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Murdoch could have “media power unheard of in British history”

As the News Corporation takeover of BSkyB hangs in the balance, Joan Bakewell grills Mark Thompson,

I have known Mark Thompson since the mid- 1980s: he was one of a crop of bright young producers and presenters working on BBC2's Newsnight, for which I was the arts correspondent. They were a clever generation and many went on to have important roles in and out of the BBC: Mark Damazer, Mark Urban, Jana Bennett, Gavin Esler. Mark, however, was the one who most consistently put items about the arts in his editions of Newsnight. Whenever he was the producer of the day, he would come to my desk in search of a story, eager to report on the whole spectrum of the arts and their importance in the culture of the country. I was delighted. The arts usually have a rough time when it comes to current affairs, falling off the day's agenda and being dropped at the last minute as heavier news stories break.

Mark was as interested in ideas as events, and remains so. Later, as controller of BBC2, he invited me to make a series of programmes called My Generation. He was prompted by a book called Our Age by Noel Annan, which profiled his generation - the world of Bloomsbury, King's College, Cambridge, and beyond. Again, I was pleased. My series charted the outlook of those of us who grew up during the war and came to inherit the enlightenment agenda that nourished the postwar welfare state. My generation - now in our seventies - still stands by the vision we had of what society should be. A strong and independent BBC was part of that vision. Since then, Mark's path and mine have crossed infrequently but always congenially.
Joan Bakewell

Joan Bakewell I'll sock it to you right from the start. How many people from the BBC went to Glastonbury this year?
Mark Thompson I've no idea. We can find out.
JB I ask because it must be an annual assessment made by the Daily Mail.
MT If a rigger arrives a week early with a bit of scaffolding, they count that as one person. But there's no hospitality. I enjoy Glastonbury from the comfort of my sofa. (The family was divided - a Beyoncé audience downstairs and my elder son and I watching Queens of the Stone Age upstairs.) In the British press, the BBC sending a few hundred people to the Beijing Olympics was a national scandal. We sent about a tenth of the number sent by NBC, the US broadcaster. We're known internationally for the small numbers of people we send, but in a newspaper 100 sounds like a lot, in the way £7m for taxis does. It depends on the context. We should make sure we're doing these things with as few people as we can and I think we do.
JB People like a story that plays against the BBC.
MT Some newspapers certainly do. Ironically, if you ask the readers of the Daily Mail, the Times, the Daily Telegraph or the Sunday Times what they think about the BBC, they are among its strongest supporters. They give the BBC high marks for value for money and the quality of its services and they support the licence fee, so there's no correlation between the attitudes of these readers to the BBC and the editorial line of the papers.
JB There's a parallel with the National Health Service. Everybody loves the NHS but we're living through a time in which it is being deconstructed.
MT You can say that. I couldn't comment.
JB It's as though the large institutions are up for analysis, for criticism.
MT Many British institutions are experiencing a measurable loss in public confidence and support. It's not detectable in public attitudes to the BBC but the papers want you to believe that there's exactly such a loss of support.
JB What about government support?
MT I'll come to that. The BBC is almost unique - the NHS is, too - as an institution that has strong public support. To its critics among the print media, the BBC is a rival with an unfair advantage: public funding. To the public, the BBC is a provider of quality services that are available to everyone; in a time of national austerity, [this] is important. The BBC is more essential in terms of the provision of news than it used to be, because, although there's a multiplicity of sources of news, many of the other historically strong sources are much weaker. Something like 85 per cent of the UK population use the BBC's news every week.
JB But over the horizon comes the new deal with BSkyB and the [government's] decision about Rupert Murdoch's bid to take over the whole of BSkyB. Sky News is to be hived off under a non-executive chairman and some of the board are going to be non-executive for a period of only ten years. This has shifted the landscape for you, hasn't it?
MT Across Europe, we've seen the consolidation of commercial media. A pattern in many European countries is that there is only room for one major pay-television operator. If you are that operator, the amount of cash that's potentially thrown off by the business is colossal. In the UK, you have a pay-TV operator experiencing exactly this. Because of commercial decisions taken ten or 20 years ago, BSkyB is in
an utterly commanding position and will have far more money than the BBC or any other media player in the UK to spend on content.
JB What do you think of that?
