-wing veteran, is viewed as too autocratic by some, mostly younger, players. His initial preference is for decisions to be made by delegates, but has been persuaded to consider online votes. Others, though, worry that this could be a way of undermining Momentum’s conference.
I asked James Ellis, Brighton and Hove Momentum secretary, what the group made about this debate over e-ballots and delegated meetings.
Ellis said there had been “a similar mix” of views in the local discussion of this matter: “As a trade unionist, I’m more in the delegate camp, but I’m ready to be convinced. For me the main issues arise from decision-making without debate.”
Many Momentum activists look to other left-wing movements in Europe for inspiration. Ellis is interested in how the Spanish left-wing party Podemos has managed communicate using Appgree, an app designed to help large groups talk.
Hadfield, the secretary whose election triggered the party’s suspension, told me: “We do need to sit down and ask what is Momentum for. A year or more and Momentum nationally should have a constitution and strict lines of accountability but I understand why that hasn’t happened because we have been fighting a rearguard action.”
In the end, the activists at the meeting voted overwhelmingly to demand that only the officers elected in that controversial summer contest should oversee the new select committee. But in a move which demonstrated that even Momentum is capable of a spot of triangulation, the vote was treated as advisory, and the organisers decided that members who couldn’t attend should be emailed for their vote.
Some members at least will be glad that a fudge has been achieved. As one attendee commented: “It’s important that Momentum starts to face outwards especially in relation to what’s happened today and the last six months.” That was a rare acknowledgment of events beyond the parochial confines of progressive politics in the city by the sea.