Heart of empire: a tender ship leaves Liverpool quayside with passengers bound for Australia, October 1913. (Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Show Hide image

The spirit of Scouse

A great port grappling with the forces of recession.

Merseyside – or the small part of it that I know best – occupies a disproportionately large area in my mental map of England. I lived in many different parts of the country as a child, but my longest single stretch was spent on the Wirral Peninsula, the fat green thumb that protrudes into the Irish Sea between Liverpool and Wales, and is to Liverpool as Cheshire is to Manchester – the favoured suburb of its affluent professionals, its own home county.

We moved to a town in the peninsula’s more prosperous western half in 1975, when I was seven years old, and we left in 1983. We had long-standing family connections – my mother’s family owned a well-established clock and jewellery business in Liverpool – but it was my father’s work that took us back. He had been appointed to run the Liverpool office of a company called the International and Commercial Finance Corporation that had been set up by the clearing banks and the Bank of England at the end of the Second World as a kind of national investment fund. It has subsequently changed its name to 3i, dismantled its network of regional offices and mutated into a private equity firm, but in 1975 it was still pursuing its founding remit, and the north-west was in need of the kind of “risk capital” or equity investment – long-term, small-scale funding – that it provided.

If Liverpool is perceived to have suffered more than any other northern city from Britain’s post-imperial decline, that is partly because it had so far to fall. “Liverpool, by its imports, supplies the country with food and corn,” says one of the panels on the walls of St George’s Hall, the grand neo-Grecian building at the heart of the collection of museums and public buildings that make up a kind of “civic forum” near Lime Street Station.

During the 19th century, 40 per cent of all world trade passed through Liverpool’s docks, which the American novelist Herman Melville described as one of the man-made wonders of the world. “The extent and solidity of these structures seemed equal to what I had read of the old Pyramids of Egypt,” he wrote in his 1849 novel Redburn: His First Voyage. The trade supported a large manual workforce and many associated legal and professional trades, and the notion that Liverpool imported cotton and Manchester made it into cloth inspired the phrase “Manchester men and Liverpool gentlemen”. At times, Liverpool’s wealth was said to exceed London’s, and its Custom House was the largest contributor to the Treasury.

As the port was Britain’s gateway to the Atlantic, even those with no connection to the city were drawn to it. Millions of migrants passed through Liverpool on their way from eastern Europe to New York in the late 19th century, and it was the point of embarkation for many destinations in the British empire. When my paternal grandfather left his home town of Hull and travelled to Brazil to run a factory in 1929, he caught the boat from Liverpool. The port sustained great hotels, such as the now-faded Adelphi, and funded great architecture: of English cities, only Bristol and London have more listed buildings than Liverpool. The trio of waterfront buildings known as the Three Graces – the Liver Building, the Port of Liverpool Building and the former headquarters of the Cunard Line – are particularly renowned.

Liverpool’s prosperity was matched by its strategic significance, and during the Second World War it became the headquarters of the campaign known as the Battle of the Atlantic. My mother’s father played a minor part in the “longest, largest and most complex naval battle ever fought”. He spent three years as a ship’s doctor on convoy protection in the Atlantic and in April 1942 he took up a shore posting at the Royal Naval Hospital at Seaforth, north of Bootle. “In this filthy and overcrowded hospital we had a nice mess and I enjoyed a very busy two years,” he later wrote. Most people were evacuated from the urban areas to the countryside, but my mother’s family followed him to the second most bombed city in the country, and she was born in Blundellsands, in north Liverpool, in 1943.

The scars of the bombing are still apparent in the car parks that pock the city centre, but the postwar years inflicted longer-lasting damage: Liverpool’s location had been the source of its prosperity, but as Europe displaced the Americas as Britain’s most important trading partner, it became increasingly isolated. When we arrived on the Wirral in 1975, Liverpool was still engaged in its old role of “breaking bulk” – unloading ships and warehousing and distributing their contents – and it still boasted its own stock exchange, complete with trading floor on the ground floor of the office block where my father worked.

However, the Cunard Line had left its waterfront home in the 1960s and relocated to Southampton, and Canadian Pacific, the last company running transatlantic cruises out of Liverpool, had stopped operating in 1972. In the same year, a container port opened at Seaforth, where my grandfather had served in the war: the modern ships had outgrown the city’s 19th-century docks and “containerisation” was making its workers redundant.

The decline of the port was temporarily offset by the arrival of manufacturers such as Ford and British Leyland. Professor Sam Davies of Liverpool John Moores University maintains that the 1950s and 1960s were the most buoyant period in Liverpool’s history since the 19th century, yet once manufacturing industry began to decline in the 1970s, the loss of the city’s historical sources of wealth and employment could not be concealed. The professor says that the unemployment rate in Liverpool has always generally been higher than in the rest of the country, partly because of the casual nature of dock work, but while I was growing up in the middle-class fastness of the Wirral Peninsula, it reached levels unmatched since the 1930s. A city that had never been inclined to the ordinary found itself mired in a series of extraordinary crises.

