Image: Architecture (1923) by Paul Klee, Staatliche Museen Zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, courtesy of Tate Press.
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The machinery and magic of Paul Klee’s paintings – in close up

Klee's 50th birthday celebrations included hiring a Junkers aeroplane to fly over his house and parachute down presents from students and colleagues – somehow an appropriate conflation of technology and whimsy, of magic and machinery.

The building blocks of Paul Klee’s art are building blocks. It might sound simple but it’s complicated – there are building blocks and building blocks. Every nursery floor is thick with burly wooden bricks – safe, blunt approximations; coarse, imprecise cubes that recall Donne: “At the round earth’s imagined corners”.

Now consider the building set – Bauspiel – that my wife bought 30 years ago in Berlin from the Bauhaus-Archiv. With its tiny components you can build a ship with two sails, a bridge, a creature, an arch. Each individual machined unit is deliciously slim, with sharp, elegant edges. And the colours are clean reds and whites, with sometimes surprising shades – a Colman’s mustard triangle, a light sage rectangle, each an escape from the clichéd range of children’s colours. The smallness is crucial.

In the autumn of 1929, Will Grohmann’s monograph on Klee appeared. Klee was 49. He said of an advertisement: “The name is in such big letters that I had a terrible shock.” His own signature is an exact exoskeleton of India ink, a carefully placed minuscule insect of crisp calligraphy. Of the 100 Klee pictures on show at Tate Modern, many are miniatures and none approaches those Rubens the size of snooker tables. The late pictures are bigger and weaker, the result of his scleroderma, a complication of measles that shrank and tightened his skin and that eventually killed him, having first deprived him of his pictorial nimbleness.

The building blocks suggest that Bauhaus constructivism was inspirational for Klee, who taught there from 1921 to 1931. In fact, he had already made his liberating discovery – in Tunis, in 1914, with the great painter August Macke and Louis Moilliet. (It is one of the disappointments of this exhibition that there are no examples from this crucial two weeks in which Klee discovered colour in blocks and declared himself a painter.)

He was hired by Walter Gropius because Gropius could see in Klee the accommodation of the visible organic world to the architectural abstract: “When we look around us today, we see all sorts of exact forms,” Klee wrote, “whether we like it or not, our eyes gobble squares, circles, and all manner of fabricated forms.” You certainly do after seeing this exhibition: the bridge across the Thames is pure Klee, a magic carpet of metal segments, speeding to vanishing point. (It should be no surprise that he painted a circular homage to Picasso and Cubism in 1914.)

In Klee, function meets fantasy. We learn from the Tate’s unusually helpful and interesting catalogue that when Klee was 50, his birthday celebrations included hiring a Junkers aeroplane to fly over his house and parachute down presents from students and colleagues – somehow an appropriate conflation of technology and whimsy, of magic and machinery.

As a teacher, Klee was popular with his students. He delivered his first lecture with his back to his audience while he drew with both hands on the blackboard: shyness not showmanship. (He drew and painted with his left hand, wrote with his right.) He could be an indefatigably finicky theoretician and students are flattered by the intellectual challenge of difficulty.

Bridget Riley, in her admiring preface to the 2002 Klee show at the Hayward Gallery in London, was unable to discover any coherence in Klee’s writings, as opposed to the paintings. I sympathise. Actually, Klee is clear enough in his main thrust: it is not the task of the artist to be “an improved camera”, accurately reproducing the visible world. The sign is more important than mimesis.

On the other hand, his attempts to explain simple fundamentals can be inspissated: “The optic-physical phenomenon produces feelings which can transform outward impressions into functional penetration more or less elaborately, according to their direction.” When I read this, I thought of Dr Johnson’s definition of “net” in his dictionary: “Anything made with interstitial vacuities.” Better to stick with “net”. Or say that pictures produce feelings. As a pedagogue, Klee was popular but chafed by his working conditions. There is a painting called Ghost of a Genius (1922), which looks like the selfportrait – a depleted soul with dead blue eyes who’d rather be painting than teaching.

Those building blocks – fundamental to Klee’s art – are saturated in colour both burnished and bright, richly harmonic. They are singular, sufficient unto themselves but they imply plurality and pattern – just as bricks join to build a wall.

The grid, the wall, is at the heart of Klee’s painting and drawing. Yet the pattern made by the units is always disrupted, bespoke, un-uniform. The variants are a matter of intuition, touch, genius. Theory, Klee wrote, “is fine but it has its limits: intuition remains indispensable”. There are many walls and an infinity of different bricks. For him, a grid can be almost anything: “the storm in the wheatfields was captivating; I’ll paint a ship sailing on waves of rye”.

Waves, ripples: a grid like a musical stave. Horticulture – a vegetable garden – becomes another natural grid, alternating peas and carrots and cabbages. His abstracts come together like quilts or fit together like flooring, like parquet, or a great wall of liquorice allsorts, sweet with delicious colours. Then there is the mosaic’s mini-brick as a model and inspiration, the isolated mark of the brush, touched into existence rather than stroked into being – and then the morph into pointillism. In Klee, the one bolts, seeds and becomes the many. If you look at a painting such as Reife Ernte/Ripe Harvest (1924), you see not corn but the orange-gold of ripeness in the background, a central grey wash of soil, and a set of signifiers; a primitive script that looks more like spermatozoa than corn. It isn’t in the least literal but it captures fertility perfectly.

