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Spies like us

In 1949, George Orwell claimed that the NS was a warren of communists and fellow-travellers. Yet up to the 1950s, it was anything goes; information, disinformation, propaganda black or grey — all in a day’s work for either Queen and country or Mo

It should come as no surprise to those who know about the New Statesman’s history that in the 1940s and 1950s a number of the staff “walked on both sides of the street”. They were reputed to be serving the communist cause while also reporting to the British secret services. In 1949 George Orwell gave the government’s Information Research Department a notorious blacklist of “cryptocommunists and fellow-travellers . . . who should not be trusted as propagandists”.

It included the NS editor, Kingsley Martin, and a future editor, Richard Crossman (although Orwell thought he was “too dishonest to be outright FT”), the revered columnist J B Priestley, Dorothy Woodman (another NS writer, who was Martin’s partner) and the assistant editor Norman Mackenzie, though he was qualified by a question mark.

Yet at the same time, according to Anthony Howard, who edited the NS from 1972-78, the staff’s “FTs” were also reporting to MI6: “The relationship between journalism and the Secret Intelligence Services has always been a grey one. It was probably most closely consummated in the offices of the left-wing New Statesman.”

The most inscrutable “double agent” was another assistant editor, Aylmer Vallance. He turned up at the “Staggers” offices at the outbreak of war in 1939 wearing the uniform of a lieutenant colonel in the War Office; yet he was also about to marry a member of the Communist Party who was close to its general secretary, Harry Pollitt, and others in its leadership. At the end of the war, Lieutenant Colonel Vallance slipped this unsigned editorial into the NSwhile it was at the printers, thereby avoiding the red pencil:

Its foundations [the new world order]  must be based firmly on recognition of the essential unity of the working people of all nations. Their needs and desires – work and security and a “dinner of herbs where love is” – are one and the same. The Captains and the Kings have made, between them, a century of greed, aggression, hatred and blood. They may now depart. (12 May 1945)

George VI and the Chief Captain (Churchill) had just received the ovation of the crowd at Buckingham Palace. Leonard Woolf, who was one of the directors of the NS and editing the paper that week, was furious: “It [the leader] is full of the slants, snides, sneers, and smears which Communists and Fellow Travellers habitually employ as means for building a perfect society,” he wrote.

During most of the war a dual allegiance cannot have mattered much. The enemy was fascism. The policy of the NS was the same as the government’s: to encourage uprisings in the occupied countries so that they might lead to the creation of democratic socialist states after the war. Let us “set Europe ablaze”, Churchill exhorted; hence Martin and Crossman wrote 100,000,000 Allies – If We Choose. Vallance called his son Tito. Basil Davidson (a favourite to succeed Martin as editor in the late 1950s) parachuted in to Yugoslavia to assist the communist partisans.

NS writers doubled up by working clandestinely as propagandists for the Political Warfare Executive. Ritchie Calder, the science correspondent, was a founder of PWE. Crossman, described as “a master of the art of psychological warfare” in the PWE official history, pulled off a coup by persuading Bomber Harris to broadcast on the BBC German Service telling the “enslaved peoples” to sabotage the Nazi transport systems. This was “grey” rather than “black” propaganda – the “big lie”.

A very successful example of the big lie was Soldatensender Calais. It was a fake radio service, purporting to come from German military radio stations in France but in fact broadcast into the Nazi empire from a powerful transmitter hidden on the South Downs. Gracie Fields sang “The Biggest Aspidistra in the World”, and so the transmitter was codenamed Aspidistra. NS writers contributed to Soldatensender Calais, which recorded off-air German domestic programmes, spliced into them highly convincing and destabilising propaganda, and broadcast them back. Information? Disinformation? Propaganda? It was all part of the journalistic stock-in-trade.