Structural changes to the British economy were largely to blame for Liverpool’s plight, but many Liverpudlians criticise Margaret That­cher’s Conservative government for making things worse. Maria Eagle, the shadow secretary of state for transport and MP for the south Liverpool constituency of Garston and Halewood, articulated the widely accepted case against the Tories when I met her at Lime Street Station one evening. “The city was going through a genteel decline, but the Conservatives came in, shut down the little industry there was left, and turned it into a catastrophic crash,” she told me.

There has not been a Conservative member of Liverpool City Council since 1998, and the folk memories of the Thatcher years still win votes for politicians such as Eagle. In 2010, she illustrated election leaflets with photographs of Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron beneath the slogan “Don’t let the Tories wreck our city again” and was rewarded with a 5.7. per cent swing, reversing the national trend of a 6.2 per cent decline in support for Labour.

Born in 1961, Eagle grew up in Formby, a suburb ten miles north of Liverpool. I told her I found it hard to believe that a national government would seek to “crush” (her word) a city like Liverpool but she insisted that she had seen and felt it. She believed that the motive was a crude kind of political tribalism. “Liverpool represented everything they disliked – a lot of working-class people who looked out for each other, a lot of solidarity, and a great feeling of specialness that led to a pride they didn’t understand and didn’t believe in.”

The rise of the Militant Tendency, the Trotskyist faction of the Labour Party that gained control of Liverpool Council in the early 1980s and refused to cut its spending to meet the target set in the “rate-capping budget” of 1982, intensified the city’s confrontation with the government. “They were crushing the city before Militant took over,” Eagle argues. “Militant exploited the sense of hurt and resistance. They took people along with them because they were the only game in town, and there is still a minority who think, ‘Well, at least they did something when there was despair around; they didn’t just give in.’”

A similar ambivalence prevails towards the riots that broke out in Toxteth – “the Harlem of Europe”, as the screenwriter Jimmy McGovern has called it – in 1981. Many of Liverpool’s wealthiest traders used to live in Toxteth’s Georgian mansions, but by the end of the 1970s it was one of the most deprived parts of the city.

John Wilson, a 50-year-old black man who teaches judo at the Caribbean community centre in Toxteth and works part-time at a hotel in the city centre, told me that most people blamed Kenneth Oxford, chief constable of Merseyside between 1976 and 1989, for inciting the violence. He said that Oxford had policed Toxteth with an “iron fist”. “The community felt that the police was doing everything it could in every way to upset them.”

Today, Liverpool is one of Britain’s least ethnically diverse cities, but it wasn’t always this way – the outward-looking nature of the port, and the city’s role in the slave trade, ensured that it was home to one of the country’s first multicultural and multiracial communities. “All the faces of mankind were there, wonderfully mixed,” wrote J B Priestley in English Journey, which described his travels round the country in the autumn of 1933. Priestley visited a school in one of “Liverpool’s more picturesque and exotic slums, populated by the human flotsam and jetsam of a great old sea-port”. He recognised that he had seen “a glimpse of the world” of the future, in which “the various root races . . . may have largely intermarried and interbred”, and he resisted those who argued that those of mixed race were “no good”.

John Wilson grew up in a marginally more enlightened age, though he felt that his white foster parents’ determination to ignore his ethnicity was not necessarily a good thing. “My foster parents used to say to me, ‘We just see you as you, John: your colour doesn’t matter.’ But if you’re getting racial abuse, then it does matter.” Wilson felt he needed to educate himself about his background and he began a black studies course. On Friday 3 July 1981, he was taking a seminar about the migrants who came to Britain in the 1960s and he went outside at the end of day and found that Toxteth had become “a war zone”. A disabled man was killed when he was run over by a police Land-Rover; another man was severely injured when the police drove a van into the crowd. A policeman was speared in the head with a six-foot iron railing and CS gas was used on the British mainland for the first time. I remember driving through the area at the age of 13 and seeing rows of boarded-up shops and fire-blackened buildings.

Kevin Sampson, the writer whose argot-thickened novels have become one of my main guides to life on Merseyside, remembers Toxteth as a place that was anything but blighted. He used to visit its unlicensed bars and speak­easies. “It was very vibrant – there was always a lot of people on the street, a lot of cafés, a lot of street life, a lot of unlicensed premises,” he said when I met him at a café at the ferry terminal in Hamilton Square, Birkenhead. Because he was born in Liverpool and grew up on the Wirral, where he still lives, Sampson claims “dual nationality”, and it seemed appropriate to meet here on the peninsula, at a spot with a view across the river to the famed skyline on the far side.

When news of the riots began to spread, Sampson went down to Toxteth and got as close as he could to the centre of the trouble. “I make no bones in admitting that I was there as a tourist, but it was incredibly exciting from a voyeuristic point of view. There was girls involved, but it was mainly lads, and not all Afro-Caribbean – there were loads of white lads there as well. It was an amazing opportunity for revenge on the police, for what they had been experiencing for so long.”

