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Becoming a pariah state

Even if none of the Mumbai attackers turns out to be British, radicalised young men from over here c

Intelligence officers around the world must have winced as the camera-phone images from Mumbai showed the only terrorist left alive being beaten by a vengeful crowd. Not, of course, through any sympathy for this AK-47-wielding murderer, but through professional concern that the only live source of information about the planning and execution of these audacious attacks was about to die. Police officers intervened and the injured attacker survived to face the trials of the interrogation room.

The detainee, 21-year-old Azam Amir Qasab, is reported to have told his captors that he comes from the small village of Faridkot, in Pakistan's Punjab Province. He has admitted, it is said, to being a member of the Pakistani militant Islamist group Lashkar-e-Toiba - "the Army of the Pure" - which has been blamed for similar well-planned guerrilla attacks carried out by heavily armed men. It was Lashkar-e-Toiba fighters who tried to storm the parliament building in New Delhi in December 2001, spraying automatic gunfire and killing nine guards and parliament stewards. According to the terrorism analyst Sajjan Gohel, this kind of assault by fedayeen fighters is the hallmark of LeT. In the past, al-Qaeda has favoured human, car and truck bombs or plots involving planes, but Gohel says that the two groups are now affiliated, and also notes that "Lashkar-e-Toiba even gave al-Qaeda leaders sanctuary when they fled Afghanistan in 2001".

Early reports from India suggest that Azam Qasab has limited formal education and yet apparently speaks fluent English. Strange for a man from rural Pakistan. This, among other factors, has prompted speculation that he may have connections to Britain. A senior minister suggested that two of the terrorists were UK passport holders - and then seemed to backtrack. Other sources tell me that MI5 has conducted financial records checks on a British citizen of Pakistani origin who is believed to have taken part in the attacks, though I have no confirmation of this.

Were Britons involved in the attacks? It is entirely logical that, if a connection is suspected, much would be done to suppress any details to play for time on the ground. Confirming a story of this magnitude would prompt camera crews to overrun communities. This happened to Beeston, in Leeds, home town of three of the four 7 July 2005 London bombers. So much interest could damage a counterterrorist investigation, especially if journalists ended up knocking on doors before the police. On the other hand, all this speculation may be untrue. The test will be whether we see police raids in the coming weeks; only then will the full story emerge.

It is quite possible that even if all the terrorists are traced back to Pakistan there will still be a British connection of some kind. They may not be British citizens but they may have studied here or have family ties. Britain has a large Kashmiri population and while the vast majority reject terror, there are those willing to fund extremist groups in Pakistan or even to volunteer as operatives. The dispute over Kashmir has long driven extremism. Once again, some of those claiming to have been involved in these latest attacks raised Kashmir as justification for their acts.

Slowly, the world is recognising that Britain has a huge problem with home-grown support for violent Islamic extremism; in fact, it has the biggest problem of any country in the west. If these latest atrocities are shown to have substantial British links, Britain risks being viewed as an international pariah state, a country whose children export terror across the globe. The shame of this would cut deeply into the national consciousness and its effect on community cohesion would be disastrous.

MI5 has estimated that 4,000 British Muslims may be a threat to national security; thousands of young men born in these islands have trained in camps overseas, notably in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The secretary for US homeland security, Michael Chertoff, has warned of the threat that British Muslims travelling under the visa waiver programme pose to US borders. A source of mine who has spent many years at the heart of Britain's intelligence apparatus says that more than 50 per cent of the CIA's counterterror effort has been directed at extremists with links to Britain. If that figure is anywhere near accurate, it would represent an astonishing state of affairs for America's closest political ally. No wonder the visa waiver programme is to be changed.

In India, Azam Qasab has apparently said that the terrorists' aim was to kill as many people as possible and to murder US and British citizens. Eyewitness reports corroborate this, telling how the attackers demanded that British and American passport holders raise their hands. This approach bears more resemblance to al-Qaeda than Lashkar-e-Toiba, which used to concentrate only on Kashmir, and therefore Indian targets. It is possible that al-Qaeda has sought to co-opt LeT, just as it has sought to enter into agreements with formerly nationalist jihadist movements in North Africa. This cross-fertilisation, if proved, would be deeply worrying for the west, but for al-Qaeda it is a pragmatic approach, especially at a time when the core leadership is under tre mendous pressure in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There are other clues about the motivation of the Mumbai terrorists. Unsurprisingly, they were seeking to create waves of publicity for their cause. The planners would have been watching on TV as their recruits played out their murderous theatre. That the world watches these attacks on television is part of the message.

