RALPH STEADMAN
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Islamist terror, security and the Hobbesian question of order

Liberals often worry about the need to protect citizens from the state. Yet in the age of global terror, the risk posed by failed states is by far the greater danger.

Among the consequences of the atrocities in Paris – many of them impossible to foresee so soon after the terrible events – one seems reasonably clear. The state is returning to its primary function, which is the provision of security. If the SAS has been on the streets of London and Brussels under lockdown, these are more than responses to the prospect that further attacks may occur. What we are witnessing is the rediscovery of an essential truth: our freedoms are not free-standing absolutes but fragile constructions that remain intact only under the shelter of state power. The ideal liberal order that was supposedly emerging in Europe is history. The task of defending public safety has devolved to national governments – the only institutions with the ability to protect their citizens.

The progressive narrative in which freedom is advancing throughout the world has left liberal societies unaware of their fragility. Overthrowing despots in the name of freedom, we have ended up facing a situation in which our own freedom is at stake. According to the liberal catechism, freedom is a sacred value, indivisible and overriding, which cannot be compromised. Grandiose theories of human rights have asserted that stringent limitations on state power are a universal requirement of justice. That endemic anarchy can be a more intractable obstacle to civilised existence than many kinds of despotism has been disregarded and passed over as too disturbing to dwell on.

But one modern thinker understood that a strong state was the precondition of any civilised social order. With his long life spanning the English Civil War, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was convinced that only government could provide security against sectarian strife. Anyone who wanted the amenities of “commodious living” had to submit to a sovereign power, authorised to do whatever was necessary to keep the peace. Otherwise, as Hobbes put it in a celebrated passage in his masterwork Leviathan (1651), there would be “no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

Hobbes has been criticised by liberals for neglecting the necessity of protection from the state – a need that was clear in the 20th century, when the worst crimes were the work of totalitarian regimes. But one need not accept all of Hobbes’s political theory, with its fictitious state of nature and social contract, to see that he captured some enduring realities that liberals have chosen to forget. The form of government – democratic or despotic, monarchical or republican – is less important than its capacity to deliver peace. At the present time, it is not the state but the weakness of the state that is the greater danger to freedom.

Consider the migrant crisis and how it is likely to develop in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. The first and most obvious ­reality is that the crisis has been driven by a flight from failed or failing states. The largest single category of migrants has come from Syria, which has been devastated by a many-sided civil war in which the West – along with its ally Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states – has intervened with the aim of toppling the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Others come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere. But it cannot be accidental that so many of these migrants are fleeing countries whose states have been dismantled by western policies of regime change. Migrant flows have other causes, such as environmental degradation in Africa and the economic opportunities that are available in European countries, which will persist long after war in the Middle East has ended. The chief driver at present remains failed states and it is wishful thinking to imagine that these states will be repaired any time soon.

Destroying states is relatively easy, while re-creating them is very difficult. Iraq and Syria will not be reassembled in a recognisable shape in any realistically imaginable future. Similarly, effective government will not be restored in the jihadist-ridden chaos that is now Libya. Politicians who tell us that the solution to the migrant crisis is to stabilise the migrants’ countries of origin are not being serious, or honest. None of them has any clear idea of how to accomplish such a feat, or is willing to face the enormous difficulties and costs that the task would involve.

By creating failed states, the West brought into being the zones of anarchy in which Isis (also known as Islamic State) has thrived. It will be objected that the states that were destroyed were brutal dictatorships. But Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a secular despotism and so, too, is Assad’s Syria. In working to overthrow these regimes, the West has released the forces of theocracy and come close to eradicating secular government in the Middle East. Worse, by persisting in its efforts to topple Assad, the West risks producing a catastrophe greater than any that has yet occurred. If Assad were violently overthrown, the Syrian army would likely disintegrate and the state of Syria cease to exist. The country would become an anarchical killing field in which dozens of jihadist groups compete for power. Communities that had depended on Assad’s regime for their survival, such as the Alawites, Druze and Christians, would confront a threat of genocide as real as that which has faced the Yazidi in Iraq. The result would be enlarged flows of desperate people into Europe. By intensifying the war, Russia’s involvement in Syria is likely also to swell these flows, though not by as much. In the longer term, Russian intervention opens up the possibility of some kind of political settlement in which Assad can be induced to give up power.

The West continues to reject co-operation with Russia on the grounds that Vladimir Putin and his client Assad are evil tyrants. From a Hobbesian standpoint, this is irrelevant. The salient question can only be: which is the greater evil? How is Assad’s dictatorship worse than a cult that abducts and rapes children, kills women it considers too old for sexual slavery, throws gay men off roofs, assassinates writers, cartoonists and Jews, murders dis­abled people in wheelchairs and razes irreplaceable cultural sites?

It is true that, with his barrel bombs and torture centres, Assad may have killed more people than Isis but this is not for want of the jihadists trying. They have launched mass-casualty attacks in Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, among other countries where the victims have been overwhelmingly Muslims; and, if they can get their hands on biological or other weapons of mass destruction, they will surely use them. By any reasonable standard, Isis is a vastly greater threat to world peace than Assad.