 

My father has mixed memories of working in Liverpool. He says that the city had a vibrant business life and a good proportion of the smaller com­panies that were 3i’s stock-in-trade, but, thanks to its prosperous past, the region was “overbanked”, and so attractive proposals were heavily pursued. More importantly, the changes to the port had stripped Liverpool of an essential catalyst for growth. By the time we left Merseyside in the early 1980s its prospects had not improved. The failure of the postwar programme of urban renewal was also becoming apparent. Between 1964 and 1979, more than 78,000 buildings in the inner-city area – 36 per cent of the city’s total housing stock – were demolished in a grand programme of “slum clearance”, and their inhabitants decanted into suburban estates that, ironically, were destined to become slums.

The writer Niall Griffiths was born in Toxteth in 1966, but moved to a new estate called Woodlands in Netherley, in the north-east of Liverpool, when he was three years old. He has written that the high-rise blocks were “declared a mistake even before they were completed” and that, “within the space of a decade, four out of five tenants desperately wanted to leave”. In the 1980s, Netherley was to become a “byword in the city for poverty, crime, drug addiction and squalor”.

Even St George’s Hall, the imposing building that Pevsner described as “the freest neo-Grecian building in England and one of the finest in the world”, was affected by the decline: it had been designed to house both law courts and concert halls from the time of its opening in 1854, but after 1984, when the courts closed, it fell into disrepair. Liverpool Football Club, another of the city’s great institutions, whose decade-long dominance of the English and European game had provided it with one of its few successes, was blighted by the tragedies of the Heysel and Hillsborough Stadium dis­asters of 1985 and 1989. And when, in 1993, a two-year-old child named Jamie Bulger was abducted from a shopping centre in Bootle and murdered by two boys, both of whom were only ten years old, the ensuing debates seemed to implicate the city of Liverpool itself.

Yet, despite the impression that the city was disintegrating, it had begun to remake itself, partly through the leadership of the only Tory guaranteed a warm welcome in Liverpool, Michael Heseltine. As environment secretary at the time of the Toxteth riots, Heseltine visited Liverpool so often that he became known as the minister for Merseyside. He was granted the freedom of the city in March this year. The recent publication of cabinet papers dating back to 1981 showed how Thatcher’s chancellor Geoffrey Howe urged his colleagues to consider the option of allowing Liverpool to lapse into “managed decline”, but Heseltine has insisted there was never any prospect of the government abandoning the city. “I simply wouldn’t countenance that you could say that one of England’s great cities, a world city, was going into managed decline,” he has said.

Heseltine is often praised for resisting the free-market dogma that drove the Thatcherite project and arguing for government intervention to revitalise Liverpool, but there remain doubts about the enduring value of some of the projects he oversaw. The riverside site of the International Garden Festival of 1984, which drew millions of tourists to Liverpool, is still derelict 28 years later, though the renovation of the Albert Dock, which had been unused since the container port had opened upriver, has proved more durable.

The idea of demolishing the dock and building a multi-storey car park in its place had been proposed, but the Merseyside Development Corporation, which Heseltine was instrumental in setting up, led the efforts to preserve it. The first phase of its redevelopment was completed in 1984. In 1988, the Tate Gallery opened a branch in one of the dock’s warehouses, reviving its benefactor’s connection with the city. Henry Tate had begun his working life with a chain of grocery shops in Liverpool, and in 1872 he opened a sugar refinery on Love Lane in Vauxhall, north of the city centre. The closure of the refinery on 22 April 1981 was another point on the city’s downward curve. The return of the Tate brand seven years later in the form of a gallery marked Liverpool’s transition to a tourist destination trading on its industrial, cultural and maritime history.

 

The subsequent addition of two further museums devoted to Liverpool’s past, one exploiting the global fame of the city’s most treasured export, the Beatles, and the other addressing slavery, its most shameful association, confirms Liverpool’s profound engagement with its history and identity. “WE’RE NOT ENGLISH WE ARE SCOUSE”, proclaims a banner often displayed at Liverpool matches. In keeping with the local maritime traditions, the city looked outwards, towards Ireland, from where many of its inhabitants came in the 19th century, and to America, and disregarded its English hinterland, home of the derided “woollybacks”, or “wools”.

“Liverpool’s a strange place,” said a local entrepreneur called Steve Bramwell when I met him at his home in a village in south Wirral, near Port Sunlight. “You don’t hear Liverpool accents past Liverpool itself, and people from Liverpool believe that Liverpool is the centre of the universe.” Bramwell recognised the value in this independent cast of mind. He began working for Morgan Stanley in 1985, the year before the deregulation of the financial markets known as Big Bang, and ten years later he set up a business providing outsourced IT services to City banks. He and his business partner told clients that they could run an IT department outside London at a fraction of the cost and assured them that newly trained staff wouldn’t decamp to London in search of higher wages.

Bramwell was born in Bolton, Lancashire, but he dismissed nearby Manchester because of its “transient” population. Liverpool was the perfect location. “Scousers are very Liverpool-centric, and we knew they wouldn’t move away even if we gave them jobs that were very London-centric.” When he sold up in 2010, his business had 700 employees dotted across the world in China, the Philippines, Singapore and the US, but its roots were still in the regions of the UK. He felt that only Newcastle matched Liverpool’s ability to retain home-town staff.