The intent of terrorist spectaculars is far more sophisticated than simply generating support for their cause among a few disaffected youths. After all, cold-blooded mass murder is a hard sell for all but the most psychopathic (or brainwashed) supporters of Islamist revival, whose proponents dream of a new world order in which Islam rules supreme. The terrorists' approach is more subtle. They hope the revulsion and anger that these acts have generated could foment regional instability as ordinary Indians start to call for unmanned drones to target as yet unidentified training camps in Pakistan. Deep-seated suspicion of Pakistan threatens to boil into rage. It is already happening. There is loose talk of war from ordinary citizens, and India is just weeks away from state polls and, indeed, a national election. When Pakistani terrorists from Lashkar-e-Toiba launched the attack on the Indian parliament in 2001, both sides massed troops on the border while the world looked on nervously; both states are nuclear powers. Now tension is once more rising fast.

The British human rights lawyer Shahzadi Beg, one of the most insightful observers of Pakistani politics, says relations between the two countries are "deteriorating alarmingly fast". She says that "the incoming US president, Barack Obama, had expressed a desire for a regional solution that would acknowledge Pakistani security concerns over the disputed territory of Kashmir. This approach will now be undermined as India argues there can be no negotiation with Islamabad following the Mumbai attacks."

The language of confrontation is intensifying. India’s deputy home minister Shakeel Ahmad has said it is “very clearly established” that all the terrorists were from Pakistan. If this is true, it makes it likely that the attacks were planned in Pakistan, possibly with help in Mumbai from an indigenous jihadist group such as the Indian Mujahedin, which has claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks in Indian cities this year. Local helpers may well have checked in as hotel guests in Mumbai, planned routes of attack, assessed targets and stashed ammunition. However, the west would see any build-up of troops or conflict on Pakistan’s eastern border with India as a disaster for the fight against Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda on the western border with Afghanistan.

Even if the attacks prove to have been orchestrated from within Pakistan, that is not the same as official involvement. Contrary to suspicions in India, it is unlikely that Pakistan's civilian administration, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, knew anything at all. Zardari has far too much to lose. He has sided, tacitly, with the Americans by ignoring drone attacks on alleged al-Qaeda fighters in Pakistan's western borderlands, though routine denunciations about breaches of sovereignty are fired off as diplomatic cover. The Mumbai attacks, by promoting a crisis between India and Pakistan, have weakened Zardari, in an already weak position, and strengthened the military who are the true power brokers in Pakistan. He is losing the battle to rein them in and a string of decisions that would have allowed him to exert more control has been reversed.

It is Pakistan's military-intelligence complex that will be the focus of most anger from India. If Lashkar-e-Toiba turns out to have been involved, awkward questions will be asked about where the terrorists trained and who paid for the operation. The problem for Pakistan is that its intelligence service, the ISI, is known to have supported jihadist camps in the past. Groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba, Harakat-ul-Mujahedin and Jaish-e-Mohammed have created a production line of volunteer fighters for the conflict in Kashmir and beyond. The British Muslim extremists who received training in these same camps include Omar Khyam, leader of the fertiliser bomb plot to blow up the Bluewater shopping centre as well as nightclubs and bars.

Not long ago I was sitting in Newsnight's office with a former jihadi from Pakistan. We were comparing detailed military maps with Google Earth images on my computer. We zoomed in to the locations of several of the training camps in Mansehra District, close to the Kashmir border. In a recent court case in the US, witnesses spoke of passing official army checkpoints close to one of the camps I was shown near the town of Balakot. Some of the camps are less than 20 kilometres from garrison towns where there are huge concentrations of troops. It is virtually inconceivable that Pakistan's military-intelligence complex was not aware of these training grounds. Many say that they were partly run by the ISI, though this has always been denied.

What relevance does all this have for Britain? Well, whatever facts emerge about the backgrounds of the Mumbai attackers, the conflict in Kashmir will continue to be used to radicalise young jihadi sympathisers from the west. It does not take much imagination to realise that, for young men groomed for a cause, the idea of travelling to a mountain redoubt and learning to fire guns could be intoxicating, especially when you have been taught to believe that the world is divided neatly in two, between the Dar-ul-Harb, or the land of war, and Dar-ul-Islam.