***

The impact of the Paris attacks will be profound. Casualties are a fraction of those of the 9/11 attacks on the US but Europe is incomparably more fragile. A fatal blow has been dealt to the Schengen dream in which people are free to roam across a borderless European continent. Though some controls were planned ahead of the climate summit that starts in Paris on 30 November, the imposition of border checks immediately in the wake of the attacks testifies to a stark fact. European institutions lack the capacity to tackle a security challenge of this magni­tude. Only national governments possess this power and, by reclaiming control of their borders, they are revealing a fundamental vulnerability in the EU.

Already, Bavaria’s finance minister, Markus Söder – a member of the Christian Social Union, which has been sharply critical of Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel – has declared that, with the Paris attacks, “everything changes” in Germany’s open-door approach to migrants. At the same time, Konrad Szymanski, Poland’s incoming minister for European affairs in the government that is being formed after the Law and Justice Party won the election in October, has announced that Poland cannot accept migrants allocated to it under a European quota system without stringent security checks. Even before the Paris attacks, Sweden had suspended Schengen, arguing that it was struggling with the influx of refugees. With Europe paralysed, the continent’s nation states are seizing control of their borders to stem a mounting threat to their citizens’ security. Just two days before the attacks, European leaders gathered in Malta to reaffirm their commitment to welcoming migrants. Now a different scenario is emerging. One by one, European governments are adopting policies of which the overall effect looks like the beginning of the end of the era of mass migration into Europe.

To many liberals – not least Barack Obama, who has condemned any such reaction as hysterical – European leaders seem to be succumbing to xenophobia when they should be defending openness and common humanity. But it is worth considering the situation from a Hobbesian point of view. Controlling the flows of people cannot neutralise Isis militants who are already here. Some will have entered Europe years ago, or been born in a European country and then travelled to war zones where they were trained in terrorist skills. Even so, uncontrolled immigration on the scale that has been reached in the past year cannot avoid posing security risks in conditions that ­approximate those of war. If Isis militants form only a tenth of 1 per cent of the ­million or so migrants who have entered Europe to date, a thousand or more new risks have been created. When it is recalled that the Isis militants who have returned from Syria to Britain are believed to number in the hundreds, the danger is clear enough. A major terrorist threat can be created by very few people.

The weakness of the EU in this regard is a direct result of the freedom of movement that has been one of its defining features. As a borderless zone, it can control the movement of people only at its perimeters. But when the frontiers of France are, in effect, in Greece (through which the suspected ringleader of the Paris attacks is reported to have travelled when returning from Syria), tracking travellers is practically impossible. Rather than being an overbearing super-state, as many Eurosceptics have claimed, the EU is a pseudo-state, an institution that claims many of the prerogatives of statehood but cannot meet the primary and overriding need for safety that states exist to serve.

Moreover, this pseudo-state contains at least one semi-failed state. The fractured and paralysed state of Belgium has been a jihadi haven from which attacks could be launched. At least two of those implicated in the Paris attacks had links with the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, as did jihadists involved in previous terrorist incidents.

The unfolding pattern of the attacks must also be taken into account. Uniquely among jihadist groups, Isis has demonstrated the capacity to join guerrilla warfare and spectacular acts of terror into a single strategy. The Paris attacks were a reaction to defeats on the ground in Syria, where Isis has been forced to retreat in the face of advances by Syrian government forces, backed up by Russian air power and Kurdish fighters. If it suffers further defeats, Isis will step up its campaign of urban terrorism in western countries. More stringent security measures cannot prevent this assault. Suspects can be identified and some plots foiled but there is a limit to what can be done when every member of the population is a target. As long as Isis exists, its attacks will continue.

***

Given how the “war on terror” created some of the conditions that led to the rise of jihadism, it is daunting to contemplate the prospect that further military action may now be needed. Yet François Hollande may be right in urging that, at this point, the only effective recourse is the Islamic State’s destruction by the combined might of western and Russian military force. Since, unlike al-Qaeda, Isis is a territorial unit, with supply lines and infrastructure, this is not an unrealisable objective. The unanimous UN resolution passed on 20 November to do whatever is necessary will help. But intensified bombing will not be enough and whether the will can be summoned for an operation requiring large land forces (which would suffer significant casualties and have to remain in place for many years) is an open question.

In a region where the enemy of your enemy may well be another enemy, the geopolitical ramifications of such an operation are labyrinthine. Any prospect of co-operation between Russia and the West in the fight against Isis could be stymied  by incidents such as the recent shooting down  of a Russian plane by Turkey. The risk-averse Obama administration shows no stomach for the job, while in the UK David Cameron’s enthusiasm for British involvement is at odds with his government’s record of hacking away at core state functions, including massive reductions in defence spending and ongoing cuts in front-line police, in the pursuit of fiscal austerity.

Concerted action against Isis on the scale that is required may not be feasible in current conditions. But even if the will to act can somehow be summoned, Isis will not go down without launching more assaults on western cities. That is why the powers of the state may need to be expanded, including restrictions on freedom that many liberals will want to reject out of hand.