The NS had form. The very first editor, Clifford Sharp, had worked secretly for the Foreign Office Political Intelligence Department from 1918-19, writing strongly anti-Bolshevik reports. When these later appeared in the NS the content had changed to a condemnation of counter-revolutionary excesses, because Sharp had decided that the paper needed to move left to catch the postwar mood.

The Second World War was followed by the cold war and it became very nasty from the late 1940s. Dual allegiances to Britain and the Soviet Union were severely tested. Norman Mackenzie was the NS’s expert on communism. When he left for academia in 1962, the editor, John Freeman, wrote:

He has long been our expert on communist affairs on both sides of the Iron Curtain. His interpretation of the Soviet CP since Stalin has proved far more accurate in his prognosis than many of his more publicized rivals in the field.

This was because Mackenzie visited eastern Europe many times in the 1950s; there, his reputation as a “fellow-traveller” smoothed his path while his MI6 contacts led him to inside knowledge. An extraordinary instance of this is the highly confidential information Mackenzie was given on a pedalo at a Bulgarian Black Sea resort late in 1955. Khrushchev had just tipped off the Cominform at a secret meeting in Sofia about the extent of Stalin’s purges, fully four months before he stunned the communist world by revealing them at the notorious 20th Party Congress. Mackenzie’s Bulgarian contact had memorised much of Khrushchev’s disclosures and repeated the content to Mackenzie at their meeting. It was a great scoop – but nobody was interested. Neither MI6 nor the Foreign Office, not even Kingsley Martin, wanted to take any action. When Mackenzie read reports of Khrushchev’s speech the following February he recognised passages word for word.

Mackenzie had been, first, a member of the Marxist socialist Independent Labour Party and then, briefly, a Communist before he joined the Labour Party in 1943. He sometimes wrote for Telepress, a Soviet-backed news agency in Fleet Street. Leonard Woolf once described him as “the most dangerous man in the New Statesman”, which Mackenzie found “rather strange”. At the same time he had a succession of “minders” at MI6 dating from the early 1940s. As the war broke up and eastern Europe fell into the Soviet-occupied zone, so increasingly he travelled into communist Europe on an MI6 ticket, though he received no other payment. His special areas were Romania and Bulgaria.

On one occasion he was caught photographing the outside of a prison camp near Bucharest and was briefly imprisoned before being moved to a hotel, still under arrest.

Here, he heard the mellifluous sounds of David Oistrakh’s violin floating through his window. Soon afterwards he was handed two tickets by the security operatives – one was an air ticket to London, the other a ticket to an Oistrakh concert. Mackenzie said the whole episode was like “a fairy tale” but that can’t be how it appeared then. Many years later he met an old friend at a school reunion who sounded embarrassed: “I’ve been feeling guilty all these years. Didn’t I see you in chains on Bucharest station?”

Mackenzie confessed it was true and added that he had begun to worry when the plane transporting him out of Romania appeared to be heading towards the Soviet Union. “I gather you’re doing useful work in the Balkans,” said Kingsley Martin enigmatically when he returned to the office.

Anthony Howard, who began writing for the NS in 1956, recalled that after one press trip to eastern Europe he noticed a colleague reporting to MI6. “When I raised the matter with him, he got quite shirty and inquired whether I regarded myself as a patriot or not?” The trouble with walking on both sides of the street is that it’s often not clear which direction you’re walking in.

With Mackenzie there can be no doubt. In the spring of 1956, at Martin’s request, he travelled to Budapest to assist a former NS writer and BBC broadcaster, Pál Ignotus, who had just been released from jail following the Khrushchev disclosures. Ignotus had spent the war years in London but had decided to risk a return visit to the land of his birth in 1949, just after Hungary had become a communist state under the severely repressive Mátyás Rákosi.

Aylmer Vallance’s daughter remembers her father urging him not to go back; so did Mackenzie. They were right to do so, because Ignotus was then thrown into prison, tortured and locked in solitary confinement.