For the best part of 20 years, successive governments in Britain, as well as the police, MI5 and MI6, woefully underestimated the threat posed by Islamic extremists, right up to the London bombings of 2005. Extremist preachers such as Omar Bakri Mohammed and Abu Hamza were given safe haven in Britain on condition that they would not threaten the security of the country in which they were living. How wrong that turned out to be as support for separatist, supremacist Islam grew from these seeds.

We are now playing a deadly game of catch-up and are struggling to devise policies to contain indigenous Islamic terrorism. We have carelessly allowed many of our towns to become segregated, with Muslim communities isolated from the rest of society. There are none more isolated than the wives of some men from strict Islamic sects in places such as Luton, Dewsbury and the old mill towns of northern England.

While researching my forthcoming film on radical Islam in Britain for BBC1's Panorama, my researcher, Shashi Singh, and I ended up in Bradford. There we met a woman whom I shall call Shazia. She was covered head to toe in a plain black niqab; we could just see her eyes behind a slit in the fabric. This woman, in her thirties, was deeply unhappy. Born in Bradford, she went to schools there, but at the age of 18 was despatched to Pakistan to marry a cousin. She refused. Returning to Britain, she was in effect forced to marry another blood relative, and for the past 15 years has lived with her in-laws. "You have no idea what I've been through," she said, in a thick Yorkshire accent. "Few people in Britain have any idea of the kind of life [I am forced to lead]."

I had to agree.

Richard Watson is a correspondent for BBC Newsnight. His Panorama film on radicalisation will be broadcast in January. He is the author of "The Rise of the British Jihad", published in the autumn 2008 issue of Granta magazine (http://www.granta.com)

INDIA UNDER SIEGE

  • 01.01.2008 Seven police and one civilian killed in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh (UP). The attackers are suspected members of the HuJI, Sunni fundamentalists who aim to impose Taliban-style government on Bangladesh.
  • 10.02.2008 Six alleged Islamic extremists are arrested in UP on suspicion of planning to attack the Bombay Stock Exchange. Suspects linked to Lashkar-e-Toiba, the same group thought to be behind the recent attacks.
  • 13.02.2008 In Mumbai, the politician Raj Thackeray is arrested for inciting violence, after supporters attack northern Indians throughout the city.
  • 13.05.08 Eight bomb blasts in Jaipur, Rajasthan, kill at least 60 people. A previously unknown group, the Indian Mujahedin, claims responsibility.
  • 25.07.08 Nine bombs hit Bangalore, Karnataka, killing two and injuring 20. The attack is later linked to Indian Mujahedin.
  • 26.07.08 In Ahmedabad, which has a history of violent clashes between the Hindu and Muslim populations, 45 are killed and 161 injured when at least 16 bombs, attributed to the Indian Mujahedin, explode around the city.
  • 25.08.08 Violent clashes in Kashmir are sparked by plans to donate land to a Hindu shrine in a Muslim-dominated area of the disputed province. Five are killed and a strict curfew imposed.
  • 13.09.08 Five bombs rip through Delhi's shopping districts almost simultaneously, killing at least 20 people and injuring about 90; four more bombs are defused. The Indian Mujahedin again claims responsibility.
  • 27.09.08 A bomb in the market district of Mehrauli in south Delhi, kills three. No group claims responsibility.
  • 29.09.08 The day before a major Gujarat festival starts, a low-intensity bomb goes off at an Ahmedabad market. Police report finding a cache of 17 crude bombs.
  • 01.10.08 A triple bomb blast in Agartala, Tripura, is blamed on HuJI. At least two are killed and 100 wounded.
  • 20.10.08 Chhattisgarh police are attacked and 15 killed by Naxalites, a Maoist group described by the PM, Manmohan Singh, as "the biggest single internal challenge ever faced" by India.
  • 30.10.08 At least 18 blasts attributed to HuJI kill around 64 and injure 300 in Guwahati, Assam.
  • 23.11.08 Security forces clash with anti-election protesters around Rajouri in the run-up to Kashmir's elections, a day after paramilitaries kill two youths at an anti-India demonstration.
  • 14.11.08 Gun battles between Maoists and police erupt around Chhattisgarh during the state's elections. At least two members of the security forces are killed.
  • Nick Stokeld

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror

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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