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The road to nowhere: the Syrian refugees left out in the cold by Europe

More than two million people have fled the civil war in Syria. Many of them are desperate to get into Europe – but no country wants them.

One day at the end of October last year, Mohamad Hussain went to a café in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Aksaray to meet a smuggler. The smuggler said that, for €400 each, he would drive Mohamad and his family to Edirne, a city close to Turkey’s north-west frontier. From there, the smuggler said, he would find them safe passage into the European Union.

The Hussains were Kurds, from Qamishli in north-east Syria. Twelve of them – Mohamad, his mother, brother and sisters, and their cousins – had travelled to Istanbul together, and although it may not have felt so, they were among the lucky ones. Mohamad, a 24-year-old engineering student at university in Homs, had been lucky to escape injury when the Assad regime fired a rocket at the building next to his dorms. He was lucky that when, at the end of term in August, his bus back to Qamishli was ambushed by Islamist rebels, they only pretended they were going to cut off his head with a sword. When Mohamad’s mother insisted that this threat to her youngest son was the last straw, the family was lucky to sneak unnoticed across the Turkish border, even though it entailed wading through an open sewer.

The Hussains had relatives over the border, and so they could avoid being sent to one of the vast refugee camps Turkey operates on its south-eastern edge and where, they were told, “you’re stuck until the war ends”. They made it to Istanbul, where they rented a cramped apartment in Aksaray.

In this, too, they were lucky: just a few hundred metres away from where Mohamad met the smuggler, other Syrians were sleeping on camp beds under the arches of a Byzantine aqueduct. Since the autumn, thousands have been appearing destitute and starving in Istanbul’s parks, faster than the Turkish aid agencies can find them.

And the Hussains were lucky the smuggler didn’t simply steal the €400 per person he’d asked for; instead, he drove them to Edirne, then to a forest along the Bulgarian border, and said: “Walk that way.”

It was 3am when the Hussains arrived at the forest’s edge. They were joined by other refugees; there were 73 of them in total. At each stage of their journey they had been stripped of possessions, first their homes, then their savings, then all but the few clothes they could carry with them through the forest. The long walk through the wet autumn night would even destroy many people’s shoes. But the Hussains told themselves the sacrifices were worth it, because on the other side of that border lay Europe.

****

It was more than a month after that trip through the forest when I first met Mohamad. In early December, I had travelled to Turkey, and then Bulgaria, to find out what was happening to Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe. Of the two million who have fled abroad, the vast majority are living in three of Syria’s neighbours – Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But the number reaching Europe has been increasing steadily since summer. Bulgaria, which estimates it had received up to 15,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2013, has been placing new arrivals in hastily opened “overflow” camps. It was at one of these, just outside the town of Harmanli, 30 miles north of the border with Turkey, that Mohamad approached me.

He had been at the camp, with scant access to the outside world, for 45 days by this point. Dressed in jeans and leather jacket, with neatly gelled hair, Mohamad had walked up to me and begun asking questions. Were Arsenal still top of the Premier League? Did I know that their attacking midfielder Mesut Özil was Kurdish? Was I a fan of Taylor Swift, the singer? Did I know how Mohamad could contact his uncle in Germany? Was Britain accepting any refugees? And most of all, did I know a way his family could get out of the camp? “You didn’t see here when it was raining,” he said. Around us, the wild, hilly countryside of southern Bulgaria was lit sharply in the winter sun. “A river of water. I would rather go back to Syria and be killed than stay here.”

We were standing on the steps of a dere­lict building at a Communist-era army base, now repurposed as a refugee camp. Inside, staff from Médecins Sans Frontières were busy setting up an emergency clinic. Outside, in front of us, stretched rows of canvas tents and metal shipping containers. At least 1,500 people, with more arriving daily, were crammed into a space no more than a few hundred metres square. Groups of children played, piling up and smashing the blocks from rubble that littered the ground, jumping back and forwards over broken wire fences, or hanging from rope swings strung between the few trees that hadn’t been chopped down for firewood. The camp was bordered by a concrete perimeter wall: low enough to hear passing cars and pedestrians, but not to see them.

It’s not easy to find your way across the forest that separates Bulgaria from Turkey. After wandering lost in the woods for hours, the Hussains’ group was found by border guards. “We knew we were in Europe,” Mohamad said, “because one of them had a flag with yellow stars on his shoulder.” Details of the procedure for receiving refugees arriving in Europe differ from country to country, but in essence the process is the same: they should be registered and interviewed, have their fingerprints taken and be given temporary documents while their claim is assessed. In theory, it should take only a few days.