There is a coda to this story. On his release, Ignotus married Florence, the woman from the neighbouring cell, with whom he had exchanged months of increasingly romantic “tapping” messages without once seeing her. They decided to remain in Hungary but fled in November 1956 after the Soviet puppet János Kádár betrayed the ideals of the October Revolution.

The next year Mackenzie was one of the first journalists to detect vote-rigging in the Electrical Trades Union which fixed ETU elections for far-left candidates. As Freeman wrote: “It was entirely due to his foresight that the NS became committed to liberate ETU members from the communist caucus.”

Aylmer Vallance was more inscrutable. At the start of the war he was 47. He had joined the intelligence services in 1915, had played the “Great Game” in the Himalayas and had been sacked from the editorship of the News Chronicle over a sex scandal. He had spent many a weekend at a Scottish castle fly fishing, drinking heavily with his house party and then driving back down to London for a Monday editorial meeting. He looked like a Scottish laird and behaved more like a bon vivant than an earnest socialist. Yet he was a consummate journalist who turned out wellinformed copy on finance, fisheries and food, filling any gap at short notice where necessary when a few hundred words were required. He was on the staff of the NS from 1937.

His job at the War Office was to liaise with the press for news management. In this role, in December 1939, he wrote to the BBC and suggested that P G Wodehouse, or “Beachcomber”, should give evening talks to counteract Lord Haw-Haw’s “ingenious” propaganda broadcasts from Hamburg.

Staff on the New Statesman joked that his work at the War Office really was so secret that even he did not know what it was.

So, on which side of the street did Vallance walk? One verdict comes from C H Rolph, who ought to know because he joined the NS and worked as assistant editor with Vallance after 25 years as a serving police officer.

It seems likely enough that [in the 1940s] he was playing a fairly devious game, using the New Statesmanwith the knowledge of the Intelligence Department to plant useful items of pro-Allied propaganda, but also planting, under cover of the two-way prestige this gave him, “fellow-travelling” material about war theatres like Yugoslavia. This was a source of constant friction; and the commonly heard accusation that the New Statesman was a fellow-travelling paper was due not only to Kingsley’s ambivalence about Russia, but also to Aylmer’s stealthy insistence on putting in [to editorials], deliberately too late for censorship or amendment, extreme statements about eastern Europe.

Edward Hyams, who also worked for the NSduring this time and later wrote its official history, considered Vallance a political cynic: “His technical skill and inexhaustible goodwill were not supported by any faith in causes or, indeed, in the destiny of mankind.” Given the chance, Hyams said, Vallance would have turned the NSinto another Canard enchaîné– that is, an investigative journal best known for its satire and jokes. These two views are not contradictory.

Disappointingly, I have only a few circumstantial clues to add. Vallance resigned his army commission in 1945 but kept and used his title of lieutenant colonel until 1954. He travelled behind the Iron Curtain during this time and used Gateway Tours, a travel agency in Highgate, north London, rumoured to be a money-laundering front for MI6. On one occasion when his son, Tito, introduced himself at a London club, the response was: “Not Aylmer’s son? He was a damned fine intelligence agent.”

Nonetheless, while Vallance was working for Telepress, Hugh Gaitskell’s wife, Dora – a White Russian – considered the NS a nest of communist spies and described Vallance arrestingly as “Stalin dressed up as a nun”.

And finally, until the end of the 1940s he was married to Helen (née Gosse). Family scrapbooks show her with Olive Parsons, Eva Reckitt, Bill Rust and other “inner-circle” members of the Communist Party. Extraordinary that she was married to a lieutenant colonel in the intelligence services.

Visited frequently in his last months by John Freeman, Vallance died in 1955. In 1995 Freeman wrote to Tito: “My own friendship with him was close and very rewarding. And yet, looking back 40 years and more, I realise that I never really knew who he was or what he believed in.”

Hugh Purcell’s most recent book is “The Last English Revolutionary: Tom Wintringham” (Sussex Academic Press, £19.95) Read his profile of John Freeman at: newstatesman.com

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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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