Strange times

What a puzzling time to be alive. In the world that surrounds us, beauty and the comforting familiarity of seasonal rhythms. The ospreys have returned from West Africa and are putting on a grand fishing display in Findhorn Bay.

The last of the winter snow still lies deep on the mountaintops, glistening and melting in the now warm spring sunshine. (I spent last weekend walking in the magnificence of the Highlands and am now sporting a deep sun-snow tan.) We wait for the return of the swallows in the next week or so and the long, northern evenings hold out the promise of the return of life in all its fullness.

And yet, news carried on the wind speaks of melting ice, food riots and starvation and, closer to home, fuel strikes and long queues and fights at the petrol stations. Meanwhile, oil expert Matt Simmons declares it to be entirely feasible that petrol will rise in price to $300 a barrel within the next five years.

All this focuses our minds sharply. Since the end of the Positive Energy conference a month or so ago, there have been numerous gatherings to re-watch DVDs of conference presentations and to explore what the building storm means for us as a community and for the bioregion of which we form a part. Plans for basic skills training programmes are hatched and a hundred plans to build resilience into our systems take shape.

But how does all this news of the unravelling of the natural world and of global society land with the young people who are on the point of moving into their inheritance? Old enough to understand the implications but not generally yet in positions of power to be able to do much about it, how must the current unravelling feel?

We have with us at present a group of 13 students from US universities, here under the aegis of the Living Routes educational programme I would say that among the strongest emotions they display is one of impatience and a desire to get stuck in, to ‘do something’.

So, while there is a general appreciation of the need for a sound theoretical understanding of how the world works – and how it can be made to work a whole lot better – I find with this group of students, as with none I have worked with before, a real urgency to engage on a very practical level. They demonstrate a highly commendable desire to use what power and control they do have to make a difference in their own backyard.

So it is that today, they are hard at work beautifying the area around an old RAF bunker (the land that the community sits on used to be part of the neighbouring air base). This involves clearing it out, disposing responsibly of the rubbish and creating ‘seed-balls’ – flower seeds folded into balls of the earth they dig out of the bunker that they will then distribute around the area at the end of the day.

This is formally part of their educational programme – their ‘service learning’ project, where they have an opportunity to create something of beauty for the community. Through the summer and autumn, we will remember their smiling faces as the woods teem with colour and fragrance.

This may seem like a fairly paltry response to sheer scale of the challenges that lie before us. And yet, all journeys begin with the first, small steps. To identify that over which one has control and to choose to exercise that control to create beauty is a fine first step.

The woods this morning felt alive with the positive energy of young people choosing to make a creative difference in their own backyard. They will carry the memory of the morning in the cells of their bodies – and all will be the richer for it.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.