MT We're talking about a concentration of media power in the UK that's unheard of in British history and unheard of anywhere else in Europe. The combination of that kind of power with ownership of a significant part of the newspapers people read, as well as an internet service provider - this is extraordinary power. In the end, it's for the competition authorities . . .
JB Did you press for it to be referred to the competition authorities?
MT Last autumn, I rather famously co-signed a letter saying that the proposal of News Corporation to buy the remaining balance of the shares should be referred to the competition authorities. I also made the case in Edinburgh in the MacTaggart Lecture last year.
JB So what do you make of this settlement?
MT I don't want to say any more. It's unusual for me to want to do anything other than cover these stories in an impartial and objective way. Given the shape of what's happening - the relative decline of other sources of electronic news, the funding security of ITN, the ability of commercial radio to fund news, the difficulty newspapers are having in funding newsgathering - it is going to be more, not less, important that the BBC has sufficient resources to be able universally to deliver high-quality, strictly impartial news to the British public.
JB You've never faced such a big beast, have you?
MT The concentration of media power doesn't have to be a problem. The issue is whether governments and competition authorities look at the environment and continue to look at it.
JB Do you think they'll buy your talent?
MT The BBC historically has had far less money to spend on its services than other players around the world. We remain the biggest and most trusted international news provider in the world, not because we've got more money but because we've got a reputation. It's going to be tougher after last year's Spending Review (SR) settlement, but we do have the resources to deliver outstanding journalism.
JB But they can still buy your talent.
MT For decades, we've seen a steady stream of people who've grown up at the BBC going off to ITV. To some extent, that's the system working - one of the reasons you might want a BBC is as a nursery slope for talent.
JB Would you work for Murdoch?
MT (Laughs) I'm fully, fully engaged doing what I'm doing at the moment.
JB It's not a "no"?
MT I wouldn't regard it as a "yes", either. It's important to look at the shape and balance of our media sector, rather than trying to demonise anyone. I believe that BSkyB, in many ways, has been a positive force. It's good to see somebody else investing in British talent and that, alongside the BBC, you've got Sky Arts. But it's important that everyone realises that Sky Arts is a service for those who already know they like the arts. When we put the Proms on BBC television, we can get, not counting the last night, between ten and 12 million people to sample them. We take the arts and share them with an entire population. We're doing something very different from Sky. There's room for both.
JB The World Service suffered cuts recently. [The BBC has] a new chairman in Chris Patten, who I suspect made representations to government and got some of that rescinded. On the other hand, the World Service will be brought into the BBC's budget. I'm worried. The BBC won't ring-fence that money and there's a risk that the corporation will leach it away.
MT You say that the BBC "won't ring-fence" it, but once it's paid for by the licence fee, I expect to increase the funding of the World Service, not diminish it. I'm sure that increase will last to the end of the present charter period. I don't know how much I can increase it; I'll need to propose this to the BBC Trust.
JB The financing could have stayed with the Foreign Office, couldn't it?
MT It could. But one of the lessons I was beginning to draw last summer from conversations with the government concerning the SR was that the World Service's funding would be safer in the hands of the BBC than in the context of these once-every-three-years SRs.
JB Let's speak about local news. At one point, BBC Oxford News was going to be cut. Then you got a letter from David Cameron . . .
MT I had a nice letter from David Cameron [about this], which I replied to with another nice letter.
JB So there was a charming collusion here between two people who live in Oxford.
MT First, let's pull back a bit. We're in the middle of an open debate inside the BBC about its future. One idea was whether you could merge local radio with Radio 5 Live or reduce local radio in some way. Although local radio is relatively cheap to run, when you run 40 radio stations in England, you have to multiply the cost. The point of local radio is that if it's not local, it's not doing its job. It's reasonable for people to have a debate about merging or shutting local radio but that's not the way forward for the BBC. There's a number of people, particularly older people, for whom local radio is the main or only form of BBC radio they consume.
JB But wasn't it rather strange to get a letter from the Prime Minister about local radio?
MT If you want to pursue it, you must talk to him about it. I've had a number of letters from MPs raising concerns that have been put to them by their constituents about these rumours. The terms of the Prime Minister's letter were those raised by his constituents.
JB Did you write as emollient a letter back to each of those MPs?
MT I've written in similar, even identical terms to other MPs.