Ripe Harvest isn’t in this show but one of Klee’s greatest pictures is. Pastorale (Rhythms) (1924)has a line of sky-blue at the top. The bulk of the painting is tempera on canvas on wood. Overall, it’s the colour of mildew. It is clearly related to the horticulture paintings, both by its title and its design. Into the thick tempera, between the lines, is scored a continuous series of pseudo-hieroglyphs – an x, an o, a plus sign, asterisks, a trellis of x’s, a candelabra sign like a fir tree, a sequence of gravestones.

It is like a tablet of invented writing, of repeated, unknown letters and shapes – a kind of Rosetta Stone, unreadable yet persuasive, the sign of a civilisation that has vanished, leaving behind only the ghost and promise of meaning; a whole cemetery of writing on a single tablet. It is as beautiful as Yeats’s most beautiful line, from “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen”: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes./What more is there to say?” Klee gives us the very vanished thing itself, miraculously, impossibly, still there, before our eyes, filling our eyes.

There are several technical innovations to admire. The first is Klee’s invention of the oil-transfer drawing. You cover a sheet with black oil paint and place it on a clean sheet of paper. Then you trace a drawing placed on the oil sheet so that the line is transferred. The line is transformed as it is transferred – becoming slightly ragged, like a scratch that has broken the skin. (Much later, Andy Warhol did something similar with a blotted line made by folding the drawing while it was still wet.) The technique means that the under-drawing is dirtied in places. These soiled patches dispel any hint of the academic artist; the drawings look “found” and satisfyingly primitive rather than composed.

Another innovative Klee technique is the fine watercolour spray at the edges of drawings. In Threatening Snowstorm (1927) we see a town in diagrammatic form, ground plan and elevation. The border of the drawing is a dramatic dusk of brown and grey-blue shrouding the geometric buildings. I daresay the title came last. No matter. The picture unanswerably reorders and reverses that sequence so it provides the perfect illustration, the exact equivalence of imminent snow.

In Sacred Islands (1926) the border is a shawl of faded blue that contributes immeasurably to the painting’s complete success. It is a purged masterpiece of tonal plainness – India ink and blue spray – and immense intricacy. Emerging from the blue border is a kind of architectural parquet, of inlay and dovetail. We know about those beautifully spare, suggestive Ben Nicholson pencil drawings of half a wonky cloister – a couple of lines, a wash of grit.

They are lovely but the Klee is something quite extraordinary – a Piranesian proliferation, a nuclear chain reaction of colonnades, of flights of steps, down and up and indeterminate, of arches, vistas, vaulting – of spandrels, of nonsense, of building that has bolted in a thousand different directions at once.

There is a Kipling story called “The Disturber of Traffic” about a lighthouse keeper, Dowse, whose deranged eye is helplessly held by any pattern, the result of years spent staring at “the streaks”, the tidal patterns of the Flores Strait near Java. As Dowse talks, “All the time his eye was held like by the coils of rope on the belaying pins, and he followed those ropes up and up until he was quite lost and comfortable among the rigging.”

Klee could be rapt by the waves in waves, the waves in wheat, the parenthetical maze of ripples inside an onion, the waves in the grain of wood. What holds our eye in Sacred Islands is the delicate width of the inked units, the counterintuitive, carefully controlled minimalism of the depicted chaos.

In View of a Mountain Sanctuary, 1926, Klee revisits and reworks the topos: here it is stalactites, fractured rocks, millefeuille mineral compressions, contractions and folds. The same India ink, effective enough, but without Sacred Islands’ compelling insanity of detail. Clouds (also 1926) has a dark-grey border and similar ink contour lines tormented into clouds and turbulence. In the end, the difference between the masterpiece and the other two very good pictures is what the hand happens to do – the inspiration, the genius of the fingers, the something chancy that is more than skill.

Another great picture here is Lowlands (1932), a watercolour on paper on cardboard. It, too, is one of several pointillist paintings. From a distance, it reads like a perfect piece of realism – the wet sands, a distant line of sea, a hangover of clouds. Drab, about as exciting as the tidemark in a bath. But close-to it is gripping, because Klee lets us see his working. In the middle of the picture is a single line of bright green dots – the sea – and below it black dots, then blue, then black. Each dot is small, the size of a liquorice cachou. Each is the same and each is different so the viewer has the perfect pleasure of repetition, similar to the pleasure we get listening to a duet where the singers are perfectly in tune yet recognisably different – identical twins you can still tell apart.

The whole picture is so minimalist in its means, you think of Steve Reich or Philip Glass or John Adams. The top and the bottom of the picture are washed with dirty water – water the brushes have been cleaned in. Only the bright green single line of dots is left untouched. The rest of the painting is fearlessly impure, filthy with actuality, lowering and exhilaratingly depressed. This single work is worth a visit and any entrance fee, which in this case should be called an entranced fee.

Craig Raine’s new collection of essays, “More Dynamite”, will be published by Atlantic Books on 3 December

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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