Yet the city has changed greatly in the 15 years since he arrived. A convention centre and residential developments have been built on the river south of the Albert Dock and areas beyond the waterfront brought back into use. Kevin Sampson used to be the manager of a cult Liverpool band, the Farm; the band’s label, Produce Records, was one of the first to rent space in the city-centre area that has become known as RopeWalks. Sampson acknowledged the widespread scepticism that attaches to attempts at “regeneration” but he maintains that RopeWalks was “one of those that worked”. The developers’ aim of attracting young people and students was helped by the success of the “superclub” Cream, which opened in 1992.

In 2004, Unesco designated Liverpool a world heritage site, calling it “the supreme example of a commercial port at the time of Britain’s greatest global influence”. St George’s Hall reopened in 2007 after extensive renovation and in 2008 Liverpool was the European Capital of Culture. Yet the city’s dependence on its past has begun to conflict with its desire to remake itself, and the cherished waterfront has become the scene of the fiercest confrontations. Will Alsop’s plan to build a “fourth grace” has been abandoned, but another museum – the Museum of Liverpool – has opened in the vicinity, and the redevelopment of the waterfront is proceeding through the largest planning application in Britain. Liverpool Waters and Wirral Waters – collectively “Peel Waters” – has been proposed by Peel Holdings, the property developer that owns the Trafford Centre in Manchester and MediaCity in Salford as well as Liverpool’s port and airport. The intention is to turn the derelict docks on both banks of the Mersey into a riverine city of steel and glass as imposing as Shanghai or Manhattan. Peel says Liverpool Waters will generate 50,000 permanent jobs and contribute £2bn a year to the local economy, but Unesco has responded by placing the city’s world heritage status under review. Critics have told the council that it must change course.

 

Joe Anderson, who was leader of the City Council before he became Liverpool’s first directly elected mayor on 4 May, insists that Peel has done enough to satisfy the heritage lobby. “We’re starting to turn the tide,” says Anderson, who joined the merchant navy at the age of 17 and began his political career as a convenor in the National Union of Seamen. “We’ve still got real issues in the outlying areas, but Liverpool is changing, and I believe that its best years lie ahead.”

We met in March, on the day that the scheme for Liverpool Waters was approved by the city’s planning committee. Later, after I left his office, I walked down Dale Street and caught a ferry across the Mersey. The passenger deck of a boat that calls itself the most famous in the world and serenades its passengers with piped renditions of Gerry Marsden’s song seemed a good place from which to assess the Peel plan. As the boat pulled away, there was an unimpeded view of the area where Peel’s greatest ambitions lie.

Anderson claims that the expanse of derelict docks and warehouses stretching between Pier Head and Seaforth has the same potential as Canary Wharf, yet it is hard to see where the shops and businesses to fill the development will come from. It seemed to me that Peel was proposing a boom town without a boom, hoping to inspire economic revival by constructing offices and shops for which there is no demand. Yet it wasn’t until I turned away from Liverpool’s dramatic skyline, and the dynamic history it encodes, to contemplate the approaching shores of the Wirral that the hollowness of the vision was fully exposed.

From the water, the low mass of buildings on the Wirral is broken only by the ventilation towers for the Mersey tunnels, yet Peel’s artists have sketched towers rising from the docks like angled beams of light while yachts and powerboats circle in the water below. Since permission for the scheme was granted, progress has been slow. Peel has converted two grain warehouses – remnants of the days when Merseyside was the largest flour milling centre in Europe – into a block of flats called East Float and begun work on an international trade centre (ITC), designed to give companies from emerging economies access to European markets. The ITC is scheduled to be completed by 2013 and is supposed to generate 2,000 jobs. Phil Davies, the new leader of Wirral Council, concedes that there is “very little rigour” behind the projected figures but maintains that Peel has a good record of delivering on its schemes.

Peel has other interests in the area. It owns the once-great shipbuilding firm Cammell Laird, which has found a new role refitting ships, and the Port of Liverpool, which is still the seventh-busiest in the country. Peel is planning to build a second facility that will almost double its capacity. Yet container traffic bypasses Liverpool without generating much wealth or employment, and there are concerns about the depth and durability of its recent recovery. Maria Eagle has begun to witness the effects of the recession in her constituency. Garston and Halewood incorporates Woolton, one of the city’s richest suburbs, as well as one of its last remaining industrial concerns in the form of the Jaguar Land Rover car plant at Halewood. However, it is also home to Speke, one of England’s most deprived boroughs, where the consequences of the benefit changes are starting to be felt.

“People whose heads are only just above water are being pushed underwater,” Eagle says. Speke has a food bank, but not a bank.

Other parts of Liverpool are equally deprived, partly because of the way the city centre has been revitalised. “The centre of town is the focus for everything and everywhere else has suffered,” says Professor Davies. “Some parts of the north end of Liverpool, around Anfield and Everton, are worse than ever: there’s no work; a lot of housing has been demolished and not replaced . . . There are parts of Liverpool where, if you don’t know the area, you would be foolish to walk into a pub.”