JB You've got a new chairman, a strong character, who is taking an interest in the World Service and the pay scales in the BBC. A lot of people would agree that flak has come the way of the BBC because of management salaries. That's undeniable, people have got it in for you. There's a paradox: those who are paid high salaries are often in high-risk jobs, so the salaries are a compensation for that risk - but BBC jobs are for life, with good pensions.
MT Have you looked at actuarial tables for BBC directors general in terms of high-risk jobs?
JB They go on to better things, perhaps.
MT Give me an example. (Laughs)
JB Where did Greg [Dyke] go?
MT Yeah. Just mull over that. William Haley became editor of the Times when he left the job in 1952. That's it. (Laughs)
JB The point, Mark, is that it's done the BBC a lot of damage. The press and the public have taken against the idea that there are "fat cats".
MT It's clearly controversial. Each year, we ask people whether, over the course of the year, their opinion of the BBC has gone up or down. What percentage of the UK population would you say cites senior pay as the reason for why their opinion of the BBC went down last year?
JB A lot of people won't know [about it].
MT It's about 1.5 per cent of people.
JB Including [the crime writer and Conservative peer] P D James.
MT Most people in broadcasting understand that if you compare pay at the BBC with other broadcasting pay, it's much lower. Compared to other public bodies, it's very high. The BBC is a big institution and requires management. We've already committed to reducing the number of senior managers. When I became director general in 2004, there were about 700 senior managers - there are just below 500 now. Two hundred have gone already. You will see in the coming weeks a further, significant planned fall in the numbers of senior managers.
JB And pay?
MT Pay has come down significantly. We were the first - or one of the first - public bodies to freeze pay. I've never taken a bonus in this
job. Long before bonuses became contentious, I was waiving my bonus. We've frozen bonuses for all jobs; we've had a pay freeze for these jobs; we've removed pension supplements for senior managers. I think you will go on seeing a period of reform, but if the BBC cuts itself off from the way in which people in the rest of the media are paid . . . it's not a healthy way to run a great broadcaster. We are beginning to see executives leaving the BBC for jobs where they are being paid double or more. Once they move, it becomes very hard to come back.
JB The parallel is not with the commercial sector; it is with other public institutions.
MT All of our competition for the people we want to get is with other broadcasters.
JB You can take in managers from other industries, at private and public institutions.
MT Most of our external appointments are from the private, not public, sector. Other public bodies - local councils, even cultural institutions - aren't offering people the skills and experiences we need. The big area of growth in recent years has been the digital space, which is almost entirely in the private sector. We're having to recruit internationally and pay is in a different order. The BBC is trying to straddle the reality of finding people with what the public expects of public-sector pay. You will see more movement in the months to come.
JB In terms of management and cutting down?
MT Yes. I think we've now got the smallest top management board the BBC has ever had. I would hope that we will get to a point where the population of senior managers at the BBC is at or below 1 per cent of the staff.
JB Let's move on. Post-Hutton, post-Jonathan Ross, there's a sense that the BBC has grown timid and the fire in the belly has died.
MT Did you see the Panorama on care homes?
JB Yes, and I made a Panorama, too [on care for the elderly]. I'm aware that there are exceptions, but there's a sense that creative risk-taking has been constrained. I know this because we all have to fill in these compliance forms.
MT There are several different issues here. One is whether we've got the courage to do brilliant, cutting-edge comedy and great investigative journalism. I think we do. There were things that not every New Statesman reader will think were right - for example, recognising that we should have members of the British National Party on Question Time. We are about to broadcast a three-part documentary on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. I can't see any evidence that, in our output, we are any less . . .
JB I'll give you the evidence.
MT No, hang on. We did, in the light of the Russell Brand show and the trouble with compe­titions, put in place more explicit methods of compliance: forms to fill in, programmes to be listened to by more than one person. Why? Because we've had some really quite bad slip-ups, which demonstrated that the existing systems of compliance weren't being properly conducted. Have we got to the point where we should look at those systems and say, "Can we simplify them?" Yes. It's very easy rhetorically to turn this into: "The BBC has lost its nerve."
JB I'm talking about me. I'm having my vocabulary checked and modulated.
MT I'm amazed anyone's got the nerve . . . I'm the editor-in-chief. I can give you permission. What won't they let you say? Swear words?