Instead, Mohamad and his family were taken to a detention centre where their passports were confiscated. Syrians aren’t the only undocumented migrants who cross Bulgaria’s southern border; at the detention centre, said Mohamad, “They separated us into groups: the Syrians, the Afghans, the black Africans. Like animals.” The same seg­regation seemed to have taken place at Harmanli. Syrians, the largest group, occupied the tents and containers at the centre of the camp; a hundred or so Afghans lived in an old schoolhouse, smoky with fumes from wood-burning stoves and whose toilets leaked; a smaller group of African men – the ones I met were from Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Mali – was in another, smaller building. It had bars on the windows.

After seven days in detention, the Hussains were moved to Harmanli’s closed camp, its entry and exit controlled by the local police. When they arrived, there was no running water or electricity. Food deli­veries were sporadic and the only medical care was an emergency visit by an ambulance. “If people wanted to leave to buy food or see a doctor,” Mohamad said, “the police asked for money.” Some of the refugees were sold bogus contracts by men who arrived at the gates posing as lawyers. The “contracts” promised accommodation in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia: those who handed over their money found they were driven there and dumped on the street. The Hussains wanted to leave and try a nearby camp where conditions were rumoured to be better, but their savings were running out and, without passports, they couldn’t be wired money by friends or relatives.

“Do you want to see the camp?” Mohamad asked me. It was late afternoon as we set off from the steps of the new clinic, and the winter sun was beginning to dip. Even in daylight, the temperature had barely risen above zero, and now people were lighting fires outside their tents to keep warm. The fires mark time here: lit once at sunset, they are rekindled in the early hours of the morning as people’s legs begin to freeze and they wake up. In the final hours of daylight, I saw people scavenging for tree stumps, fallen branches, cardboard boxes – whatever combustible material remained.

In mid-November, the refugees had protested, piling their mattresses outside and setting fire to them. Some of the women went on hunger strike. Now, conditions have begun to improve. A local catering firm, run by Syrians, provides one hot meal a day to the camp; the food is distributed swiftly and efficiently by the refugees themselves. Slowly, families were being moved from the tents into metal containers, which have electricity, water and heating. But when I visited, many were still stuck with just canvas and a wood-burning stove to protect them from the elements.

As we walked along a row of tents, Mohamad stopped to chat to a family huddled around a brazier for warmth. They were Kurds from Syria, too, but unlike the Hussains, who are Muslims, they followed the Yazidi religion, distantly connected to Zoroastrianism. A father-of-three – still so frightened that he asked me not to use his name – described how he had brought his children and his 75-year-old mother to Bulgaria after their home village was ethnically cleansed by Islamists of the Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda. He suffered from diabetes; his mother had heart disease. “The pain is like a snake in my stomach,” said the old woman, complaining that the cold was making her condition worse.

Here, where until a few days before my visit the only contact with doctors was a single, urgent visit by the local ambulance, such common medical conditions can become dire emergencies. “This is more than just a health situation,” Stuart Zimble, the Médecins Sans Frontières head of mission who was in charge of setting up the clinic at Harmanli, later explained to me. “Health problems are being aggravated by the shortfall of the registration process at the border. The Bulgarian government were just not prepared.” There are women in their ninth month of pregnancy and cancer patients who can no longer get access to treatment, not to mention people afflicted by the psychological traumas of those who have fled war. When Eirini, the photojournalist who had come with me to take pictures of the camp, offered a sweet to one of the Afghan children, he just stared at her blankly.

****

When the Hussains left Istanbul at the end of October, their journey would have taken them along the highway that runs beside the Sea of Marmara and then up into the region of south-eastern Europe still known by its ancient name of Thrace. Today, it is where the Turkish, Greek and Bulgarian borders meet, marking the scramble for land that occurred after the collapse of the Otto­man empire. From 1945, it was where the Soviet and western spheres of influence collided. Now, another kind of struggle takes place: between migrants in search of refuge or a way to earn a living – or both – and an EU that increasingly wants to keep them out.

A few days before visiting Harmanli, I had travelled the same route as the Hussains from Istanbul, stopping off at Edirne, a capital in the Ottoman era whose centre is still dominated by three imposing medieval mosques. It has long been a last stop in Turkey for migrants but until recently their preferred destination was Greece, over the border formed by the River Evros. Most people would cross by night in inflatable boats; some would even swim. It was the most popular choice of route into the EU.