Everyone I spoke to maintains that the city is more self-reliant than it was 30 years ago, yet it remains heavily dependent on a public sector facing severe cuts. Gill Bainbridge, the director of the Merseyside Youth Association (MYA), who came here in the 1980s from her home town of Carlisle because she was seduced by Liverpool’s image as a “rebel city”, said that it was being targeted again by a government that was Conservative in all but name.

Bainbridge argued that the cuts would affect Liverpool disproportionately because the comprehensive spending review of 2010 did not take into account the Indices of Deprivation as it had always done before, and she was concerned that the knock-on effect on the tourist and service industries would send the city into a downward spiral, like the one it underwent in the 1980s.

The riots that broke out in London on 6 August last year and reached Liverpool three days later also evoke memories of the most troubled decade in Liverpool’s history. This time, they were of such a limited extent that youth workers were able to go round identifying kids and sending them home, but they showed how alienated many of the city’s young people feel.

“I thought it was good,” said a 19-year-old black man called Caleb, whom I met at the Merseyside Youth Association. He complained of police harassment and of not being able to go to parts of the city without being attacked by members of rival gangs. Caleb was suffering from alopecia, and had a host of other frustrations that he “couldn’t put into words”. The riots were the best way of expressing them. “I know it sounds bad but I reckon we should do it again, so that everyone knows we want change, we want jobs.”

 

When I left the MYA, I walked through Liverpool ONE, the largest open-air shopping centre in the UK, which opened in 2008 on 42 acres of underused land in the city centre, and constitutes a kind of semi-private realm, owned and managed by the Grosvenor Estate. To the west, the shopping centre’s unroofed canyons run down to the waterfront and the Albert Dock, and to the north it has absorbed the streets where my mother’s family business made and sold watches for more than 150 years. I walked down Paradise and Church Streets looking for the various premises that Thos Russell & Son used to own, but they had changed so much that I couldn’t decide where they had been. The business had left its old home on Church Street in the early 1980s and it closed permanently in 1997, severing my last connection with the city.

Anderson had told me that I was a “plastic Scouser”, which is the term that real Scousers use to describe people from the Wirral. Given that I left when I was 15 and had rarely been back, I’d never even thought of myself as that, but I had not lost my affection for Liverpool. I was encouraged by Maria Eagle’s remark that the city’s sense of exceptionalism was not exclusive: as long as you accepted that it was “brilliant”, it will accept you. If that is so, I will always be guaranteed a warm welcome, I thought as I made my way back towards St George’s Hall and Lime Street Station. Yet I know that Liverpool needs more than goodwill or faith in its unique identity if it is to consolidate its recovery – let alone reverse the long-term decline that began before we arrived on the Wirral.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future

RAY TANGT/ANADOLU AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Losing Momentum: how Jeremy Corbyn’s support group ran out of steam

Tom Watson says it is destroying Labour. Its supporters say it is a vital force for change. Our correspondent spent six months following the movement, and asks: what is the truth about Momentum?

1. The Bus

 The bus to the Momentum conference in Liverpool leaves at seven on a Sunday morning in late September from Euston Station, and the whole journey feels like a parody of a neoliberal play about the failings of socialism. We depart an hour late because activists have overslept and we cannot go without them. As we wait we discuss whether Jeremy Corbyn will be re-elected leader of the Labour Party this very day. One man says not; a young, jolly girl with blonde hair cries: “Don’t say that on Jezmas!” She is joking, at least about “Jezmas”.

A man walks up. “Trots?” he says, calmly. He is joking, too; and I wonder if he says it because the idea of Momentum is more exciting to outsiders than the reality, and he knows it; there is an awful pleasure in being misunderstood. Momentum was formed in late 2015 to build on Corbyn’s initial victory in the Labour leadership election, and it is perceived as a ragtag army of placard-waving Trots, newly engaged clicktivists and Corbyn fanatics.

We leave, and learn on the M1 that, in some terrible metaphor, the coach is broken and cannot drive at more than 20mph. So we wait for another coach at a service station slightly beyond Luton. “Sabotage,” says one man. He is joking, too. We get off; another man offers me his vegan bread and we discuss Karl Marx.

A new coach arrives and I listen to the others discuss Jeremy Corbyn’s problems. No one talks about his polling, because that is depressing and unnecessary for their purpose – which, here, is dreaming. They talk about Corbyn as addicts talk about a drug. Nothing can touch him, and nothing is ever his fault. “There are problems with the press office,” says one. “Perhaps he needs better PAs?” says another.

One man thinks there will be a non-specific revolution: “I hope it won’t be violent,” he frets. “There have been violent revolutions in the past.” “I stuck it out during Blair and it was worth it,” says another. “They’ve had their go.” “We don’t need them [the Blairites],” says a third. “If new members come in, it will sort itself out,” says a fourth.

I have heard this before. Momentum supporters have told me that Labour does not need floating voters, who are somehow tainted because they dare to float. This seems to me a kind of madness. I do not know how the Labour Party will win a general election in a parliamentary democracy without floating voters; and I don’t think these people do, either.

But this is a coach of believers. Say you are not sure that Corbyn can win a general election and they scowl at you. That you are in total agreement with them is assumed, because this is the solidarity bus; and if you are in total agreement with them they are the sweetest people in the world.