JB It's to do with an attitude that I was expressing towards a public institution. They said, "Perhaps it would be safer to say . . ." Now, when a producer says that . . .
MT The finer points of a line in a script has got nothing to do with . . .
JB It's the end result of a climate of thinking that makes people feel . . .
MT Come, come!
JB I'm telling the truth! I'm on the front line.
MT In drama, comedy and investigative journalism, I think we are braver now than ever.
JB What about the era of Ken Loach, Dennis Potter, David Mercer - a whole swath of socially challenging drama?
MT Did you see Five Daughters last year, which we put on BBC1? An incredibly powerful drama about the Ipswich murders. If you listen to and watch what we're up to, we're doing that. The Russell Brand show was identified as a programme that had an editorial risk and nobody bothered to listen to it. You clamp down to make sure something like that doesn't happen again. If you're saying that this can lead to an over-concern about individual phrases - let's look at that. But to try to build that up . . .
JB I wonder if it's a fear of political bias.
MT I think we are more anxious about impartiality now than we have been in the past. One of the things that the public wants us to be is strictly impartial. Impartiality is the reason we had the BNP on Question Time. Sometimes, a concern for impartiality requires quite brave decisions. We don't have the right to exclude any party that has a significant, demonstrative electoral support, up to a certain level. There have been occasions, I believe, in the past, when the BBC has had limitations. For example, I think there were some years when the BBC, like the rest of the UK media, was very reticent about talking about immigration.
JB Why do you think that was?
MT There was an anxiety whether or not you might be playing into a political agenda if you did items about immigration. In the 2010 election campaign, none of the parties was talking about immigration. We believed we should deal with it, because the public - not everyone, but a significant proportion - was saying to us that it was a real issue. We've got a duty, even if issues are sensitive and difficult to get right, to confront what the public want. I don't like the idea of topics that are taboo.
JB What on earth is Thought for the Day doing in the middle of a news magazine?
MT With Radio 4, like all of our services, you've got a shape that has been built up over decades of expectations and usage, which the public likes. Not all of it fits into a sort of PowerPoint slide, with neat divisions of genre. What you've got are living services.
JB This is an eccentric leftover, isn't it?
MT The idea of a moment for reflection in the middle of a topical few hours is interesting.
JB Do you listen?
MT When I can, I do listen. The only people who are anxious about it are people who are anxious, as you are, to make a point about it. There are people for whom it is very symbolic, one way or the other, and that's to be respected and worked through.
JB You're a Catholic, aren't you?
MT The last time I looked, yes.
JB How does your life shape up with your faith and your work?
MT I've worked in broadcasting with people with every combination of belief, non-belief, or ethical value system. Most people bring the whole of themselves in some way to bear, but at the same time my job, as editor-in-chief, is to keep this organisation open to perspectives.
JB I was asking something internal about you. Does your faith find fulfilment at the BBC?
MT I don't think there's a tension between the idea of being Catholic, or an Oxford resident, or a not-very-good amateur pianist, and being editor-in-chief of the BBC. What I try to bring is a sense of the values that I think you need to discharge this job properly - commitment to impartiality, integrity and truthfulness.
JB I present the Radio 3 programme Belief [the format invites individuals to discuss their spiritual world-view] and I mentioned to you once that we were thinking of interviewing a witch and you thought that would be fine.
MT I said that, did I?
JB Then I said - seeing how far we could push the boundaries: "What about a Scientologist?" And you shook your head.
MT If I shook my head, I don't think I meant it. I take Belief to mean what it says on the tin.
JB We also had a conversation some time ago about ageism. I set out the case that the BBC had no older women reading the news and that reinforced a biased attitude towards older women in society. You took the point. A little later, modest changes were made and we now occasionally have older women reading the news. Then Miriam O'Reilly won her case against the BBC for ageism, when she was sacked from Countryfile. A lot of older women rejoiced. Were you surprised by that?
MT I learned a lot about the case as it was taking place. More than that, I think that I and the BBC have learned from and need to go on learning from the verdict. As you know, this was something I was quite concerned about before the O'Reilly case came up. But that case confirmed to me that the BBC is well placed and has a responsibility to do something about it.
JB So it remains on the agenda.
MT Very much so.

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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