Here again, it is worth considering a ­Hobbesian view. Liberals have reacted with horror to government proposals to allow intelligence agencies to collect internet data. This response is not altogether unfounded, since clear safeguards are plainly needed. Allowing security agencies to trawl through our emails entails a loss of ­privacy, which is an important dimension of freedom. A universal surveillance society is not a pretty prospect. Politicians who say that there is no conflict between freedom and security are deceiving themselves and us. The conflict is genuine but it is also un­avoidable. Those who want to treat liberal freedoms as sacrosanct should ask themselves what price they are willing to pay for these liberties.

It is not just security that is compromised if the freedom of privacy is treated as untouchable. Other freedoms are, too. Mass surveillance cannot deal with the conditions that have led people to jihadism. Life in the banlieues, blighted by generations of neglect and racism, is part of the background of the Paris attacks. Nor can mass surveillance be relied on to prevent future attacks. Sifting through data is an unending task; threats are multiple and continuously mutating. But monitoring internet traffic can still be useful and, in some cases, it may be vitally important. To rule out collecting data to protect privacy makes sense only if you accept that the risk to other freedoms may thereby be increased. In recent liberal philosophy, freedom is seen as a fixed system of interlocking and mutually reinforcing rights – the dovetailing liberties of John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin and other liberal legalists. Outside the law courts and the seminar rooms, the reality is continuing conflict. One freedom collides with another and sometimes we have to choose between them. Does it make sense to be uncompromising in protecting privacy, while surrendering the freedom to publish satirical cartoons?

Freedom is not indivisible. Politics is the continuing choice among liberties that comes with the earthy business of rubbing along together. Different faiths, cultures and traditions have to learn to co-exist. Aside from their many benefits, plural societies are an unalterable fact of modern life. But they can be made to work only so long as the state has the means and the will to enforce a common peace. If mainstream parties cannot rise to the challenge, they leave the field open to the far right.

Thomas Hobbes’s thought has limitations, some of which are relevant at the present time. Seeing violence as a means to self-preservation, he left out the ways in which human beings use violence to assert their identities and beliefs. He was fully aware of the dangerous intensity of religious passions. That is why he insisted that religion should always be under civil control. But as an early Enlightenment rationalist, Hobbes could not explain why human beings are so ready to throw away their lives and those of others for the sake of faith. Convinced that, in the final analysis, they cherish survival above all else, he thought they could be persuaded to put their beliefs to one side for the sake of peace. “Reason suggests convenient articles of peace,” Hobbes wrote, “upon which men may be drawn to agreement.” For a thinker who is usually seen – and possibly saw himself – as the supreme realist, it is a strangely unrealistic view. The history of his time and ours tells a different story. Significant numbers of human beings have often been ready to kill and die in order to secure meaning in their lives.

It has become commonplace to describe Isis’s attacks as nihilistic but “nihilism” is a term that nowadays means nothing. The term was originally applied to 19th-century Russian radicals who rejected religion in favour of science and advocated terror as a means of emancipating humankind from the burden of the past. Since then, it has come to be used to describe those who have no beliefs or values. But far from believing in nothing, Isis militants are possessed by faith. Though some reports suggest that the militants may have been fuelled by euphoria-inducing drugs, their attacks are not random acts of terror. They are moves in a methodical strategy of savagery that serves an apocalyptic myth. Isis is an explicitly eschatological movement, infused with fantasies of cataclysmic end-time battles and a universal caliphate. It is not without significance that the group has made few, if any, concrete demands.

Many of those who condemn Isis as nihilistic go on in the same breath to describe it as “medieval” – a curious conjunction. Certainly, Isis has links with Islamic apocalyptic traditions and with Wahhabism, the 18th-century Islamic fundamentalist movement that has been financed and exported worldwide by sources in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Nonetheless, the idea that Isis is no more than a reversion to medieval values is misguided. Since it implies that the group is an atavistic force that will fade away in the normal course of historical development, this is actually a consoling thought. It is also an illusion.

***

It is not just in its use of the internet and social media that Isis is modern. The practice of suicide bombing was pioneered by the Tamil Tigers, who first developed the suicide belt and were, at one point, the most active terrorist group in the world. The Tigers were largely Marxist-Leninists, who killed and died for the sake of a vision of the future that is unambiguously modern. So were the followers of Pol Pot, who were ready to slaughter much of the Cambodian people to realise their fantasy of a new world. The Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult recruited among scientists and aimed to develop biological weapons with which it planned to wipe out most of the world’s population; it succeeded in mounting a number of bioterrorist attacks, including one on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 in which thousands were injured. Isis embodies a type of apocalyptic terrorism that, in different forms, has recurred throughout modern times.

Hobbes cannot deliver us from a situation in which we have become the targets of people who embrace death and destruction. Other than unwavering determination in defending ourselves, there is no solution to that problem. What Hobbes can do is dispel the lazy certainties and idle hopes of the prevailing liberalism. The lesson of the Paris attacks is that peaceful coexistence is not the default condition of modern humankind. We are going to have to get used to the reality that “commodious living” does not come cheap.

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer 

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State

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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