That is why I do not tell them that I am a journalist. I am afraid to, and this fear baffles me. I have gone everywhere as a journalist but with these, my fellow-travellers on the left, I am scared to say it; and that, too, frightens me. MSM, they might call me – mainstream media. What it really means is: collaborator.

The man beside me has been ill. He talks sweetly about the potential renewal of society under Corbyn’s Labour as a metaphor for his own recovery, and this moves him; he has not been involved in politics until now. I like this man very much, until I mention the Jewish Labour MP Luciana Berger and the anti-Semitism she has suffered from Corbyn supporters and others; and he says, simply, that she has been employed by the state of Israel. He says nothing else about her, as if there were nothing else to say.

We listen to the results of the leadership election on the radio; we should be in Liverpool at the Black-E community centre to celebrate, but the solidarity bus is late. Corbyn thanks his supporters. “You’re welcome, Jeremy,” says a woman in the front row, as if he were on the coach. She nods emphatically, and repeats it to the man who isn’t there: “You’re welcome, Jeremy.”

In Liverpool, some of the passengers sleep on the floor at a community centre. The venue has been hired for that purpose: this is Momentum’s commitment to opening up politics to the non-connected, the previously non-engaged, and the outsiders who will attend their conference in a deconsecrated church, even as the official Labour conference convenes a mile away. But never mind that: this is the one that matters, and it is called The World Transformed.

 

2. The Conference

Later that day, outside the Black-E, a man comes up to me. Are you happy, he asks, which is a normal question here. These are, at least partly, the politics of feelings: we must do feelings, because the Tories, apparently, don’t. I say I’m worried about marginal seats, specifically that Jeremy – he is always Jeremy, the use of his Christian name is a symbol of his goodness, his accessibility and his singularity – cannot win them.

“The polls aren’t his fault,” the man says, “it’s [Labour] people briefing the Tories that he is unelectable.” I do not think it’s that simple but it’s easy to feel like an idiot – or a monster – here, where there is such conviction. As if there is something that only you, the unconvinced, have missed: that Jeremy, given the right light, hat or PA, could lead a socialist revolution in a country where 13 million people watched Downton Abbey.

But the man does say something interesting which I hope is true. “This is not about Jeremy, not really,” he says. “It is about what he represents.” He means Momentum can survive without him.

There is a square hall with trade union banners and a shop that sells Poems for Jeremy Corbyn, as well as a Corbyn-themed colouring book. When I am finally outed as a journalist, and made to wear a vast red badge that says PRESS, I attempt to buy one. “That’s all journalists are interested in,” the proprietor says angrily. That is one of our moral stains, apparently: a disproportionate (and sinister) interest in colouring books.

I go to the Black Lives Matter event. A woman talks about the experience of black students in universities and the impact of austerity on the black community. Another woman tells us that her five-year-old son wishes he was white; we listen while she cries. I go to the feminism meeting and change my mind about the legalisation of prostitution after a woman’s testimony about reporting an assault, and then being assaulted again by a police officer because of her legal status. Then I hear a former miner tell a room how the police nearly killed him on a picket line, and then arrested him.

This, to me, a veteran of party conferences, is extraordinary, although it shouldn’t be, and the fact that I am surprised is shameful. Momentum is full of the kinds of ­people you never see at political events: that is, the people politics is for. Women, members of minority communities (but not Zionist Jews, naturally), the disabled: all are treated with exaggerated courtesy, as if the Black-E had established a mirror world of its choosing, where everything outside is inverted.

When Corbyn arrives he does not orate: he ruminates. “We are not going to cascade poverty from generation to generation,” he says. “We are here to transform society and the world.” I applaud his sentiment; I share it. I just wish I could believe he can deliver it outside, in the other world. So I veer ­between hope and fury; between the certainty that they will achieve nothing but an eternal Conservative government, and the ever-nagging truth that makes me stay: what else is there?

There is a rally on Monday night. Momentum members discuss the “purges” of socialist and communist-leaning members from Labour for comments they made on social media, and whether détente is possible. A nurse asks: “How do we know that ‘wipe the slate clean’ means the same for us as it does for them? How on Earth can we trust the likes of Hilary Benn who dresses himself up in the rhetoric of socialism to justify bombing Syria? The plotters who took the olive branch offered by Jeremy to stab him in the back with another chicken coup?” I am not sure where she is going with that gag, or if it is even a gag.

The next man to speak had been at the Labour party conference earlier in the day; he saw Len McCluskey, John McDonnell and Clive Lewis on the platform. “Don’t be pessimistic, folks,” he cries. “On the floor of conference today we owned the party. Progress [the centrist Labour pressure group] are the weirdos now. We own the party!”

A man from Hammersmith and Fulham Momentum is next. “The national committee of Momentum was not elected by conference,” he says. “It’s a committee meeting knocked up behind closed doors by leading people on the left, including our two heroes.” He means Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. This is explicit heresy, and the chair interrupts him: “Stan, Stan . . .” “I’m winding up!” he says. “We need a central committee of Momentum elected by conference,” he says, and sits down.