One evening I took a taxi from Edirne to the Evros border crossing a few miles outside town. It was dark when I crossed the no-man’s-land between the two roadside checkpoints, but just light enough to spot a few sandbagged gun encampments and a forbidding wire fence on the Greek side, stretching off into the distance. The road was empty, my passage held up only by a line of three geese that waddled through passport control before me. Waiting on the other side in an ageing blue Toyota was Panos, a resident of the nearby town of Orestiada whom I’d phoned earlier that day.

Panos, a young sales rep whose job takes him all around the region, is one of a handful of local people who openly opposed the construction of the fence I’d seen at the border. Six miles long and equipped with thermal sensors to detect movement, it was announced with much fanfare in August 2012 when Greece “sealed” its border with Turkey. “Most people around here support the fence,” Panos said, once we had found our way to a bar. “They aren’t affected by immigration themselves, but they see the migrants come, they hear on the television that immigration causes problems, then they see the fence and think: ‘This is dealing with the problem.’”

Many of those who crossed the Evros in recent years haven’t looked to Greece as their final destination; for them it was a first step towards refuge, work or family members in the wealthier northern European economies. For well over a decade, southern European countries have been asked to shoulder the burden of dealing with irregular migration: the 2003 Dublin II Regulation, for instance, made asylum claims the responsibility of the state through which the migrant first entered the EU. For the most part, that has meant Spain, Italy, Greece – and now Bulgaria.

Since the eurozone crisis of 2009, as European governments have grown ever more panicky about immigration, the pressure has intensified. Hundreds of officers from the EU border agency Frontex have been sent to patrol the Evros in the past few years. In August 2012, the Greek government redeployed almost 2,000 of its own police officers to the region. But the surge came at the very moment when the numbers fleeing Syria began to increase. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees believes there are now 838,000 in Lebanon, 567,000 in Jordan, 540,000 in Turkey, 207,000 in Iraq and 129,000 in Egypt, apart from the 6.5 million Syrians who are internally displaced.

The heightened security along Europe’s borders hasn’t stopped them coming but it has led to more deaths: many now choose to make a perilous crossing by boat from Turkey’s Mediterranean coast instead, and the trip is often fatal. Those who still attempt to cross the Evros find a harsh welcome.

Panos told me that on 12 November his group of activists received a call from someone in the border village of Praggi, saying that about 150 bedraggled Syrian refugees had arrived overnight. “By the time one of our group arrived they had gone,” he said. “The villagers said that the police had taken them away.” Nobody knows what happened to them after that; on 24 December the London Guardian quoted a local human rights lawyer saying the group had “lost all trace” of the refugees.

It is not an isolated incident. A report by the German NGO Pro Asyl, published in November, collected the accounts of 90 refugees who said they had been forcibly pushed back from Greece’s land and sea frontiers. Some of them said they had been forced back into the Evros. Pro Asyl argued this pointed to “systematic abuse of human rights” and estimated that 2,000 migrants could have been forced out in the course of a year. The Greek police deny that they operate a push-back policy; Frontex says it investigates reports of mistreatment whenever they arise. Soon, Syria’s Bulgarian border will be “sealed”, too. In November, the Bulgarians began building a fence of their own.

The village bar where Panos and I were sitting was empty except for a few old men reading newspapers. “This isn’t like a big city,” he said: “if I put my head up, everyone sees. When we protest outside the police station, the policemen inside are guys I went to school with.” He was growing angry. “But I can’t watch what’s happening and say nothing. Yesterday, they found a woman who had frozen to death in a field, just fifty metres over there.” He waved a hand towards the window of the bar. “How can I stay silent about this?”

****

Lazgin Musa sat back and took a drag on his cigarette while Mohamad translated for me. “And here is the paradise of Europe! We don’t even see any Europeans. We can’t leave the camp.” I was back for a second day in Harmanli and Mohamad was taking me to meet his cousins, then still living in one of the canvas tents. Thirty-one-year-old Lazgin, along with his younger brother Goders and their nephew Robar, were part of the group of 12 who had made the long journey here together from Qamishli.

Before the war the brothers had lived in Damascus, where Lazgin ran a clothing shop. Like many Kurds, whose culture and language have been suppressed for decades, they took part in the peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations that swept Syria in 2011. “We were protesting even before then,” said Lazgin, a little indignantly. “But when weapons got into this revolution, we said, ‘We are not with this revolution.’” As popular unrest tilted towards civil war, they held back.

Their fears were justified. First, Lazgin said, the conflict destroyed their livelihood. War drove his European customers away. The price of food shot up as the Syrian currency lost its value. Then, as fighting broke out between the Kurds, who wanted greater autonomy for their territory, and Islamist rebel groups, their lives were threatened on two fronts. “We escaped from Islamists, not from the regime,” Lazgin said, as he stoked the stove that sat in the middle of the tent, its flue poking out of a hole in the roof. “If Assad wins, he’ll kill everybody who was against him. If an Islamist group kills Assad there will be thousands of Islamist groups fighting each other. It will be like Afghanistan.”

Syria’s refugee crisis already compares in scale to that of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Millions who have fled their country are now resigning themselves to a long exile, looking not just for safe haven, but a way to earn a living. Yet by and large the doors of European countries have remained closed. Since the conflict started, only 10,000 refugees have been resettled formally in western countries – and that includes the United States. In December, a report by Amnesty International said the EU had “miserably failed” to provide support.

The excuses range in tone: some politicians, such as the Italian foreign minister Emma Bonino, say that harsh restrictions are necessary because there might be terrorists among the refugees. Bulgarian tele­vision channels have focused on the cost of accommodation – or on the dirt and chaos at the camps, implying that Syrians are bringing disease with them. And the British government, while pointing to the large sums it is donating to humanitarian efforts, says it thinks refugees would be better off in Syria’s neighbouring countries.

This last claim is questionable. It is widely accepted that Jordan and Lebanon, which have taken in more than a million refugees between them, are struggling to cope, but the pressure is also starting to show in Turkey, which claims to have spent more than $2bn on relief efforts so far. The Turkish government was quick to set up camps along the south-eastern border with Syria which are now home to roughly 200,000 refugees. But up to 500,000 more live elsewhere in the country. “There’s a perception that Turkey has less of a need because it’s spent so much money,” Oktay Durukan of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, an Istanbul-based human rights group, told me. “That’s the wrong message to give.” UNHCR is calling on European countries to keep their borders open.

Bulgaria, one of the poorest EU member countries, complains that it has not received enough support to deal with the rising numbers of refugees. The economic downturn has sparked a political crisis there; in February last year the government was brought down by widespread street protests, and the unrest continues. A far-right party, Ataka (“attack”), is now the fourth largest in parliament, and it has been at the forefront of complaints about the presence of refugees. Other European states could help relieve the pressure. So far, they are largely choosing not to do so.

The refugees know they are being talked of as a burden, and it is something they find bitterly ironic. Mohamad wants to continue his studies in Germany, or even Britain. His brother has a degree in business management and his sister is a qualified psychotherapist. Another of his cousins, Jazia, works as a translator at the camp clinic, using the English she says she learned from watching American movies on TV. “Eur­ope needs people from the Middle East,” Lazgin said. “Europeans stay single; they have one, maybe two children. Middle East people are all married and have many children by the time they are our age. We are a young society.”

Lazgin was half joking, but the mention of children reminded him of something. Another of his brothers was at a camp outside Sofia, with a baby son. “If you go there, give his child a kiss from me.”

****

When systems fail, we have a choice: to accept the failure, or to take action. Many Bulgarians have been shocked by the images of refugees they have seen on television. A weekly delivery of clothes, toys and other supplies arrives at Harmanli – but it is not the usual donation from aid agencies. These are second-hand goods, gathered from around the country, collected in Sofia and driven down to Harmanli in battered old family cars.

It started as a Facebook group, Friends of the Refugees. Then an enterprising developer set up a website where you can track donations as they happen on a live map. But without the intervention of political leaders, will its efforts be enough?

After we left his cousins’ tent, Mohamad invited me back to his container. The metal box must have been no more than ten metres wide and five deep, yet inside it something approaching everyday family life was going on. In two cramped rooms, with a bathroom and a space for cooking, his mother fussed around, tidying up after two of Mohamad’s young cousins, both toddlers. It was warm and brightly lit. A friend knocked at the door. “He was our neighbour in Qamishli and now he lives in the container next to us,” Mohamad said. As I was getting ready to leave, another of Mohamad’s cousins joked that I should leave my passport behind. A UK passport, like those of the US and Finland, guarantees entry to the highest number of countries without any need for a visa. I didn’t know that – but then I’ve never needed to.

On 10 January, I spoke to Mohamad by phone. More containers had arrived and people were no longer living in tents. The Hussains had spent their first Christmas in Europe at Harmanli. On New Year’s Eve, someone had set up a PA system. “They played Kurdish and African dances,” Mohamad said. “But it was too cold to stay outside for long.”

After more than two months, the Hussains finally had their fingerprints taken. They are still waiting for their documents to arrive so they can leave the camp.

Daniel Trilling is the editor of New Humanist magazine

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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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