The following day Corbyn speaks in the hall in front of golden balloons that spell out S-H-E-E-P. It may be another gag, but who can tell, from his face? This is his commitment to not doing politics the recognisable way. He is the man who walks by himself, towards balloons that say S-H-E-E-P. (They are advertising the band that will follow him. They are called, and dressed as, sheep.) The nobility of it, you could say. Or the idiocy. He mocks the mockers of Momentum: is it, he was asked by the mainstream media, full of extremists and entryists? “I’m not controlling any of it,” he says calmly, and in this calmness is all the Twitter-borne aggression that people complain of when they talk about Momentum, for he enables it with his self-satisfied smile. “It’s not my way to try and control the way people do things. I want people to come together.” He laughs, because no one can touch him, and nothing is ever his fault.

I meet many principled people in Liverpool whose testimony convinces me, and I didn’t need convincing, that austerity is a national disaster. I meet only one person who thinks that Momentum should take over the Labour Party. The maddest suggestion I hear is that all media should be state-controlled so that they won’t be rude about a future Corbyn government and any tribute colouring books.

 

3. The HQ

Momentum HQ is in the TSSA transport and travel union building by Euston Station in London. I meet Jon Lansman, Tony Benn’s former fixer and the founder of Momentum, in a basement room in October. Lansman, who read economics at Cambridge, lived on the fringes of Labour for 30 years before volunteering for Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership.

The terms are these: I can ask whatever I want, but afterwards James Schneider, the 29-year-old national organiser (who has since left to work for Corbyn’s press team), will decide what I can and cannot print. ­Momentum HQ wants control of the message; with all the talk of entryism and infighting reported in the mainstream media, the movement needs it.

There is a civil war between Jon Lansman and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL) and other far-left factions, which, I am told, “wish to organise in an outdated manner out of step with the majority of Momentum members”. Some of the Momentum leadership believe that the AWL and its allies want to use Momentum to found a new party to the left of Labour. Jill Mountford, then a member of Momentum’s steering committee, has been expelled from Labour for being a member of the AWL. It screams across the blogs and on Facebook; more parody. We don’t talk about that – Schneider calls it “Kremlinology”. It is a problem, yes, but it is not insurmountable. We talk about the future, and the past.

So, Lansman. I look at him. The right considers him an evil Bennite wizard to be feared and mocked; the far left, a Stalinist, which seems unfair. It must be exhausting. I see a tired, middle-aged man attending perhaps his fifteenth meeting in a day. His hair is unruly. He wears a T-shirt.

The last Labour government, he says, did one thing and said another: “Wanting a liberal immigration policy while talking tough about refugees and migrants. Having a strong welfare policy and generous tax credits while talking about ‘strivers’ and ‘scroungers’ unfortunately shifted opinion the wrong way.”

It also alienated the party membership: “Their approach was based on ensuring that everyone was on-message with high levels of control.” It was an “authoritarian structure even in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party]. Even in the cabinet. It killed off the enthusiasm of the membership. They never published the figures in 2009 because it dropped below 100,000. We’ve now got 600,000.” (The membership has since dropped to roughly 528,000.)

And the strategy? “If you have hundreds of thousands of people having millions of conversations with people in communities and workplaces you can change opinion,” he says. “That’s the great advantage of ­having a mass movement. And if we can change the Labour Party’s attitude to its members and see them as a resource – not a threat or inconvenience.”

That, then, is the strategy: street by street and house by house. “We can’t win on the back of only the poorest and only the most disadvantaged,” he says. “We have to win the votes of skilled workers and plenty of middle-class people, too – but they are all suffering from some aspects of Tory misrule.”

I ask about polling because, at the time, a Times/YouGov poll has Labour on 27 per cent to the Tories’ 41 per cent. He doesn’t mind. “It was,” he says, “always going to be a very hard battle to win the next election. I think everyone across the party will privately admit that.” He doesn’t think that if Yvette Cooper or Andy Burnham were leader they would be polling any better.

Upstairs the office is full of activists. They are young, rational and convincing (although, after the Copeland by-election on 23 February, I will wonder if they are only really convincing themselves). They talk about their membership of 20,000, and 150 local groups, and 600,000 Labour Party members, and the breadth of age and background of the volunteers – from teenagers to people in their eighties. One of them – Ray Madron, 84 – paints his hatred of Tony Blair like a portrait in the air. He has a ­marvellously posh voice. Most of all, they talk about the wounds of austerity. Where, they want to know, is the anger? They are searching for it.

Emma Rees, a national organiser, speaks in the calm, precise tones of the schoolteacher she once was. “A lot of people are sick and tired of the status quo, of politics as usual, and I think trying to do things differently is hard because there isn’t a road map and it’s not clear exactly what you’re supposed to do,” she says. She adds: “It is a coalition of different sorts of people and holding all those people together can sometimes be a challenge.”

Is she alluding to entryism? One activist, who asks not to be named, says: “I don’t want to insult anyone, but if you rounded up all the members of the Socialist Workers Party [SWP] and the Socialist Party and any other ultra-left sect, you could probably fit them in one room. Momentum has 20,000 members.”

The SWP were outside at The World Transformed in Liverpool, I say, like an ambivalent picket line. “Well,” James Schneider says pointedly, “they were outside.”

Momentum, Emma Rees says, “is seeking to help the Labour Party become that transformative party that will get into government but doesn’t fall back on that tried and failed way of winning elections”.

They tell me this repeatedly, and it is true: no one knows what will work. “The people who criticised us don’t have any route to electability, either,” says Joe Todd, who organises events for Momentum. He is a tall, bespectacled man with a kindly, open face.

“They lost two elections before Jeremy Corbyn. It’s obvious we need to do something differently,” he says. “Politics feels distant for most people: it doesn’t seem to offer any hope for real change.

“The left has been timid and negative. More and more people are talking about how we can transform society, and how these transformations link to people’s everyday experience. Build a movement like that,” Todd says, and his eyes swell, “and all the old rules of politics – the centre ground, swing constituencies to a certain extent – are blown out of the water.”

Momentum sends me, with a young volunteer as chaperone, to a rally in Chester in October to watch activists try to muster support for local hospitals. They set up a stall in the centre of the shopping district, with its mad dissonance of coffee shops and medieval houses. From what I can see, people – yet far too few people – listen politely to the speeches about austerity and sign up for more information; but I can hear the hum of internal dissent when an activist, who asks not to be named, tells me he will work for the local Labour MP to be deselected. (The official Momentum line on deselection is, quite rightly, that it is a matter for local parties.)

We will not know what matters – is it effective? – until the general election, because no one knows what will work.

 

4. The Fallout

Now comes the result of the by-election in Copeland in the north-west of England, and the first time since 1982 that a ruling government has taken a seat from the opposition in a by-election. Momentum canvassed enthusiastically (they sent 85 carloads of activists to the constituency) but they failed, and pronounce themselves “devastated”. The whispers – this time of a “soft” coup against Corbyn – begin again.

Rees describes calls for Jeremy Corbyn to resign as “misguided. Labour’s decline long pre-dates Corbyn’s leadership.”

This produces a furious response from Luke Akehurst, a former London Labour ­councillor in Hackney, on labourlist.org. He insists that Labour’s decline has accelerated under Corbyn; that even though Rees says that “Labour has been haemorrhaging votes in election after election in Copeland since 1997”, the majority increased in 2005 and the number of votes rose in 2010, despite an adverse boundary change. “This,” he writes, “was a seat where the Labour vote was remarkably stable at between 16,750 and 19,699 in every general election between 2001 and 2015, then fell off a cliff to 11,601, a third of it going AWOL, last Thursday.”

And he adds that “‘85 carloads of Mom­entum activists’ going to Copeland is just increasing the party’s ability to record whose votes it has lost”.

But still they plan, and believe, even if no one knows what will work; surely there is some antidote to Mayism, if they search every street in the UK? Momentum’s national conference, which was repeatedly postponed, is now definitively scheduled for 25 March. Stan who complained about a democratic deficit within Momentum at The World Transformed got his way. So did Lansman. In January the steering committee voted to dissolve Momentum’s structures and introduce a constitution, after consulting the membership. A new national co-ordinating group has been elected, and met for the first time on 11 March – although, inevitably, a group called Momentum Grassroots held a rival meeting that very day.

I go to the Euston offices for a final briefing. There, two young women – Sophie and Georgie, and that will make those who think in parodies laugh – tell me that, in future, only members of the Labour Party will be allowed to join Momentum, and existing members must join Labour by 1 July. Those expelled from Labour “may be deemed to have resigned from Momentum after 1 July” – but they will have a right to a hearing.

More details of the plan are exposed when, a week later, a recording of Jon Lansman’s speech to a Momentum meeting in Richmond on 1 March is leaked to the Observer. Lansman told the Richmond branch that Momentum members must hold positions within the Labour Party to ensure that Corbyn’s successor – they are now talking about a successor – is to their liking. He also said that, should Len McCluskey be re-elected as general secretary of Unite, the union would formally affiliate to Momentum.

Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the party, was furious when he found out, calling it “a private agreement to fund a political faction that is apparently planning to take control of the Labour Party, as well as organise in the GMB and Unison”.

There was then, I am told, “a short but stormy discussion at the away day at Unison” on Monday 20 March, where the inner circle of John McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry “laid into” Watson, but Shami Chakrabarti made the peace; I would have liked to see that. Watson then released a bland joint statement with Corbyn which mentioned “a robust and constructive discussion about the challenges and opportunities ahead”.

Jon Lansman, of course, is more interesting. “This is a non-story,” he tells me. “Momentum is encouraging members to get active in the party, to support socialist policies and rule changes that would make Labour a more grass-roots and democratic party, and to campaign for Labour victories. There is nothing scandalous and sinister about that.” On the Labour right, Progress, he notes, does exactly the same thing. “Half a million members could be the key to our success,” he says. “They can take our message to millions. But they want to shape policy, too. I wouldn’t call giving them a greater say ‘taking over the party’” – and this is surely unanswerable – “it’s theirs to start with.”

Correction: This article originally named Luke Akehurst as a Labour councillor. Akehurst stood down in 2014.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution